As We Remember Dr. King…

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man on so many levels. But he was first a pastor/preacher, erudite and eloquent, persuasive and passionate. He could also be controversial in the pulpit.

ap_mlk_memphis_mountain_kb_130403_wmainHad he lived, he would have recently celebrated his 90th birthday.  I wonder what he would think about our national journey since the day his powerful voice was so violently silenced?

A year to the day before his death in Memphis, Dr. King preached Riverside Church in Manhattan. The church, built against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s, was founded by Harry Emerson Fosdick and John D. Rockefeller Jr., a liberal preacher with a generous benefactor. Mr. Rockefeller initially donated more than $10.5 million, and his contribution grew to more than $32 million by 1959. It was a case of petro-dollars funding Protestant liberalism.

As Dr. King spoke to a crowd of nearly 4,000 on April 4, 1967, he said that as a religious leader he wanted to “move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high ground of a firm dissent.”

His subject was not Civil Rights – it was the Vietnam War.

Though careful to talk about America as his “beloved nation,” and not hesitant to address the crowd as “my fellow Americans,” he said that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” was “my own government.”

At that time, polls indicated that nearly 75% of Americans supported the war.

Dr. King faced his own media firestorm in the immediate aftermath of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. The Washington Post described it as “unsupported fantasy,” and the New York Times called it “Dr. King’s Error.” U.S. News and World Report went even further, suggesting that King was “lining up with Hanoi,” and President Johnson angrily speculated that King had “thrown in with the Commies.”

Even legendary baseball player/hero Jackie Robinson came out against the speech and the NAACP adopted a resolution warning that King’s effort to connect the anti-war movement with civil rights was a “serious tactical mistake.”

Later that year, the annual Gallup Poll of the “Ten Most Popular Americans,” would not include the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—for the first time in more than a decade.

One long and very difficult year after his Riverside remarks, Dr. King was in Memphis. The night before his death, he was scheduled to speak at Mason Temple. There were storm and tornado warnings, and he was weary from travel, so he asked Rev. Ralph Abernathy to go in his place. When Abernathy got to the church, he saw thousands who had braved violent weather to hear King, so he called back to the Lorraine Motel and encouraged his friend to come over. King did go over, and he gave what was to be his last sermon.

During his 20-minute extemporaneous address that evening, he asked: “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” He then added a word of encouragement to the great number of preachers in the crowd: “I want to commend the preachers…and I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.” As he warmed to the crowd and his message he said: “We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words.”

He called for the development of what he referred to as “a kind of dangerous unselfishness” and segued to a rhetorical comfort zone, the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. He used the famous story as the basis for his admonition: “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with greater determination…we have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Then he waxed personal, describing a previous assassination attempt by “a demented black woman” ten years before and how the blade came so close to his aorta that one sneeze would have ended his life. This was a familiar King story, one that he told many times with the refrain “If I had sneezed…” being repeated again and again for effect. At this point, other preachers on the platform that night became unsettled because this story was usually one placed earlier in a speech. The concern was that Dr. King might “miss his landing” and not end on a high note.

There is an old formula in the African-American tradition of preaching: “Start low, go slow. Rise higher, catch fire. Retire.” The concern was that King was not quite catching fire. Then, however, came those final moments as he talked about being to the mountain top and seeing the “promised land,” and the now famous and passionate ending: “So, I’m happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

As a preacher, King was Sunday-centric, always with an eye on the next sermon. So the next afternoon, Thursday, April 4, 1968, he placed a call from room 306 of the Lorraine Motel back to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and gave his secretary the title for his upcoming Palm Sunday sermon: Why America May Go to Hell.”

He never had the chance to preach that one. A few hours later his voice was silenced in a brief and deadly explosion of violence.

Dr. King is remembered more than 50 years later for his words and deeds. He is honored–-appropriately so—as a hero. It is, though, an interesting question: “What would Dr. King say today—and how would he be received?”

