“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.”
For the past several months—beginning with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and culminating with the murders of two police officers in New York, American clergy have talked a good deal about race relations at the present moment and in the history of our nation. In the past several weeks, the ISIS beheadings, the horrific stories of Islamist violence in France, and a thwarted terror plot in Belgium have overtaken our public discourse, and some have questioned why we preachers have not used our pulpits to condemn terrorism as strongly as we do gun violence or racial profiling in our own land.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, and as a response to those queries, I’d like to point us to a new book by TV host and author Tavis Smiley. It’s called Death of a King, and it chronicles the last year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. Dr. King was assassinated almost fifty years ago now, and time has burnished our memories of his life. We have softened and domesticated him. But, as Smiley tells us, on April 4, 1967—a year to the day before his death—Martin Luther King, Jr. went to The Riverside Church in New York and gave a speech called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence”. That was a controversial speech, and in his new book, Death of a King, Tavis Smiley describes its impact on the last year of King’s life. In Smiley’s words,
In his speech King calls the US “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. From that day April 4, 1967 to April 4, 1968, King becomes persona non grata in this country. Everyone turns against him.
We have forgotten that when Martin Luther King Jr. died he was no longer welcome at the White House. The board of his own organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had censured him for speaking out against the war. So had the leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League. As Tavis Smiley tells it,
In the last year of his life [King is] talking about the triple threat that’s going to destroy our democracy: racism, poverty, and militarism. When he died, the last Harris Poll said that ¾ of Americans had turned against him. 57% of blacks had turned against him. He dies not having any idea of the holiday and the monument and the postage stamp. [Tavis Smiley, Book TV Interview C-SPAN 2014 Book Expo]
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.”
Why do preachers persist in talking about violence on American streets and cities rather than about ISIS beheadings or the Charlie Hebdo killings? We do so because the nature of prophecy has always been about God’s critical judgment of oneself and one’s own community. It is easy to condemn violence done by others. It is harder to look at violence done on one’s own behalf. The killing of innocent people by terrorists is always a moral outrage. But it is not my moral outrage to address. The killing of innocent people in my own country is also a moral outrage, and it is our collective moral outrage to address. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the proper response to a moral imperative is not “thou shalt” but rather “I ought”.
If you think I’m playing casuistic games here, turn back to our Old Testament reading for this morning. In the third chapter of the first book of Samuel we hear the familiar story of the call of Samuel to be a prophet [1 Samuel 3: 1-20]. This is a passage often read at ordinations: the young boy Samuel, serving in the house of Eli, hears a voice calling him and goes to the old man to respond. Eli, of course, had not been calling the boy, and so over the course of the story we discover that the voice calling Samuel was in fact God’s voice. Samuel returns and prepares to hear. We usually end the reading with Samuel’s response to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” [1 Samuel 3:9]
Today, though, we hear the rest of the passage, the part normally left out of ordination liturgies. What we hear is a word of judgment delivered against the very household in which Samuel serves:
On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. [1 Samuel 3: 12-13]
Now here’s the interesting part: you can imagine how Samuel feels, having to go back to old Eli and tell him God’s message of judgment. To his credit, Eli wants to hear the whole truth even though that truth is spoken against him: “Do not hide it from me,” he says. So Samuel repeats God’s stern message “and hid nothing from him. “ And after this torrent of bad news, Eli responds, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” [1 Samuel 3: 17-18] By facing into a harsh judgment of his own household, Samuel has established his prophetic credibility. “And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.” [1 Samuel 3: 20]
“It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.”
Would that all America had known or knows now that Martin Luther King was “a trustworthy prophet of the Lord”. Like the prophet Samuel, King spoke prophetic truth to his own household. Forty-eight years after King’s speech at The Riverside Church, forty-seven years after his murder, we, the people to whom he preached and prophesied have not quite gotten what he came to say. We often recall that he had a dream, but we don’t look very deeply into what the content of that dream actually was. So in order to open up and get inside Dr. King’s dream, let’s listen again to what he had to say to those gathered in The Riverside Church that day:
I am convinced that if we are to get on to 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, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
And here is how Dr. King concluded that day:
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. . . . [W]ill there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.” What will we choose: to be a thing-oriented society or a person-oriented society? Will we opt for “the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world?” Will we stand with those who suffer violence in our own country? Or will we choose to say, in King’s words, “the odds are too great, “the struggle is too hard?”
In our Gospel for this morning [John 1: 32-51] Jesus spots Nathanael under the fig tree and addresses him as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. Flattered and impressed, Nathanael marvels at the miracle of Jesus’s insight. Jesus responds,
“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” [John 1: 50-51]
Do we believe Dr. King because he told us he had a dream, or do we believe him because he told us the hard things we—his American household--needed (and still need) to hear? The iron triangle of “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” is still with us. The message “of longing, of hope, of solidarity with [human] yearnings” has yet to be heard by those suffering violence and oppression done in all our names.
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.” Forty-seven years after his death, we honor Martin Luther King Jr. by daring to face in to the hard prophetic words he came to tell us. America, our shared household, has some hard work to do if we are seriously to address racism, extreme materialism, and militarism in our own household. There will always be purveyors of violence, but let that no longer be said of us. On this day, and always, may our response be the one that Eli—under God’s stern judgment himself—gave to the budding prophet Samuel: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” “I can’t breathe.” “Black lives matter.” Yes indeed, they do. Amen.