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MARTIN LUTHER KING: CHRISTIANITY INCARNATE
FEAST OF BLESSED MARTIN LUTHER KING
January 18, 2016
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Genesis 37:14b-20 Psalm 77:12-21
Ephesians 6:10-20 Luke 6:27-36
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut during the nineteen fifties and sixties. When I was a very young boy, probably about five years of age, my mother and I were on the train to Boston, Massachusetts. Sitting next to us was a man with dark skin. I asked my mother, “Why is his skin dark?” She explained to me that just like some people have brown eyes like I do, and others blue eyes like my sister, some people have light skin, and others have dark skin. That sounded like a pretty logical explanation to me. A few years later, I had a friend named Vincent Powell who lived on the next street east of the one on which I lived. My mother and his mother were friends. Vincent had dark skin like the man on the train and was about my age. At the time, I was going to public school, but Vincent went to a private school, as his parents were quite well off. Both of them were college-educated and employed in professional occupations. Vincent and I played together as boys of that age usually do, pretending we were this and that. I never thought of Vincent as anything other than a little boy like myself.
But the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the martyr whose feast we celebrate today, had a very different growing up experience than I did. As a very young child, when told he could not play with Caucasian children, he went home crying. At the dinner table, his parents recounted the history of black people from Africa up to that particular moment in Atlanta, Georgia. His mother then told him something that every African-American parent says to his/her children, “Don’t let this thing impress you or depress you. You are as good as anyone else, and don’t you ever forget it.”
My favorite childhood television program, believe it or not, was the news. It was from news programs, that I first learned about the cultural and political implications of skin color in contemporary society. The big story in the nineteen sixties was the civil rights movement. What I learned from the news programs was that in some areas of the United States, persons of color did not have the same rights and privileges as Caucasians. My reaction to that was, “what a stupid idea.” I could not understand why some people would think my friend Vincent was something less than I was. It simply did not make sense to me at all. My mother, who was a liberal Democrat back several generations, reinforced my thinking by telling me that white Southerners were unintelligent jerks, whose views on race, and everything else, were not worth consideration. She described them in foul language not fit for the pulpit. In her mind, segregationists were badpeople, with no redeeming qualities.
As a child, and as a teenager, my two favorite places to hang out were the church and the library, and at the latter institution, I learned the history of African slaves forcibly brought to the United States, and the Civil War which supposedly, and I emphasize, supposedly, freed the slaves and gave them equal rights with the rest of us. So I was pretty much in sympathy with the civil rights demonstrators whose actions dominated the news programs of my childhood.
Those news programs were where I first became aware of Dr. Martin Luther King. I loved to listen to his speeches. As I listened to them, I pounded my fist on my palm, exclaiming, “Yes, Yes, Yes!” The attitude I developed was that racial discrimination was absolutely and unequivocally evil, the kind of thing that I learned in law school was called “malum in se” Latin for “evil, in and of itself.”
One of my most vivid memories of the news programs of my childhood was Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at that famous March on Washington. The lines I most remember from it were, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and, ”Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
As militant as he was in demanding equal rights, Dr. King did not stoop to malice towards his opponents. Dr. King did not bow down to the voices that wanted to silence him, nor did he hide from death threats. Dr. King was a prophet, in the Old Testament tradition of Isaiahand Amos, who never held back from proclaiming God’s justice.
Dr. King was a person of dreams who apprehended reality with his dream always in mind. However, the world judges dreamers harshly. Do you remember Joseph in the Old Testament? To give you a bit of genealogy, Abraham, the common ancestor in faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, had a son named Isaac, who begat Jacob, who begat twelve sons, one of whom was his favorite, Joseph. He was a man of dreams, and that made his brothers so jealous that they conspired to kill him. However, he survived.Joseph’s dream was that he would become a leader among his family, become a trusted servant of Pharaoh,and interpret the dreams of others. Like Joseph, Dr. King became respected as a leader, and his work gave life to the dreams of others. Like Joseph, Dr. King was a dreamer, and like Joseph, his enemies conspired to to kill him, but unfortunately, succeeded.
Was Dr. King killed by a conspiracy? Yes, he was. I don’t believe for one minute that Dr. King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, acted alone. In a controversial case, the King family sued a man named Lloyd Jowers in Memphis, Tennessee, for wrongful death and conspiracy. The jury found that a conspiracy in fact existed and awarded damages to the King family. However, the United States government never accepted that result, and continues to say, at least officially, that Ray acted alone. But did he really? The original Congressional investigation found that Ray held extremely hostile racial attitudes towards black people, and that’s why he killed Dr. King. But as my own story shows, no one is born prejudiced. People are not born sinful. Sins are committed after we are born. When children are born, they are an innocent tabula rasa. The sin of racism is an attitude that people pick up from their environment. Children model the behaviors they observe in the adults in their immediate surroundings. Hence, the actions of James Earl Ray were the culmination of the acts and attitudes of others in his life which influenced him to kill Dr. King.
