I was a vigorous supporter of establishing a national day of recognition for the life and prophetic ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. When the legislation was passed in 1983, and finally officially first observed in 1986, I made a personal pledge that I would spend part of each subsequent MLK day in service and deep gratitude for King’s courageous leadership in opposing Jim Crow and other areas of economic exploitation and injustice. So my Saturday Evening Post tonight is my ongoing adherence to that pledge, and I dedicate it to his memory on this, his birthday, January 15, when we was born in 1929. He would be 93 today.
MLK day will be celebrated this year again with articles about the civil rights movement and the recording of his most famous “I have a dream” speech. He will rightly be remembered for his courage, his oratory, and his success in leading the struggle for voting rights. Some will be especially appreciative, as I am, of his commitment to the practice of nonviolent direct action as his steadfast means of achieving his legislative and societal goals.
But there is another level of MLK's memory that will not likely be mentioned much less celebrated, and that is the power of his prophetic voice. As difficult as the prophetic voice is to hear, let alone follow, during this chaotic time we miss hearing MLK's clear voice that opposed exploitation and challenged us to live up to the values and ideals of our Constitutional and biblical heritage. (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 and his close friend and colleague, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, supported each other in sounding the prophetic alarm during the tumultuous 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements (among others). They spoke out against not only the evils of racism and economic exclusion and exploitation of the poor, but against the prevailing system of greed and power that plundered the poor and profaned the riches of the world, all enabled by unbridled US military power. MLK Jr’s public legacy will undoubtedly be his success in addressing systemic racism, but his more important historical legacy will be his courageous faithfulness in naming the disastrous systems of exploitation while also challenging 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, according to Heschel, “is the voice God has lent to the silent agony of the world.” It is a voice that reminds us of the moral state of a national and its people and discloses its corruption and its indifference to suffering. It is a call to remind us, in Heschel’s most memorable quote: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” I think this describes well the prophetic ministry of MLK.
My honoring of Martin Luther King, Jr. will always be for his faithfulness to dare to speak that fearful, lonely, dangerous voice of the prophet. In these days when society, in columnist David Brook’s words, is “coming apart at the seams” with anxiety and meanness, we need to hear the uncomfortable truth of our complicity with injustice if we are to ever achieve reconciliation.
No one wants to hear judgement on themselves and their community, and we understandably resent it when it happens. Perhaps the most grave part of our contemporary life is that a large section of our nation not only does not want to hear that voice, but actively, even violently, opposes it even being said. But I am deeply convinced that unless we are able to activate the redemptive power of love and the restorative power of truth, as difficult as it may be to accept the sacrifices and vulnerability that love and truth entails, we cannot hold a center of trust and mutual respect that provides the ability for any or all of us to work together.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day we will continue to be tempted to honor the self-satisfying mental image of beloved hero who can then be all too easily dismissed with an inspiring photo in the paper, speeches at a breakfast, a parade, or a plaque on the wall. But the MLK, Jr. that history will ultimately honor needs to also be honored with our equal commitment to nonviolence as we also seek a more just, compassionate and sacred trust of our God-given world.
At the heart of King’s prophetic voice we can also sense 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 what seems like a prevalence today of hatred and dominance, we also know that each one of us, including those caught up in hatred and violence, also has the God-given potential for kindness and compassion. The best way to initiate and activate love and compassion, of course, is if it begins with each of us.