MLK, Jr. day will again be celebrated this year with articles about his leadership in the civil rights movement and the recording of his famous “I have a dream” speech. He will rightly be remembered for his courage, his oratory, and his commitment to the practice of nonviolent direct action as the means of achieving his legislative and societal goals.
But there is another level of MLK's memory that will not as likely be mentioned, much less celebrated, and that is the uncomfortable challenge and power of his prophetic voice. As difficult as the prophetic voice is to hear - let alone follow - we need MLK's clear voice, perhaps more than ever, the prophetic voice that opposed exploitation of the poor and the neglect of the marginalized, and instead challenged us to live up to the high values and ideals of our nation’s founders and the nonviolent teachings of Jesus. (To be fair, the contemporary "Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival" led by Dr. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis is providing a contemporary version of MLK, Jr,’s vision, and I recognize and honor their work with deep gratitude.)
Dr. King’s close friend and colleague, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, led a number of other leaders who supported each other in sounding the prophetic alarm during the tumultuous 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements. They spoke out against not only the evils of racism, economic exclusion and exploitation of the poor, but against the prevailing economic system of greed and power that plundered the poor and profaned the riches of the world, all enabled by an unbridled US military and the complacency of the wider society.
The challenge of the prophetic voice, according to Rabbi Heschel, is "to have the courage to face a coalition of callousness and established authority, and, more importantly, to change the hearts of the people as well as revolutionize history.” The prophetic voice, he continues, “is the voice God has lent to the silent agony of the world.” It is a voice that reminds us of the compromised moral state of a nation and its people and discloses its corruption and its indifference to suffering. It is a call to remind us that, in Heschel’s most memorable quote: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” I think this describes well the prophetic ministry of MLK, Jr. as well.
No one wants to hear a judgement on themselves and their community, and we understandably resent it when it happens. And sometimes, of course, the prophetic voice is no more that a rant against one’s opposition. The authentic historical voice of the prophet, however, is a call to reckoning and to encourage changes that will address societal injustices and will create a new or renewed commitment to justice in the present. I am deeply convinced that unless we are able to actively support a prophetic effort to promote the process of truth-seeking and truth-naming about our past that leads to a more compassionate vision for the future, we will not effectively activate the reconciling and redemptive power of love and the restorative power of truth that make that reckoning possible. As difficult as it may be to accept the vulnerability that love and truth entails, we must hold a center of trust and mutual respect that enables reconciliation of the differences among us that then will allow us to amicably and effectively work together as most of us really want to do.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we will continue to be tempted to honor the more comfortable mental image of a beloved hero who can then be all too easily dismissed with a street name or a plaque on the wall. But I believe the MLK, Jr. that history will ultimately honor will be for his courageous prophetic voice that calls us to radical nonviolence and the building of a more just, compassionate sacred trust as we strive to maintain and protect our God-given world, as dangerous and challenging as it may be.
I will close with the heart-felt connection I personally have with the MLK, Jr. legacy. At the heart of King’s prophetic voice we sense his profound remorse for our nation’s racism and divisions, but we also hear his deep, personal love for his country, for its people, for its promises of providing for the human dignity and freedom that would allow each of us to be able to strive for our full potential regardless of the color of our skin or our social standing. When we feel discouraged about how that level of love can ever replace hatred and dominance, we can remember the life and prophetic legacy of MLK, Jr. that provides us an example of the revolutionary power of his commitment to nonviolence. And the best way to initiate and activate that kind of compassion, of course, is to remember that it begins with each of us as we personally face down all that divides us with grace and humility, especially in our relationships with all those with whom we have differences. I am grateful to MLK, Jr. for his inspiration and example.