In every age of human history people have languished in jail cells, paying the price for their beliefs. This has been true since power and powerlessness have co-existed among us, and that is a very long time.
Some have sat in prison because of the violence they have done others, bringing pain or death to other human beings. Some have suffered punishment because they’ve refused to accept the authority of others, or because they have been misunderstood, or because they were falsely accused. Some have been condemned to death and nailed to a tree on a hillside outside a capital city because their very life was deemed a threat to the status quo.
Some have recognized the injustice of laws passed and promulgated and forced unjustly upon a population, and have acted to challenge those laws. Some have done this without advocating violence, indeed while preaching and working for a response that was non-violent, motivated by a love of justice, and ultimately by a love of all and of the God of all.
So Moses went in answer to the call of the God of Israel to Pharaoh to ask, preposterously, for the peoples’ release, for their freedom, for their life. So Jesus rested among the crowd that wanted to hear him, and he asked them for more than they likely wanted to give: “Love your enemies, pray for those who abuse you. Love those who hate you. Lend to those from whom you have no hope of repayment. Expect nothing in return. Only love. Only love, whatever it costs you.”
So Martin Luther King Jr. went again and again into places and situations where injustice had domesticated justice, where despair had mastered hope, where hatred had seemingly bested love, and indifference grown a garden in the hearts of even the best. He marched in where justice had fallen asleep, and lay unmoving for so long it was reasonably presumed dead. And he said to the masters and the mastered, to the hopeless and the disinherited, to those who doubted the humanity of others and to those who doubted their own humanity: “Wake up! Stand up! Know that justice does not die and cannot sleep forever. Its roots are found in the God whom scripture says never sleeps, and the heart of that God is love.”
This marching, this speaking, this being a goad in the side of society cost Martin Luther King. Long before shots rang out in April of 1968, all this cost him. It brought him to the knife attack at a book signing that could have taken his life. It cost him harmony and friendship with some of his fellow clergy. It put pressure on the life of his family, and on their peace of mind. It brought him to that jail cell in Birmingham, and to many others elsewhere.
To be prophetic costs, always. It always looks and sounds extreme, because it is. To be prophetic is to step outside the normally accepted bounds, to step beyond the culture’s expectations. It is to say to a world that does not want to be disturbed: “Wait! Don’t you see this? Don’t you hear this truth? Don’t you want to understand?” As scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann has taught us, to be a prophet is to see the same reality with an alternative vision, to possess the dubious gift of seeing reality in the way that God sees it, and to speak out of that alternate vision. To speak out of that alternate vision is to say two things, neither of which is adequate without the other. It is to speak a word of cogent, unrelenting criticism of things as they are, for always and everywhere the status quo is not what it should be. But it is also to speak an energizing word from God, painting a living picture of the way things can and will be in the new creation.
That is the costly prophetic task. It isn’t by any means everyone’s calling. For most of us who work in an office, who handle money for its increase, who are called to make sure the baby’s diaper is changed and a meal is ready, for all of us who worry about being ready for retirement or simply ready for the next day – for all these the prophetic voice, if it is in us at all, seems tiny, far-away, almost impossible to hear.
That’s why there is always a need for the prophet to call to us from across the room, across the street, across the nation, across the passage of time. He calls us to hear anew, to look again, to loose our imaginations from the anchor of conformity and, in a real way, to begin again, and again, and again. She calls us to build this human world in the image of its Creator. Whatever it costs.
While a prophet speaks, the world cringes. The ancient Hebrews told the prophets to be silent, to go home, or to risk prison and death. When the prophet’s voice ceases and falls into the past, then the world grows comfortable with the prophecy, begins quoting the prophetic words, declares a day in the prophet’s honor, and builds a monument.
There is in us an unbidden urge to domesticate the prophet. This is impossible while such an impossible person lives and shouts and travels the countryside. But once they have left the world, the world begins the work of blending the prophet into the scene, into the culture, into the way things are.
This may be inevitable, but if it is, it is also worth challenging. It’s worth my asking myself: would I have been transfixed by the words of Jesus if I heard him speak by the sea and on the hills two millennia ago? Would I have left everything, as some did, and followed this unknown rabble-rouser? Or would I, as most did, let him pass by?
If I were living in Egypt in the days of Moses, if it were my home, my nation, how would I have reacted if I had witnessed Moses’ words to Pharaoh, asking freedom for the Hebrews?
King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, a portion of which we’ve heard this morning, contains other words less often quoted, words that refuse to be domesticated, words that can sting our ears even now, a half-century later. Words like these:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; . . . when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Even now I have left out the hardest of his words to hear. We may say that most of the particulars of those situations have long since changed and are gone. Yes, but we need reckon still with the underlying fact that in this ever-smaller world there are yet children who suffer because of their race; there are women who suffer because of their gender; there are peoples who are oppressed because of the language they speak or the culture they insist on carrying into the future. There are men and women around the world who risk imprisonment, torture, and death because they dare to love one another. There are families who face starvation because of the accident of the region into which their mother bore them.
And they number in the billions.
But even if there were only one, there would still be need in this human world for God to raise up the voice of the prophet.
So for me at least, there is little comfort in the celebration of Martin Luther King today. Certainly not because of anything lacking in his response to what he recognized as wrong and in need of being made right. Certainly not because he raised his voice insistently rather than allowing silence to swallow outrage whole. Not because of any lack that any one of us might point out in him, who like us was a fallible human being.
No, there is little comfort in this day for me because when I read him again, when I see the film of his speeches, he adamantly refuses still to be domesticated. And his example, like that of his Lord and of Moses and others before him, raises stinging questions to me, to you I think as well, and to the whole church.
What am I willing to march about? What is enough to get me out into the street? Is there anything that I care that much about? What call of justice or cry for mercy is enough to make me raise my voice even if I know that the powerful will call for silence? For what cause am I willing to lose my freedom, even for a night? For what people oppressed or in need or alone in the world am I willing to give up my time, my safety, my life?
Martin Luther King’s legacy insists that these questions be alive in us, for us, among us. As long as we live. As long as the status quo is less than the Kingdom of God. Even if I never march for a cause. Even if you never speak at a rally. Even if my life is never required of me. Even so, he has left these questions to agitate like the ‘thorns in the flesh’ of which St Paul once complained. For that, we can be grateful.
Grateful, in the extreme.
~ The Rev. John McGinty