Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday: "Where Do We Go From Here"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 15, 2017
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading is from the book of Matthew, chapter 5:
You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Our second reading is from chapter one of the book, Where Do We Go from Here?, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers [and sisters], what are you doing more than others? Do not even heathens do that?
On August 6, 1965, the President’s Room of the Capitol could scarcely hold the multitude of white and Negro leaders crowding it. President Lyndon Johnson’s high spirits were marked as he circulated among the many guests whom he had invited to witness an event he confidently felt to be historic, the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislation was designed to put the ballot effectively into Negro hands in the south after a century of denial by terror and evasion.
The bill that lay on the polished mahogany desk was born in violence in Selma, Alabama, where a stubborn sheriff handling Negroes in the southern tradition had stumbled against the future. During a nonviolent demonstration for voting rights, the sheriff had directed his men in tear-gassing and beating the marchers to the ground. The nation had seen and heard, and exploded in indignation. In protest, Negroes and whites marched fifty miles through Alabama, and arrived at the state capital of Montgomery in a demonstration fifty thousand strong. President Johnson, describing Selma as a modern Concord, addressed a joint session of Congress before a television audience of millions. He pledged that “We shall overcome,” and declared that the national government must by law insure to every Negro his full rights as a citizen.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? This was the final book written and published by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., before his death in 1968. It was a powerful assessment of the nation and the state of the Civil Rights Movement at that time. It also provided a compelling prescription for the future course of the movement, if our nation and our world were ever to be freed from the scourges of racism. Nearly 50 years later, we are still a long way off from accomplishing that cure. Sadly, so many of Dr. King’s assessments of our nation's racism continue to ring true. And still, we might pray, it is not yet too late for his remedies to be successfully applied and accomplished by us, those who follow in his footsteps.
His assessment included the recognition that great legal gains had been achieved through the nonviolent, broad coalition of civil rights workers who had participated in actions of solidarity and strength, speaking truth to power, until those in power had also recognized the need for change. Laws did change. Discrimination became, though not a thing of the past, at least an illegal activity with potential consequences. Gains had been made through the Montgomery Bus Boycott, through the Bloody Sunday march for voting rights across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, which took place 52 years ago in March. Great progress was made by so many dedicated and courageous "malcontents," as Dr. King would suggest we all ought to be, through scores of marches and actions across the country.
What Dr. King then came to realize was that the end of discrimination was only one step in bringing about an end to racism. Achieving the vote and gaining legal entrée to equal access of the justice, educational and commercial systems of our country in no way guaranteed adequate representation by elected officials, nor a fair shake in clashes with law enforcement and the legal system, nor equivalent educational opportunities, nor any widely based financial parity. The next steps, as he laid them out, would require an entire reweaving of the social fabric of our nation in a way that untethered Blacks, and other marginalized Americans, from the tattered fringes of society.
By 1968 Dr. King understood the war in Vietnam to be a racist war. He raised his voice not only to proclaim that there was an unjust preponderance of African-American young men drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight and die in that war, but that the war itself was an expression of US racist hegemony over the people of Southeast Asia. He claimed that mainstream American people, including many liberals, merely gave lip service to the religious aspiration of “Peace on Earth, good will to all,” but then went on to act in ways that promoted war, rather than deter it. “Many of them indeed know better,” he quoted his mentor James Baldwin, “… but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”
If the social fabric was to be rewoven, if the white culture was indeed going to be transformed, if true justice – with an end to racism – was going to be gained, how might that be achieved? Dr. King was very critical of the Black Power Movement. He feared that it was based in anger and hatred; that it paralyzed hope, and that it jeopardized chances for future gains in moving beyond what James Baldwin referred to as the problem of the color line.
While he was publicly critical of the movement, Dr. King was in no way adverse to the idea of Black power. Like Malcolm X, he felt that it was essential for Blacks to claim their power, which they had been reluctant to do. King was a deeply religious man. His motivation for change and for justice came out of his religious convictions. His idea of power came from his ideals of what it meant to be a religious person. He felt that the greatest strength, the greatest power, for the black community and for all humanity, was the power of love.
He felt that love was a powerful enough base to secure and nurture a nonviolent movement in the face of the violent and determined resistance of the dominant white culture. He felt that love was strong enough to maintain a working relationship with white allies, despite their lack of consistency in commitment and support. He believed that universal love – however one might understand it – was a force determined toward and constantly moving in the direction of justice. In the publication “An Experiment in Love,” written in 1958, 10 years before his death, he wrote:
“A ... basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suf¬fering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic com¬panionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some cre¬ative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”
On another occasion he would quote 19th Century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who first articulated the now-famous quote, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."
Dr. King recognized the power of love. He understood its value in a movement that was intended to conquer injustice, hate and fear. He realized, too, that for love to win the day, hope must be nourished, that it needed to be carefully cultivated. He knew, despite any feelings of frustration and anger, that the greater wisdom resided in patience, not in complicity with the forces of evil. Wisdom resided in forgiveness and in forbearance for those errant white brothers and sisters who might yet find their way into the righteous fold, more fully on the side of truth, and liberty, and justice for all of humanity.
When Dr. King delivered the prestigious Ware Lecture in Hollywood, Florida at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in June of 1966, he told the UU's gathered there that he himself was a universalist. He told them that, as a universalist, he believed that no person had been created only to end up in the fires of hell and damnation, neither on this earth nor in any afterlife. For white persons, what he meant was – join with us or get out of the way, because God’s plan is bigger than you are. For Blacks, who were already so weary from the struggle, it meant that bitterness, hatred and vengeance would never be an acceptable or effective response to the brutalities of racism. For everyone it meant that we need to be about dedicating ourselves to loving and working together for the larger possibilities of goodness; that we need to be less concerned with a self-righteous path of hating evil. If humankind was to grow into its potential, it would grow nurtured by love, and not exhausted by hate. Love your neighbor as yourself, he preached.
