Prophetic Words Will Never Fall to the Ground: Remembering Dr. King

“Where do Human Rights come from?”

That was the question that greeted our group of weary pilgrims. In June of last year, a group of 12 of us arrived in El Salvador pretty tired. We’d come for a conference on Human Rights, an immersion with our new partner organization Cristosal in the country. In order to make our connecting flight in Houston, our group gathered at Lambert at 4:15am, and Noah, the executive director of Cristosal greeted us with a profoundly philosophical question. “Where do human rights come from?”

I came back to Noah’s question this week as I thought about Dr. King. On April 4 this year we will mark 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Tomorrow the civil rights leader would have celebrated his 89th birthday. In his last Sunday sermon, preached at Washington National Cathedral, Dr. King talked about the work of Civil rights as a revolution. He said our country was experiencing a triple revolution:

“that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.”

He talked about his moment in history as a “Human Rights Revolution” and a “freedom explosion.” If he were alive today, I wonder how Brother Martin would characterize our moment? Is the explosion still going on? Are we still experiencing a Revolution of Human Rights?

I am a bit self conscious asking these questions because speaking of Dr. King, let alone speaking for Dr. King, can be a problematic proposition. We like to put Dr. King in a particular box. Many of the history textbook chapters and physical monuments to to the leader, many of the ways Dr. King is now talked about by media and politicians, ignore how unpopular the preacher was in his own day. King was controversial, even to those who supported civil rights for black folk. After President Johnson signed the voting rights act, he thought his struggles with Dr. King were over. Then brother Martin announced his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He also announced his plans to organize a “Poor People’s Campaign,” tying the work for racial justice to work for economic justice.

To further complicate matters: these days in the Episcopal Church we consider Martin Luther King to be a martyr and a saint, but that hasn’t always been the case. Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail was written, in part, to the Episcopal Bishops of Alabama. Bishop Carpenter and his elected successor George Murray (along with Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, and Baptist colleagues) had published “A Call For Unity.” They called Dr. King an outsider, and asked him to leave the state. They called his demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” I don’t bring up our Bishops’ statement for the sake of drama, but to name that history is often more complicated than we would like. We all like to imagine, if he were alive today, that we would be marching in the streets with Dr. King. But our legacy as a church complicates the question. We do not have an unblemished history of Human Rights.

It can be tempting to think of people like Dr. King as such heroes, such saints, that they become unapproachable. But in all truth, Brother Martin struggled. He wrestled with his call. In his book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” the theologian James Cone describes Martin up at night, worrying for his family. It was the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the young pastor received a telephone call threatening to blow up his house, his wife and his young child. That night, King recalled how his fear “drove him from bed to the kitchen where he prayed, ‘out loud,’ ; pleading ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord I must confess…that I’m losing my courage.'”

He recalled the words he’d heard earlier from an “elderly unlettered woman, who was ‘affectionately called Mother Pollard.’” Like a wise matriarch, she saw through Dr. King’s confident speech that night. She came up to him, confronted him, said, “you can’t fool me…I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?” Before he could respond she said, “I don told you we is with you all the way…But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.”

Even saints need their saints.

That night, Dr. King needed Mother Pollard. He needed that word of blessed assurance. As we read in the first book of Samuel today. God’s voice often sounds like the voices of our friends and mentors. Young Samuel hears God and three times he thinks Eli is speaking. There’s a truth in this humorous story of mistaken identity. Samuel hears the voice of God and he recognizes that voice as the voice of a mentor, a friend.

Where have you heard God’s voice? Who has been God’s voice for you? Who has put words to God’s call for you? Who has been God’s voice encouraging you to do the work?

I would venture that it is dangerous to speak for brother Martin because his words have become such a clarion call for so many of us, for our nation, for our world, as we consider Human Rights. We recognize that in America before Dr. King, like in Israel before Samuel, “the voice of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread.” And God sent a prophet. God sent a vision, a dream. Dr. King’s words still matter. His sermons are still relevant. His dream is still on the horizon. His words are still prophetic, still challenging for our time.

