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Saturday, February 19, 2011


Forty years later we listen again to these urgent words of choice.  Can it really be forty years?  The number of years evokes biblical images of wandering, of long years between escape and entry, between Exodus and the Promised Land.  The Mosaic character of Dr. King's ministry reminds us of another choice echoing through the ages:  "See, I have set before you today life and death, blessing and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendents may live."  Near the end of his own prophetic ministry, Moses gathers the people following their forty year sojourn in the wilderness.  Milk and honey may lie beyond the river, over the mountain top, but here on this side of the Jordan there is the urgency of decision:  chaos or community, life or death, blessing or curse.
By the time King preached his sermon the civil rights movement had splintered over tactics and generational conflict in the face of the persistence of racism and the readiness of those in power to hand out partial rights without threatening their own privilege.  By that night in April, 1967 the anti-war movement was roiling across the land as the violence in Southeast Asia entered into its long final crescendo of death and deceit, a crescendo that sadly would take years rather than months.  From the elegant pulpit at Riverside Church King would embark on his last crusade organizing poor people into a campaign against poverty here and throughout the world, a campaign that would end among garbage workers in Memphis with the shots that rang out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  Racism, war, poverty.  Forty years later this unholy trinity remains our deepest shame and our highest calling, joined now perhaps by the recognition that life itself on this planet hangs in the balance.  Today, as then, we face the urgency of now.
Yet for forty years we have allowed ourselves the luxury of thinking we had time to respond.  Most of us have made our wilderness journey one of privilege and leisure where evangelical faith is often replaced by mere respectable religion.  The most popular president of these forty years was eulogized by this satirical lament:  "He borrowed from the future so he could live in the past."  Where is the urgency of now?  What would King see forty years beyond his own mountain top vision the night before his death? 
He would see Katrina, the Jena 6, the rush by almost every presidential candidate to demonize mostly Spanish speaking immigrants as the gravest of threats to our culture, our economy, and our security, the surreal but persistent media attacks on one of our own congregations – Trinity Church in Chicago – calling it racist in order to undermine the credibility of an African American candidate who happens to be one of its members.  He would see the readiness to torture innocent and guilty alike in part because they are Arab, and in all of this he would direct people of faith to the urgency of now. 
He would see the exaltation of violence enshrined in a doctrine of war that replaces last resort with preemptive assault, a crusade built on the fiction of weapons of mass destructions that justifies the sacrifice of its youth with words of mass deception, the human rights debacle of Guantanamo and the evil of Abu Ghraib, and he would tell us that all this points us to the urgency of now. 
He would see the scandal of the sub-prime mortgage debacle that lands so heavily on the poor, the number of children without health care growing steadily on the tide of veto-proof indifference, the fact that we listen mostly in vain for presidential debates to take seriously the question of poverty while Matthew's and Luke's beatitudes are turned on their head by candidates rushing to display their religious credentials:  "Blessed are you who are wealthy and even you who are middle class, privileged though insecure, for yours is the kingdom of God."  And through all of this he would points us to the urgency of now.  When will peace and poverty, racial prejudice and the future of the planet get on the ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, Florida and California?  Or will this presidential election, like so much of our public rhetoric, only be about more walls, more weapons, and more privilege for those already wealthy?

1 comment:

  1. this was an excellent choice in view of "Black History Month" I have forward to Facebook. Thanks.