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
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