In the nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King’s assassination, progress toward the fulfillment of his dream has ebbed and flowed. Even though these last eight years we have had a Black president, the movement has not really taken any new giant steps as it did when King marched as its leader. There have been times when our country has seen at least glimpses of the larger picture of our promise to be a true democracy. But there have been other times, times when we have felt encouraged to feel more comfortable with our prejudices and our bigotries; times when we have felt encouraged to feel more comfortable in placing self-interest over the common good; times when we have been encouraged to feel more comfortable with the impression that ‘might is right’ and that to think otherwise is to be unpatriotic, un-American. Perhaps we are on the threshold of such an era once again.
I fear that at this very moment we are living in a most notable, most pronounced era of this latter sentiment since Dr. King’s death. Across the country and in nearby neighborhoods, children continue to attend schools whose financial foundations are eroding along with urban tax structures, schools that are being robbed of tax dollars that have been rerouted for private or chartered education. The mass incarceration of Black men under the new Jim Crow provides for prisons with more capacity than ever before, crammed with disproportionate numbers of Black men and persons of color – many of whom are there because of racially based drug laws and not because of any crimes against humanity – men who have little or no hope of gainful, lawful employment on the outside. Far too many innocent Black men and boys have had their lives cut short by the very officials whose job it is to protect them. Each new incident reminds us all too clearly that it is not safe to be a Black man in this country.
With the transition, a week from now, to the new administration, there will be no State of the Union Address this year. I’ve spoken with a number of you and with many others about the state of our nation these days. While some of us have been taking to the streets again, there seem to be two predominant responses to these current episodes of racial unrest: 1) It’s not my fault; I didn’t make the choices that have led things in this direction. 2) Things are so awful that I feel completely helpless to effect any change at all.
Tomorrow, as we commemorate the MLK holiday, I have to wonder, what would Martin Luther King say today? What would he do in the midst of all of this? Perhaps not so surprisingly, I can hear his voice speaking as clearly as I heard him in my youth.
He would tell us that it doesn’t matter if we didn’t make the choices that have led things to where they are today. This is the world we live in, the world we have inherited. He would tell us that those choices were made in our names. Their consequences continue to be exacted... in our names, using both ours and appropriated resources. And unless we are doing all that we can do to end racism, to end our hegemonic wars of insane aggression and to secure the protection and the liberties of all people ̶ we are responsible as passive, yet still as consenting, participants in the structures that maintain racism.
He would tell us that we are not helpless but that we, every one of us, have resources, including educational and financial that are beyond imagination for most of the world, and that we need to use our assets to work for the common good of all humanity. He would tell us that we need to question our commitment to and support for the causes of liberty and justice for all. He would tell us that, no matter how tired we might be, there are those far more tired than we, and that we need to get with it or get out of the way, because God’s plan for justice is bigger than any of us and our pitiable cries of despair.
He would not only tell us, but he would show us, once again, that the path to victory is the way of love, not just love for those who think the same way that we do, but especially for those who do not. He would tell us and show us how to better dedicate our lives ̶ more to loving and promoting the possibilities of goodness and less towards our self-righteous hatred of evil.
He would remind us to keep faith in the universal force that bends toward justice. He would remind us that we will never be helpless when we add our strengths and our gifts to this mighty force. By acting with love and bolstering our faith, he would assure us of hope. My dear friends, one is never helpless when one has hope.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken from us nearly 50 years ago, at the very early age of 39. Still, he has left us a truly great legacy of faith, hope and love. How do we keep that legacy alive? Where do we go from here? It is up to each of us to offer one another, and offer to the world no less than our own faith, our hope and our love – no less than our own commitment to the ideals and fulfillment of his dream, for the fulfillment of our dreams, for the America that can yet be.
We will come out on the other side of this dark day. Our choice is to determine what part we might play in bringing about that new day’s dawning. Are we each doing our part? Do we communicate with our elected officials? Should more of us be taking to the streets once again? Should you be the one running for office ̶ going to Town Hall, to the State House or to Washington to raise a voice of integrity in the halls of policy and power?
And all the while, can we maintain our humility? Can we remember to love right more than to hate wrong? Can we remember to love those around us – those who have and those who have not, those who see things as we do and those who do not?
A few months before he died, Dr. King commented on the meaning of his death. His words are ones we might all offer up as a prayer for our own lives:
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator ̶ that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning…
Upon each of our own deaths, none of us will be asked to account for not being Martin Luther King, Jr. I'm not saying that there will, or that there won't, be anyone there to ask us anything at the time of our death. But, if there were, how would you answer the question of what it is that you have left behind through the way that you have lived your life? How would you answer the question – what were you a drum major for?
I'd like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who where in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a com¬mitted life behind.
And that's all I want to say... if I can bring salvation to a world once wrought, if I can spread the message as the master taught, then my living will not be in vain...”
(From "The Drum Major Instinct," preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, February 4, 1968)
Nearly 50 years later, we are still a long way off from accomplishing the cures he suggested. Sadly, many of Dr. King’s assessments continue to ring increasingly true today. And so, we might pray – that it is still not yet too late for his remedies to be successfully applied and accomplished. This is what it means to stand on the side of love. This is the work that is left to us. And there is still… a new day waiting to be born.