MLK + 50: An American Jubilee Year of Truth & Transformation

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow 4-04-2016

April 4, 2018 — two years from now — will be the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

April 4, 2017 — one year from now — will be the 50th anniversary of his speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, at Riverside Church in New York. There he warned us of the “deadly triplets” of racism, militarism, and materialism that were endangering America. (And still are.)

His friend and co-worker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was heard to mutter that by giving this profoundly radical speech he had signed his death warrant – and indeed, exactly one year later, he was murdered.

There is an old slogan — “Don’t mourn for me — organize!” But in our generation, coming up on 50 years after Dr. King’s death, both mourning and organizing seem appropriate.

What kind of organizing?

Throughout American society, we could make the year from April 4, 2017, to April 4, 2018, a year of truth, repentance, and transformation — through action as well as emotional and spiritual reflection.

We could make it a year for renewing the struggle to end the malignant impact of racism, militarism, and materialism and to move toward what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

The ministers of Riverside Church and the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, a group of progressive religious leaders in the Los Angeles area, have already decided to plan for a year of action dedicated to those ends.

The murder of Dr. King crystallized in one moment a thread of violent history in American efforts to “make America real:”

  • Genocide of the Native communities;
  • Slavery, “post“-slavery racism in segregation, the Klan, lynchings, and “the new Jim Crow” of mass incarceration;
  • The long history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of violence against labor unions;
  • A long history of imperial wars, from the war against Mexico to the war to subjugate the Philippines through many violent interventions in Latin America to Vietnam and Iraq;
  • The imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in 1942;
  • The gun violence that is uniquely horrific here as compared with every other industrial country;
  • The violence done other life forms on this continent and now the deep and near-mortal wounding of Mother Earth through global scorching.

Americans have never collectively and at a spiritual level faced this part of our history, seen it as a continuing self-inflicted wound, done penance for it, and committed ourselves to work against it in all its manifestations.

For this “MLK + 50: An American Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation” there could and should be a serious effort to address these streaks of violence and oppression in our history and our present.

If activists around the country were to take the initiative to use his Riverside speech as the beginning point a year before, it would be far more likely that the year would address Dr. King in his fullness and his focus on the root causes of American dysfunction, rather than the vanilla-washed version of him so prevalent in the mass media and official political discourse.

April 4 in 2017 and 2018 come close to major Jewish and Christian festivals. April 4, 2017 is the Tuesday before Palm Sunday. And the first night of Passover is the following Monday. In 2018, Palm Sunday falls on March 25; the first Seder is Friday night, March 30; and Easter is on April 1.

These festivals celebrate resistance to tyrannical power — Pharaonic Egypt and Imperial Rome.

Passover celebrates the successful resistance of what A. J. Muste called “Brickmakers Union Local #1” against slavery under Pharaoh, and also recalls the resistance of the Earth itself through what we know as the Ten Plagues.

The Christian Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, which commemorates a protest march led by a radical rabbi from the Galilee, aimed against the Empire and its local puppet government in Jerusalem. This march was called for the days just before Passover — no surprise, for when better if the marchers were protesting Imperial tyranny?

Holy Week continues by commemorating the Thursday of the Last Supper — a Passover Seder; Good Friday, commemorating the Empire’s torture and execution of its leading troublemaker; and Easter Sunday, commemorating new life reborn and resurrected from disaster.

All these festivals celebrate freedom from tyranny over human communities — especially foreigners, workers, the poor. Passover’s commemoration of the Ten Plagues — all ecological disasters brought on by Pharaoh’s arrogance and cruelty — also reminds us that tyranny over humans and ruination of the Earth go hand in hand.

So the timing and the meaning of these sacred days fit well with the themes of the life and death of Dr. King.

To begin the year: On or about April 4, 2017, there might be gatherings of clergy and laity concerned about America, echoing the “Clergy And Laity Concerned About Vietnam,” whom Dr. King was addressing in 1967.

In that speech, King named the racism, militarism, and materialism that haunted and endangered America then – and still. The “materialism” he challenged encompasses three triplets of its own: the despiritualization of society; the worsening inequality of wealth and income into hyper-wealth and broader, deeper poverty; and environmental degradation.

Today we face not only the disastrous war that Dr. King denounced but an even more deeply embedded system of domination through racism and economic injustice. Even worse, we face the emergence of major political leaders and followers with a strong stink of fascism in their policies, their language, and their actions.

Anniversary gatherings could spark and plan continuing actions, in the spirit of Dr. King’s Riverside speech and of his actions against racism and war, his strong support for labor unions of the poor (like the garbage workers of Memphis for whom he died), and his commitment to nonviolent resistance.

To end the year, we should issue a Call for a National Fast on April 4, 2018, together with special religious services everywhere and people taking off from work, to atone for the bloody streak of violence that has marked and marred American history.

In Jewish life there has grown up a profoundly serious wordplay rooted in Yom Kippur. In English, it is known as the Day of Atonement. The wordplay sees it also as the Day of At-One-ment, the day when we not only atone for our misdeeds but turn toward The One — the Source of Life, the Unity of all. Both Atonement and At-One-ment are what a National Fast Day on April 4, 2018, would aim at.

During the entire year, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other community-rooted groups around the country could agree to make the following a constant effort:

  • Arrange study groups and teach-ins to examine Dr. King’s Riverside speech and other inspired and inspiring documents like Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, and in the study process to explore how to address the issues raised there.
  • Hold monthly religious services on the theme of religious and spiritual transformation of America beyond racism, militarism, and materialism.
  • They might also undertake nonviolent direct action of three basic types: teach-ins or freedom schools, actions that directly challenge centers of egregious violence and oppression, and grassroots models that actually embody in the living present our vision of the kinds of future institutions that Dr. King called the Beloved Community.

There are three profound illnesses afflicting American society and perverting our politics today. One is embedded in economic oppression — the collapse of the white “middle class.” Another is the economic and quasi-military subjugation of the black community through disemployment, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Both these oppressions stem from the greed of those who rule America – the “1 percent.”

The third, however, stems in part from the inaction or hostility of many progressives. That is our failure to enrich the American culture in ways that include and celebrate not only those cultures that are seen by many working-class white Christians as “new” and “strange” — independent Hispanic, Muslim, and black communities — but also precisely the white evangelical communities that now see themselves forlorn and ignored.

When the economic pressures on the white working class are reinforced by this sense of cultural marginalization, the result can be — to some extent already has been — a burst of rage against “the stranger” that borders on fascism.

Creating an American Jubilee Year of Truth & Transformation, using religious language and spiritual practice, could aim to create a more inclusive American culture and to address this sense of cultural despair, as well as the oppressive misuse of economic and police power to dominate “outsiders.”

That would be a crucial step toward the “Beloved Community.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center.

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