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Text: a Readers’ Theater of passages from
Scripture and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On a map, Mother Emanuel AME Church is just one mile from Charleston, South Carolina’s Old Slave Mart Museum, the site of a complex where countless human beings were fattened and oiled, ogled and appraised, auctioned off and paid for like so many cattle. Dylann Roof reduced that short distance to nothing, bringing into the open-spaced bottom floor of that historic church building, into the shared devotion of a Bible study, the full measure of racist hatred and the death-dealing violence of white supremacy.
On a calendar, the time between Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, and Inauguration Friday at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., is 52 years. But the soon-to-be president’s denigrating tweets about the leader of the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge make it seem in some ways that no time has passed at all, that the African American struggle for voting rights, equality, and justice still continues, same as it ever was.
In our minds, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may be no more than a figure of history, especially if we were not even born until after his death. His prophetic words may ring quaint and naive to our hardened 21st-century, Black-Lives-Matter ears, much as Jesus’ words of liberation and enemy-love must have sounded to many of his contemporaries.
In our hearts, we might revere Dr. King and even look forward to honoring him once a year, even as we wonder what, if anything, his legacy means in these days of voter suppression, increasing inequality, and ongoing incidents of unarmed African Americans being killed by police. We remember what he said about “the moral arc of the universe,” how it “is long but it bends toward justice,” but if we’re honest we have to admit that some days we’re not so sure.
In our lives, and in the life of our nation, we long for the kind of prophetic moral leadership he provided, leadership that challenged us to rise up in the face of injustice and to live into the fullness of our very best, made-in-the-image-of-God selves. We long for leadership that cannot be bought, that will not give into fear, that keeps expanding the struggle for justice, that succumbs to nothing short of an assassin’s bullet.
What we are feeling, of course, is discouragement and disempowerment. But what we who have lived lives of privilege and power are experiencing is but a fraction of the rejection, diminishment, and fear African Americans and other oppressed groups live with virtually every day.
While it is important today and tomorrow to remember Dr. King and recommit ourselves to all he stood for, while it is absolutely necessary today and every day to seek to follow the Jesus way, we must understand that this has less to do with how we feel, as people of privilege, less about how we are doing, than the welfare of what Howard Thurman called the “masses of [people who] live with their backs constantly against the wall. … the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.” 2
Before we can march for ourselves, before we can strategize and organize for the building of the beloved community, we must simply listen to those who live, in one way or another, with their backs against the wall.
Last week, in a rare episode of brilliant social relevance on network television, the “Black-ish” character Dre gave us a window into the world of the disinherited. Accused by his white boss of not caring about what is happening in our country, he said:
“I love this country even though at times it doesn’t love me back. For my whole life my parents, my grandparents, me, for most black people, this system has never worked for us. But we still play ball, tried to do our best to live by the rules even though we knew they would never work out in our favor, had to live in neighborhoods that you wouldn’t drive through, send our kids to schools with books so beat up you couldn’t read them, work jobs that you wouldn’t consider in your nightmares.
"Black people wake up every day believing our lives are gonna change even though everything around us says it’s not. Truth be told, you ask most black people and they tell you no matter who won the election, they don’t expect the ’hood to get better. But they still voted because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
“ . . . I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind, so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains. I love this country as much — if not more — than you do. And don’t you ever forget that.” 3
(How is that for a little perspective?)
Dr. King said that even as a black man growing up under segregation, he had not been “actually confronted with the trials of life” until he got involved in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. But as opposition to the movement grew, as he and his family began receiving a torrent of threatening phone calls and letters, he found himself “faltering and growing in fear.” Late one night, after taking a particularly unsettling call, he began pacing the floor, arguing with God, insisting that he was not up to the task of leading a movement, he could not do the job alone.
“At that moment,” he said, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready for anything. …
“Three nights later,” he continued, “our home was bombed.”
The year was 1956—long before Dr. King would assume the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and go north to raise money for the movement, stopping along the way to speak at a church supper in Amherst, Massachusetts. All this was long before the struggle for voting rights, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the Civil Rights Act, the Poor People’s Campaign, and his opposition to the Vietnam War.
Things would get still more difficult and dangerous, but Dr. King was able to go on, he said—to stand up, rise up and fight on— because “God is able.”
“My experience with God had given me new strength and trust,” he explained. “I know now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.
“Let this affirmation be our ringing cry,” he preached. “It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and [God] is able to make a way out of no way, and to transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better [people]. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.” 4
The God who is love is able to empower God’s beloved children. The God of all is able to walk with all. The God of the enslaved and oppressed is able to make a way out of no way. The God who hears the cry of the poor is able to lift them up. The God of resurrection is able to bring new life out of death, and a significant forward movement out of a what feels like a scary step backward.
Let this be our ringing cry, let this be our enlivening hope, let this be the solid ground of our sometimes wavering faith, let this be the loving tie that binds all humanity together:
God is able.
God is able.
God is able.
1 This is also the title of a sermon preached by Dr. King, perhaps more than once, but for the first time at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, most likely on January 1, 1956, which would have been early in the bus boycott. It is included in the book “Strength to Love,” the first collection of his sermons, first printed in 1962 or ’63. The original edition says the sermons were chosen because they “deal with the personal and collective problems we all face in these days of grave crisis. In this, Dr. King has sough to bring the Christian message to bear on the social evils that cloud our world.” My paperback Memorial Edition, which was printed after his death, is literally falling apart.
2 Howard Thurman, “Jesus and the Disinherited.”
3 I highly recommend the entire episode, called “Lemons,” on ABC.
4 From “God Is Able.”