Why We Can't Wait
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 17, 2016
READINGS & CLOSING WORDS
Our ancient reading today comes from the Hebrew book of Micah:
He has told you... what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Our modern reading is from the book Why We Can’t Wait, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the spring of 1963, the Civil Rights campaign against the tyranny of Birmingham was just beginning. From both Black leadership and from White institutions of power, Dr. King faced severe criticism for the timing of the campaign. He knew that he must join those being arrested and he did, although, unlike any of the others, he was placed in a totally dark, solitary confinement chamber. His struggle was intensified, knowing that his detention might prove disastrous for the financing of the campaign. He wrote:
Meanwhile, on Easter Sunday afternoon, two of our attorneys... had been allowed to visit me. They told me that Clarence B. Jones, my friend and lawyer, would be coming in from New York the following day. When they left, none of the questions tormenting me had been answered, but when Clarence Jones arrived the next day, before I could even tell him how happy I was to see him, he said a few words that lifted a thousand pounds from my heart: “Harry Belafonte has been able to raise $50,000 for bail bonds. It is available immediately. And he says that whatever else you need, he will raise it.” I found it hard to say what I felt. Jones’s message brought me more than relief from the immediate concern about money; more than gratitude for the loyalty of friends far away; more than confirmation that the life of the movement could not be snuffed out. What silenced me was a profound sense of awe. I was aware of a feeling that had been present all along below the surface of consciousness, pressed down under the weight of concern for the movement; I had never been truly in solitary confinement; God’s companionship does not stop at the door of a jail cell. I don’t know whether the sun was shining at that moment. But I know that once again I could see the light.
Closing words today came from W.E.B. DuBois:
Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest... Dr. King’s legacy continues to remind us that human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
I find myself hoping that the Martin Luther King holiday means much more to us than white sales and tire sales, and those do exist; look in the paper. I hope this holiday means more than time away from work or school. I hope it means more than telling stories that are about making nice of events that were anything but nice. Instead, I hope this is a holiday that provides us opportunities to think about the life of a great man, and the qualities he had that might continue to inspire us.
Martin Luther King’s birthday is one of my favorite Sundays to preach every year. What an honor it is to spend time in preparation for this day by reading the words of someone that I admired and still admire so much. How terribly tragic it is that he was so violently taken away from us at such an early age, though it would have been tragic at any age.
Still, how wonderful, how fortunate, how prophetic it is that we had this remarkable human being with us on this planet, as our brother, for 39 years. When he called America to account for its injustices, he spoke in a voice and in a manner that touched me, that included me, that included every American - whether they heard his call or not.
I was 17 when the horrible news of his assassination rang out from Memphis. I suspect that a number of the people in this room weren't even born yet on April 4, 1968. I want to tell you what happens when someone who was a brother like Martin dies. What happens is they go from being a brother, a comrade, a mortal leader, to being something of a saint.
Traditionally, a saint is someone who has been certified as having been posthumously responsible for at least three miracles, posthumously. I’ve never been particularly taken by the magical thinking of postmortem histrionics, but I can assure you that I personally witnessed Martin’s hand touching upon countless miracles during my adolescence, while he was alive, here with us, standing on the side of love. As he did at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma nearly 51 years ago, during his short life he led millions of Americans nonviolently through innumerable confrontations, standing up to the violence of bigots, police, police bigots, police dogs and fire hoses. These actions speak to me of millions of miracles.
Saints aren’t gods though; they are, they were, human beings. That means they struggle and sometimes fail, just as we all do. What makes them saints in my book is that they make a difference, a big difference, in the world around them. And that the legacy of their lives, after they've left us, continues to make a difference.
I’ve had the opportunity of late to read and re-read several of Dr. King's writings. Even his writing is so very human, so very accessible. Being in the same profession as he was, I study the way he wrote, his structure and style. But more, I look at the challenges he dealt with so admirably; how those challenges spoke to him; how he spoke back to those challenges while standing on the side of love; how he readied himself in order to make the choices he knew he was called to make, for the sake of others. And then how he translated his experiences into words so that he might continue to inspire those who depended on his leadership. To me, he was a saint, and a prophet, and a teacher. His legacy continues to bless us, continues to challenge, to teach and to inspire us.
