A Sermon for the Commemoration of
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
Prophetic Voice and Martyr for Justice
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
January 22, 2020
It is always fascinating to watch how someone who is being honored and celebrated is presented on Facebook. I have found this to be especially true of the recent commemoration of the Birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
To my surprise, this year, there was a different assessment—not of Dr. King, but of those who were choosing to honor and to celebrate his legacy. A number of these posts raised an interesting question, “Are we who celebrate Dr. King, attempting to tame or to present him in a way which fits a preconceived mold which we have, rather than remaining true to who he was?” In particular, these posts pointed out that we have a few favorite quotes from Dr. King which we like to use. In them, he comes across as a very benign—but rather uncontroversial thinker. I would like to think that this is because we have indeed made progress. If that were true, it would mean that our own racist attitudes and actions have truly changed. Statements and actions which might have seemed controversial—or even shocking, now seem “normal” and “acceptable.”
Is this the phenomenon of the “taming of the Prophet?” Does this mean that we have lost the impact, the surprise, the shock of Dr. King’s words and actions? Does it mean that we no longer recognize the “newness” in him? Does it mean that we are no longer challenged, energized, and even impelled by his message? Have we allowed him to become a series of nice Hallmark quotes? I cannot help but recall those words of Our Lord about the complacent dwellers of Jerusalem, “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So, you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.” (Luke 11: 47-48, NRSV) Those are hard words to hear!
When I read these posts, I was challenged and troubled. It seems to me that the message of Dr. King is every bit as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago. So many of the same problems—racism, racial profiling, violence against Blacks, subtle forms of segregation and red-lining, gentrification, the “War on Drugs,” voter suppression, and mass incarceration persist. In fact, in some cases, these problems have worsened. What would Dr. King say to us today? So much a part of his own ministry was that of solidarity—he went to the places where people desperately needed someone to walk with them and to speak on their behalf. Where would he be present today? Where should we be visibly present today?
Providentially, I came across a powerful essay written by the late James Baldwin. In it, he reflected on his own experience of being present at the funeral of Dr. King. Most interestingly, though, he wrote—in depth—about the two most important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; Dr. King, and Malcom X. He pointed out that both of them grew, developed, and changed over the course of many years of struggle (a very healthy thing). He suggested that Malcolm X had “mellowed out,” and that Dr. King had become increasingly “radicalized.” Now that was a fascinating idea!
Tragically, these two Prophetic Voices, these two Men of God, were martyred for the cause of justice. And we are all the poorer for that! Who knows what might have happened if they had been allowed the time and space to work together—and to continue to call us to conversion? As an aside, I completely understand the concept that a Calendar of Saints ought to celebrate lives of Christian holiness. Yet, I cannot help but wonder what powerful message would be sent if we, as a Church, also honored and celebrated the gift, charism, legacy, and witness of Malcolm Shabazz?
In the article, there was a quote which captivated me. Mr. Baldwin clearly saw the essence—to the very rotten core–of the insidious and evil way that racism and injustice function and thrive: “America, Baldwin believed, was split in two—not between North and South but between the powerful and the disenfranchised. Racism, that scourge that beclouded our democracy, remained—remains—the nation’s greatest peril. But the powerful maintained the status quo by sowing discord among the disenfranchised. Poor white folk, rather than uniting with their socioeconomically oppressed brothers and sisters against the rich, trained their targets on poor black folk. They channeled their anxieties into a vengeance against blackness.”
Perhaps Mr. Baldwin too, is a Prophet, who speaks God’s word to us today. Wisdom! Let us be attentive.