The Common Good

The Legacy of Martin Luther King: Time to Break the Silence

[Editor's Note: In anticipation of the anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, God's Politics will feature a series of posts on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Continue to check the blog for more reflections each day this week.]

It is impossible to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King without seeking to honor what he taught, even as he sought to follow what the Jesus Christ of Nazareth taught. I believe Dr. King was answering God's call when he preached at Riverside Church, a year to the day before he died. (Many, including Rep. John Lewis, perceived it to be his best sermon). As he began this sermon, he said that the church's executive committee statement agreed with the "sentiments of [his] own heart":

A time comes when silence is betrayal.

That time has come again in America. We who know the truth have been silent too long as the "cradle-to-prison pipeline" inhales more young brown and black men -- as the system offers leniency to young men who look like my beloved blue-eyed, blond-haired son, but too often suggests that no presumption of innocence is offered to the beloved young men I have pastored. That time has come again in America as the medical and educational apartheid continues.

In his sermon, Dr. King also acknowledges the complexity of taking a moral stand -- that "we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty." Dr. King continued:

"Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak."

I give thanks to God for those who have the courage to break the silence. I give thanks to God for the women I met through the New York City Council of Churches as they asked (with profound surprise), "You don't know who Fannie Lou Hamer is?" and went on to tell me about her. I give thanks to the Rev. Dr. James Forbes as he gently answered my questions when I asked why we remember April 4 (the day of Dr. King's martyrdom). I give thanks for Dr. James Washington, a giant and gentle soul, who compiled A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Someone once said that lessons "must be caught rather than taught." So it is with Dr. King. Many of us have read his writings; few of us have the courage to live his writings, and even fewer of us have the courage to break the silence. As Dr. King attempted to teach young black men in the North about non-violence, they challenged the United States' involvement in war. Dr King continued his Riverside sermon with: "Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

His willingness to challenge the foundation of our nation stirred hatred and anger. Even now, we focus more on his encouraging "I Have a Dream" speech and ignore his words moments earlier as he challenged our nation for having "insufficient funds" for the "promissory note" given to African-American citizens.

Few of us speak of the fear and ignorance that continues to exist, even now, as people say "Can't we get past slavery?" when we are still segregated. At one church where I served our secretary was working on the January calendar, in which she included a photo of Dr. King. A church elder (yes, an elder) came in and sniffed displeasure. I said, "Don't you like Dr. King?" to which the elder unflinchingly replied, "As far as I'm concerned, Dr. King went to Memphis looking for trouble, he found it, and I'm glad." Dr. King's response would be, even as he preached at Riverside:

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind ... When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I'm not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love ... If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us." Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

The legacy of Dr. King is summed up by loving God and loving neighbor. The night before his martyrdom he preached on the parable of the good Samaritan and said, "And so the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'"

So, beloved, if we are to honor Dr. King, it is time to break the silence. As Maya Angelou sang at Coretta Scott King's funeral:

I open my mouth to the Lord, and I won't turn back, no -- I will go -- I shall go -- I'll see what the end is goin' be.

Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry is a pastor in Michigan who is looking for the next place where she might "break the silence."

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