They Had A Dream
Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, on the date that marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I find his words as relevant as they were in his lifetime. In some ways, it is a measure of his wisdom; in others, it is a measure of our lack thereof. For if we had not merely listened to his words, but continued to act upon them, would we not have gotten further upon the path to enlightenment, peace, and brotherhood than we have?
Certainly, in some ways we can point to gains: the Jim Crow era laws that made life so difficult for African-Americans have largely been dismantled, but the sad truth remains that life in America is still marked by a great racial divide in its experience.
Recently, in the aftermath of yet another shooting of an unarmed black man, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an open letter to his son which was published in The Atlantic. It read, in part,
“I write you in your 15th year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. This legacy aspires to the shackling of black bodies. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.”
According to data recently released by the Economic Policy Institute,
7.5 percent of African Americans were unemployed in 2017, compared with 6.7 percent in 1968 — still roughly twice the white unemployment rate.
The rate of homeownership, one of the most important ways for working- and middle-class families to build wealth, has remained virtually unchanged for African Americans in the past 50 years. Black homeownership remains just over 40 percent, trailing 30 points behind the rate for whites, who have seen modest gains during that time.
The share of incarcerated African Americans has nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016 — one of the largest and most depressing developments in the past 50 years, especially for black men, researchers said. African Americans are 6.4 times as likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned, compared with 5.4 times as likely in 1968.
It is no accident that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis when he was gunned down, seeking economic as well as racial justice. This man of God, this minister of Jesus clearly saw that his duty was to preach the truth of the gospel of justice, and not merely to “tend to his flock”. He understood that since before the time of Jesus, the prophets had charged the faithful with the pursuit of justice.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:6-8)
It’s fitting in so many ways that we would be noting the work of such a follower of Christ as Martin Luther King, Jr, this soon after Easter. Jesus, too, looked injustice in the eye and refused to flinch; he called it by its name, and insisted that his followers encounter it as honestly.
It is not political to love justice and seek mercy, in this world, in this realm, right now, anymore than loving another person is a political act. But it is radical, as all true love is radical, and it is what every follower of Christ is called upon to do.
Our Wayshower and brother, Jesus Christ, was very clear about creating and living in what he repeatedly called the Kingdom of God, which was not a place in the afterlife, but was “at hand”, or “among us” – in other words, right here and right now.
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19: 21-24)
It was Jesus’ passion for the Kingdom of God, and its political ramifications which got him killed, just as it was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s passion for racial and economic justice, for a new Kingdom of God, which got him killed. In the words of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crosson,
“The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding for all a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel. It was that first passion for God’s distributive justice that led inevitably to the second passion by Pilate’s punitive justice. Before Jesus, after Jesus, and, for Christians, archetypically in Jesus, those who live for nonviolent justice die all too often from violent injustice.”
And it was that same violent injustice that 50 years ago today took the life of the Rev. Dr. King. So today, friends, rather than merely honoring the Rev. Dr. King, I believe it is more fitting for us to emulate him.
It is the same way that I believe that it is far better to honor Jesus by “picking up our crosses and following him,” rather than through worship. This requires of us that we demand justice of all kinds for all people. Silence in the face of injustice is not a luxury that we have if we wish to be followers of Christ.
Rev. Dr. King rightly said that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” – our own lives, the life of our nation, and certainly the life of our church.
This Sunday, at Unity of Birmingham, I will be talking about the Courage to Change – to change our own lives, to change our church, and to change our nation. Please join me as we take this first step on the path of spiritual truth that leads to a justice our Wayshower called “the Kingdom of God”.
With Justice for All,