[For books by David R. Stokes, visit: www.davidrstokes.com]

Race, Roe, & Dr. King

[The following appeared in the Washington Post six years ago this month, in January of 2009. I discussed the annual calendar convergence of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday — DRS]
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This week’s sermon is by the Rev. David R. Stokes, senior pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, marking Sanctity of Human Life Sunday on Jan. 18. President Ronald Reagan established a National Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in 1984, to be held the Sunday in January that falls closest to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

The recent passing of theologian Richard John Neuhaus brings to mind a passage from the book of Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

As Michael Gerson mentioned in his recent tribute to Neuhaus in The Washington Post, there was a time when “the footsteps of theologians shook the land.” These days, he laments that the great thinkers who “provided the intellectual and moral ballast for a rough national crossing through the Cold War and civil rights movement are gone and the nation’s hungry sheep now look up to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra for spiritual nourishment.

Neuhaus was, according to Gerson, “first a man of the left, then a man of the right — yet entirely consistent on the things that matter most.” He walked with King for civil rights, and later “found the natural extension of those ideals in the pro-life movement.”

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the address for which he is best known. Long remembered as the “I Have a Dream” speech, he said things like, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”

Slightly less than five years later, the Dreamer was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, hastening our societal slide toward a culture far too comfortable and familiar with violence and death. The legacy of Dr. King and the fallout from that 1973 legal bombshell sail very close to each other again.

Some see this as an awkward convergence. But it really isn’t. Back in the ’60s, while black preachers were mobilizing masses in the pursuit of civil rights, conservative evangelicals stayed largely on the sidelines. They weren’t all that interested in changing anything. In fact, it was not uncommon to hear white fundamentalist-evangelical preachers of the day, with voices animated by indignation, decrying the very idea that preachers should be activists in the streets, mocking them to get back to their pulpits where they belonged.

Many, if not most — some notably — would later change their minds. What was the catalyst bringing change to how conservative, white clergymen viewed and lived out their roles? What issue convinced these dogmatic men of the cloth to be willing to scramble out of the pulpit-pocket and into a measure of political involvement after decades of silent separation? Well, the winds of change began to blow in the aftermath of that landmark 1973 decision.

So, here we are again in another January, decades after a killing and a ruling, still marching about Roe v. Wade and honoring Dr. King — but seldom in the same room. The two constituencies, both fierce about the importance of faith, seldom find — much less look for — ways to reach out to the other choir. On Sunday, Jan. 18, some churches highlighted the Sanctity of Human Life issue. Others talked a lot about Dr. King and his dream to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was celebrated Jan. 20. Usually it was one or the other. Some of us, however, tried to do both, because there ought to be an affinity between the two.

When Martin Luther King talked about a dream he had for his four little children and how he longed for them to grow up in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” beyond the amen and applause of the crowd around the Lincoln Memorial, far too many Americans ignored what he had to say. Or worse, some mobilized to polarize and oppose.

Those opponents were wrong. No matter how much they went to church, read their Bibles or professed the religion of Jesus, they were wrong. It was wrong for good, God-fearing Americans not to see how important it was, from a faith-based point of view, that this nation truly walk the walk it had long talked about.

And it is wrong for some people of faith today not to see the pro-life cause as very much a civil and human-rights issue.

We should have a dream that welcomes all to the table. And we should have a dream that welcomes all to life itself.

The calendar gives us a near-miss each year as these issues come close to collision. But social justice and embracing life itself as profoundly precious should not be either/or issues. They are very much both/and. And until we find a way to bring them together, it is not likely that anyone can really bring us together.

At this transitional moment in our country’s history, there are great and grave issues before us. Some wrongs have been righted. One great wrong — one that has been a hurtful wound for generations, since even before our nation’s founding — is being righted by an inauguration. Other wrongs are yet to be righted. We should celebrate the victory of wrong over right when it happens. And we should mourn when wrongs left untouched cry out for justice and mercy.

The ultimate way for us to see wrongs righted is for us to look back 2,000 years ago, to a great and grievous wrong inflicted on Christ himself. And it is through that wrong, the great finished work on the cross, that we can know what it is to be made right and whole. When our brokenness is taken to His brokenness, healing happens. And that healing transforms us into agents of light — to work for righteousness in a world of woe.