For so many of us Dr. King’s words have become a measuring stick, and in recent months, in recent days, the meter has been running dangerously low. The words that have been used by leaders in Washington, by our president, are frightening, are reprehensible, and are too vulgar to say from the pulpit. So today I want to venture two brief reflections on our current state of affairs. I won’t claim to speak for Dr. King, I could never do so, but I will say reading his words alongside our Scripture for this week has shaped my response to our strange times.

My first reflection is based on penultimate line from our reading from the prophet Samuel.:

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.”

The words of a prophet are prophetic because they have a life bigger than the speaker. The name a reality and they name a way out. Prophetic words matter because they do not belong to the prophet, they belong to God. Prophetic words endure. But if that is true, than the converse must also be true: it is better to let some words fall to the ground. Some words don’t deserve to endure.

Maybe I have reached a point of “outrage fatigue,” but this week after the reports came out about the president’s description of immigrants from African and Caribbean countries, I could barely muster an eye roll. I wonder how much his use of twitter, how much his choice of outrageous words, is a calculated distraction. Did you notice that after he used his vulgar words, we stopped talking about the 200,000 Salvadorans who stand to lose their immigration status? So far his choice of outrageous words does not always correlate directly with an abuse of human rights. There is a bit of a screen going on. So can we, at least in some cases, take up the invitation of Scripture and let his words fall to the ground? Can we let go of the outrage, disarm the distraction? If these words are attention seeking, can we deny that attention?

Peddling in outrage hardly ever pays off. For his own day President Johnson, the president who worked with and criticized King, was considered pretty crass. He was frank and spoke off the cuff. He made fun of political opponents. So I dare you: take a piece of paper and write out all of the quotes you can remember from President Johnson. Then add another column, and just off the top of your head list the quotes you can remember of Dr. King. God does sometimes let the words of presidents fall to the ground. So could we react a little less, knowing that all the sound and fury might not be worth our time? I offer this first reflection, because I think some of our response to our day could be deeper. We could do with less distraction.

My second reflection on our state of affairs relies on the first:

Could we let go of some of the distracting outrage so that we can make room for hope?

In the Gospel this morning Jesus calls Nathanael, but first Nathanael profiles Jesus. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He asks. Bias is as old as the Bible. Older even. But notice, notice, Jesus lets his words fall. He keeps after Nathanael. He calls the man to follow him. Notice how quickly Nathanael turns. Nathanael encounters Jesus with bias, yet Jesus encounters Nathanael with grace. When this “Israelite in whom there is no deceit” encounters Jesus, he recognizes the divine spark. Don’t forget, this is a story of call. Suddenly Nathanael’s life, Nathanael’s story is tied to the story of this man from Nazareth, this hated other. The joke is on Nathanael. We remember his name because he threw his lot in with Jesus.

That is reason to hope. Even those of us who are unconsciously biased, even those of us who think we have all the answers and shoot off our mouths, we too are able to be changed by an encounter. God’s work in this world is so compelling, so revolutionary, that even the hardest of hearts can be turned. Even the most self-assured can become a disciple.

When we arrived in El Salvador Our bleary eyed pilgrims encountered a question: “Where do human rights come from?” For Christians, following Dr. King, following Jesus, the answer is simple and profound. Human rights come from God. We are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Governments do not create human rights. And so governments cannot take human rights away. That is not within the power of any leader, of any politician. Governments simply have the power to recognize human rights. When they fail, it becomes the duty of God’s people to organize, to vote, to compel the government to recognize God-given rights. Revolution becomes a real and hopeful possibility.

Until Dr. King’s “Revolution of Human Rights” is complete, we live in hope, and we listen for a vision, even in a time when visions are rare. Keep dreaming. Keep working. Keep moving forward. We shall overcome. God still has a word, and prophetic words will never fall to the ground. In the midst of it all “God’s gonna take care of you.”

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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