Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Truth and Consequences: Implications of Disobeying the Prophetic Ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Implications on Disregarding the Prophetic Ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.
©Wendell Griffen, 2012

Across the United States people are gathering to celebrate the birth and reflect on the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Excerpts will be played and recited from his "I Have A Dream" speech. Politicians will position themselves to gain favor with constituents at such gatherings. Proclamations and pronouncements will be issued and uttered. Choirs will sing. People will gather, present, and perform.

I do not condemn or disparage these exercises. But we should also ponder the tragic reality that our society and its civic, social, commercial, and religious leadership have not been faithful to Dr. King's ministry.

Martin King was the Jeremiah Wright of his time. He was murdered in 1968 a year to the day after he publicly called on the United States to end its military involvement in Southeast Asia. King was the Nobel laureate who confronted the Johnson administration and our nation about the tragic irony of sending black and white men to die together in Vietnam while refusing to help them live together at home. Yet the U.S. is as addicted to war-making in 2012 as it was in 1968.

King was the Baptist preacher who dared to confront clergy in Birmingham, Alabama about their willful tolerance of racist and violent conduct of Eugene "Bull" Connor and Birmingham police toward peaceful civil rights protestors. In 2012, the governor of Alabama is a man with racist and xenophobic policies about immigrants that are morally reprehensible.

King was the civil rights leader who hoped to lead 100,000 poor people to march on Washington, DC to confront national leaders about economic injustice and poverty. Economic injustice is what the Occupy movement is about. Economic injustice is what ACORN was about. Now, just as when King lived and preached, local, state, and national civic, business, and religious leaders continue to favor the wealthy and privileged while ignoring the needy and vulnerable.

King was the moral theologian who openly called on a society addicted to military adventurism, crass materialism, and racism to undertake a radical revolution of values. We remember the "I Have A Dream" speech of August 1963. But we have disregarded and disobeyed what he said on April 3, 1967 during his sermon titled "A Time To Break Silence" at Riverside Baptist Church in New York .

"Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profits motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men [and women] home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood."

More than four decades have passed since Dr. King was taken from us. Sadly, we are reaping the consequences of disobeying his prophetic ministry.

Militarism has increased. Most people pay little attention to the suffering of military personnel and their families. News reports about our war-making are now hidden inside newspapers. Politicians won't talk about how much money this nation has spent over the past ten years on the fabricated war in Iraq and the poorly managed war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, we seem to have not noticed that the war atrocities of My Lai in Vietnam morphed into those in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, others in Helmand Province in Afghanistan, and the festering daily travesty we perpetrate and try to ignore of Guantanimo in Cuba. When the Obama administration defended the CIA for killing U.S. citizens who sympathized with Al Qaeda in Sudan last fall the public didn't complain. When President Obama signed a bill on New Year's Eve that authorizes him and any other president to detain and indefinitely hold U.S. citizens without trial the public didn't complain. We've become the land of the un-free and the home of the scared.

Materialism has worsened. The gap between those who have much and those who struggle to survive in this society and our world is more proof that we have disobeyed Dr. King's ministry. We have sunk so morally low that presidential candidates are praised as followers of Jesus even when they publicly oppose providing universal health care regardless of income or employment status.

Racism remains a virulent cancer in our society. When terrorists from Ireland hid in the United States and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City national leaders didn't call for a PATRIOT Act. But today Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents and state and local law enforcement officers target Latinos who are doing honest work to provide for their families. Local police continue to harass and racially profile black and brown people. We have a mass incarceration situation that is so large that Michelle Alexander has accurately called it "the New Jim Crow."[1] If you haven't read her book, I urge you to do so.

Our society is paying a terrible price for disobeying Dr. King's prophetic ministry. Yet we seem unable or unwilling to confess our transgressions and turn to the values he preached. Have we reached the spiritual death Dr. King feared?

I do not know when we will heed King's warnings and "undergo a radical revolution of values." But we can no longer ignore the consequences of having refused to do so.

· There are too many casualties from our military adventures to ignore. The costs of war-making have grown so high politicians hide them from us.
· Economic injustice now threatens entire cities, states, and regions across the nation. Birmingham, Alabama and Flint, Michigan are broke. Gated communities and Chamber of Commerce receptions, dinners, and slick ad campaigns can't cover up the damning results of favoring the privileged few over the needy many for decades.
· New laws requiring voter identification have been enacted in some states that will operate to stifle people of color, poor people, and formerly incarcerated persons who have paid their debt to society.

Dr. King foresaw the plight we now live. And with a prophet's heart and voice he left an encouraging word to guide us onward and upward. Obery Hendricks, Jr. shares King's words at the start of his latest book titled The Universe Bends Toward Justice.[2]

"When our days become dreary with low-hanging clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Dr. King was a prophet for our time. Prophets show us the way to live. Prophets challenge our wrong-headed decisions and wrong-hearted values. Prophets call on us to change. But prophets cannot make us want to change. They can hope for us, pray for us, plead with us, and pronounce moral judgments about us. But when all is said and done, whether we change is up to each of us.

The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Will we cooperate with it or be condemned by it? The answer, as Michael Jackson sang, it's up to "the man in the mirror." So I leave you with this question.

What's happening in your mirror?
[1] Alexander has detailed the situation in her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.
[2] Obery Hendricks, Jr., a former Wall Street executive and former seminary president, is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary and a Visiting Scholar in Religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. He is also author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. I am grateful to Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. for introducing me to Hendricks and his prophetic work.

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