That result tells us something about the nature of sin. I use the term “sin” in the same way the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament do. It is a translation of the word hamarton, which means “missing the mark.” On a practical level, that means not living up to God’s expectations for us. God’s expectation is that we respect the dignity of other persons. Sin, however, can be collective as well as something an individual does. Such is the nature of racism. It is a social sin. It is a sin for which our entire society must accept responsibility in not living up to God’s expectations about how we should treat each other.
The law defines a conspiracy as an agreement and an overt act in furtherance of the agreement. Despite laws to the contrary, the United States has a tacit agreement by silence to look the other way at racism. The police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, Chicago, Illinois, and North Charleston, South Carolina, are but twoof many overt acts in furtherance of that conspiracy. Both these killings, and the killing of Dr. King, should proclaim that the time has come for the United States to accept responsibility for ongoing racism, which did not vanish with the passage and enforcement of civil rights laws and judicial decrees. American society remains subtly racist, geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Over time, inertia has perpetrated accepted this status quo. It’s time for us to get off our backsides and do something to change it.
Why? Occasionally, those who are oppressed speak out and act out, much to the surprise and dismay of those in charge and their supporters, like the violent disturbances that arose in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. Condemning those disturbances is not appropriate without also condemning what is causing them. Both individuals and communities cannot be expected to absorb endless abuse without reacting. To paraphrase words from Dr. King’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail, people of faith everywhere must get out from behind ”the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows” and condemn the way law enforcement in this country deals with the black community. When statistical evidence shows that substantially more police shootings involve a Caucasian officer killing a black individual than vice versa, there is more at work, than just the individual circumstances of each incident.
Dr. King’s answer, however, was not to meet violence with violence, but to meet it with love. Dr. King, being a Christian, followed what Jesus taught. Dr. King operated from the perspective that if the United States is ever going to solve its ongoing racial problems, it must do so by changing hearts and minds. Passing laws, enforcement actions, and court orders, however well-intentioned, does not change what’s inside of people. That’s what Dr. King was trying to do. He preached one should love one’s enemies and do to others what you would have them do to you, two very simple principles we find in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, respectively recounted in the Gospels of Matthewand Luke. Despite all the abuse he endured, Dr. King never sought revenge or retaliation. He turned the other cheek. And he practiced the “Golden Rule,” that is, treat others the way you expect to be treated. Dr. King’s life asked the question of what the world would be like if we applied those ideas universally. The “Golden Rule” did not originate with Jesus. He got it from the Books of Leviticusand Tobitin the Old Testament, the scripture of His day. It is also found, in one form or another, in Bhuddism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Confuncianism, Taoism, and Native American religions, to name just a few. Dr. King’s life was all about subverting hatred, even if it places oneself in danger. Like Jesus, Dr. King was not concerned about danger; he focused on accomplishing his agenda. And, as Jesus did, Dr. King drew strength from God in an existence of self-giving love in a cauldron of utmost adversity to generate new life for others.
Dr. King’s agenda was to bring the reign of God into the contested arena of human life. He sought not only racial equality, but also justice for the least among us. On the day Dr. King was killed, he was in Memphis, Tennessee to mediate a strike by garbage collectors for better wages and working conditions. Dr. King was there not for a violent confrontation with their employer, but to do the Christ-like work of reconciliation. In doing that, Dr. King put on the armor of God, and stood firm against the tactics of the devil. Unfortunately, some who aspire to public office want to continue an agenda of conflict and retaliation, inciting ethnic and religious groups against each other, and then use the fear that comes from that activity to empower themselves by getting elected. Retaliation driven by fear simply perpetuates an endless cycle of violence from which no good can come.
Our celebration of Dr. King’s legacy perpetuates his dream to celebrate diversity of languages, cultures and abilities, realizing that the same God created all of us. We need each other to build up the Kingdom of God by getting on the same page with Jesus and Dr. King. God chose both to participate in our lives to see our need to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in love to seek that justice which restores and heals. The lives of both Jesus and Dr. King demonstrated that God is not passive, but active in our world, working for reconciliation and peace, to put on the armor of God, to hold our ground against evil. Jesus and Dr. King called out injustice, and so must we. The bare bones facts are that Africans were brought to this country in chains to be slaves, and thereafter were treated like dirt, and in many parts of this country continue to be treated like dirt. That is totally unacceptable in a country that calls itself Christian. The bottom line is that racism is still with us. The most potent weapon we have to fight it is our faith, whatever it might be. While the law may govern our actions, faith works on our hearts, minds and souls to build a community of love and trust where the law is no longer needed to assure respect for the dignity of every human person, in the manner prophesized by Jeremiah in the Old Testament, who foretold a day when laws will not be written on cold stone tablets, but exude from the warmth of our hearts.The Gospel which Jesus preached, echoed by many other traditions, is the way to get that done.
In all of this, we must not let go of our dreams. Popular culture has thought of the so-called “American Dream” as monetary success and a luxurious lifestyle. My American Dream is a society where the Gospel of Jesus is tangible reality, lest we lose our souls.
In Dr. King, we saw someone who held his faith as a shield to quench the flaming arrows of hatred. Let us be watchful with all perseverance, and boldly proclaim the Gospel of love like Dr. King did, with actions, as well as words. AMEN.