Why We Can't Wait was the book Dr. King published in January of 1964, about three months after the assassination of President Kennedy. “We were all involved in the death of Kennedy,” Dr. King wrote. “We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life; and we tolerated the different application of the law, which said that a [person’s] life was sacred only if we agreed with his views... We mourned a man who had become the pride of the nation, but we grieved as well for ourselves because we knew we were sick.”
1963 had been an almost impossible year for the Civil Rights Movement, but Dr. King persisted. In the aftermath of JFK's death, in the wake of the bombing that killed four little black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in response to widespread opposition attributed to the ill-conceived timing of the Birmingham Campaign, Dr. King wrote Why We Can't Wait in an attempt to explain the potency of nonviolent direct action by showing how successful it had been in Birmingham and other cities. It was also written as a diagnosis of our nation that had embraced violence as a way of doing business, a matter of course in the promotion of racism and oppression of the marginalized, both of this country and abroad. But more, it was an indictment of a culture that had begun to cede the power of influence in the political arena from discourse to violence. "We were all involved in the death of Kennedy,' he wrote. 'We tolerated hate ... "
Why We Can't Wait was a question that he answered by saying that the time to do right in the face of errant powers and principalities must always be now. The time to act nonviolently in response to violent injustice will never be a comfortable time. He answered his own question with: the time to act is always now.
In some ways we have progressed since the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jim Crow laws no longer exist. The Ku Klux Klan has lost its hegemony. The right to vote is assumed by every adult citizen of our country. Or is it? And this is where some of our accomplishments begin to unravel. For example, felons have lost the right to vote. But who are those felons?
In the past half century, the number of felons doing time has increased some 800%. The proportion of White men in prison is 36%; Black men make up 42%, Hispanic men, 18%. One of every four black men is statistically likely to be imprisoned during his lifetime. (Source: Corrections.com) I'm not saying felons should be able to vote. I'm asking, who are the felons? And why are they felons? And why so many? And while Jim Crow laws may no longer exist, why is Jim Crow still so alive, so pervasive, in our national way of doing things?
In some ways we have progressed, but in some ways we have not come so far at all. These prison statistics speak of huge failures in so many of the institutions that form our social fabric - education, housing, economics and justice to name a few. It would be grossly negligent and culturally insensitive for us to speak of Martin Luther King's dream today and fail to mention how much further we have to go before that dream is realized. We have made progress; yet still, there is so far to go before we can all really see the vision of the promised land that he saw from his mountain top.
Dr. King encouraged us all to look within our own hearts to find our compliance with the status quo. He wrote, "We were all involved in the shootings. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence... We all tolerated a different application of the law that tells us that another person's life is less sacred... " His legacy asks us if we are not rather compliant, over-tolerant of an environment that incubates such terrorism against our brothers and sisters. And this is terrorism.
In a while this morning, you will reengage in a conversation about moving ahead in this congregation's relationship to Black Lives Matter. A number of you have already passionately spoken about the need to recognize that all lives matter. Nothing could be more true than that - all lives do indeed matter. Yet even more, in this new age of Jim Crow, we are called to see a more specific reality within the spectrum of all life, which tells us that there continues to be a rampantly growing cultural/racial divide. This divide depicts continuing evidence of White superiority - meaning that culturally the truth is that White lives mean so much more, have so much greater value in our society, then do Black lives. That's the truth that lies beneath our nation's narrative.
To know this cultural truth truth, we need only look at the statistics of our nation's institutions - education, criminal, judicial, corrections, health care, financial or any other. They all speak the truth of vast discrepancies in what lives really matter most. To know this truth, we need only look to the stories of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and the children of those victims who have fallen to White supremacy in Chicago, Cleveland, Charleston, again in Ferguson, and in other cities across the country, within just the past few months.
Pilar McCloud is an African-American woman who spoke to many of us at our Parish Supper two nights ago. She wanted to be sure that we understood that it's just not just the shootings nor the imprisonment that we need to be concerned about. She assured us that whenever she or any other African-American is in the public square, they must regularly and daily endure marginalization, suspicion and degradation in the course of doing business.
I'm not saying that supporting the Black Lives Matter initiative, which you'll be talking about in a few minutes, is the only reasonable response to the ongoing nightmare within our American dream. I do think that such an organized congregational effort would provide ready access to this community for a responsible response; yet there are many ways in which we might respond. Notwithstanding, what Dr. King might remind us of if he were here, is that on a grand scale far too many Black lives are being marginalized, destroyed and even snuffed out by social systems that continue to undermine the fallacy in our claim that all lives matter. He would remind us that these atrocities are daily occurrences; that we cannot wait; that our ideals of justice and the larger good call on us to act. He would remind us that the time to act is indeed now. We cannot wait!
Regardless of our own race or ethnicity, what might be good for us to think about here is: what is the debt that we owe for the privileges we enjoy? We might ask, what would we need or want, if our roles in this race-based narrative were reversed? And what is our society's relationship to its own political processes? What should it be? Are we, or do we strive to be, in right-relationship with those of differing racial and cultural experience? What do we owe the conversation that so far we have been unable to bring to the table?
If we want to come out of this experience with any renewed sense of wholeness or of hope for wholeness, I think it will depend on our ability, individually and collectively, to undergo some kind of conversion. Someone else's conversion can never lead to understanding the larger picture for any of us. If change is to occur, it will need to happen in each of our hearts, in all of our actions. And the only one we really have the power to change, after all, is our self.
The reason - or at least one of the reasons - that the Civil Rights Movement under Dr. King's leadership was so successful in Birmingham, Selma, Atlanta, and in so many other cities and towns is because Martin had the audacity to expect something saintly in the behavior of everyone who took part in the nonviolent direct-action campaigns. Participants had to sign off on a pledge form that contained Ten Commandments, a set of disciplined expectations that Martin held out for each of them. Maybe we should ask no less of ourselves.
I've put a revised copy of Dr. King's "Ten Commandments" in our order of service today. I actually did far less editing on them in order to orient them towards us than you might suppose. If you want to see the originals they're easily found online. I'm not asking anyone to sign this pledge, but I wouldn't suggest that you don't, either. What I'm asking is that you take it home with you, and that you read it. Maybe you could read it every day for a week. Maybe you could put it up on your fridge. Maybe you could check back from time to time to see how you're doing on it.
Pledge form based on the one used by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the Birmingham Civil Rights campaign:
I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF - MY PERSON AND BODY - TO THE NON-VIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE, I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS:
1) MEDITATE daily on teachings that affirm life.
2) REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement anywhere seeks justice and reconciliation - not victory.
3) WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4) PRAY daily to be used by God [Love] in order that all people might be free.
5) SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all people might be free.
6) OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7) SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8) REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.
9) STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10) FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
They all add up to action. And the time for action is now.
The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. can continue to inspire and guide us. The stakes for what is at risk in the challenges of our time are no less significant than they were a half century ago. Why We Can't Wait is because our country is depending on us each of us individually and on all of us together to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is because our world is depending on us - each and all - to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Why We Can't Wait is because the well-being of each of our own souls, and the collective soul of our nation, hangs in the balance.
If the world is going to be a better place, if we are going to treat the sick and defend the innocent, if we are going to stem the tide of violence in political discourse, we are going to need a few more saints walking among us. We may not make it all the way to sainthood, but we can sure as hell try! The truth is the world is going to be a better place, if do we try. Dr. King wrote:
Now let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we are all going to perish together as fools.
And so I leave you with this wish, this prayer that comes from the man who was Dr. King's own teacher and mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. My prayer is that we might all grow to be strong enough to pray such a prayer for ourselves and for others, for all others.
Gandhi's Prayer for Peace:
I offer you peace.
I offer you love.
I offer you friendship.
I see your beauty.
I hear your need.
I feel your feelings.
My wisdom flows from the highest source.
I salute that source in you.
Let us work together.
For unity and peace.
May it be so. Amen.