Marking the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, The Washington Post’s On Faith section has a great collection of faith leaders’ personal reflections on the loss and legacy of Martin Luther King.
Rev. Sue Thistlethwaite (an FPL board member):
Dr. King’s message was so challenging to established power in the United States, power based on racial privilege, on militarism and on economic stratification, that he was killed for speaking out. It is no wonder that established power today wishes to domesticate Dr. King’s prophetic vision and co-opt it order to justify conflict.
But today of all days, today as we remember that 40 years ago Dr. King was killed for speaking out against unjust power, let us not be fooled. Dr. King was killed because he challenged racism, militarism and economic inequality. And if you are not doing the same, you have no right to claim this legacy.
Rabbie Arthur Waskow:
By noon on April 5, Washington was ablaze. It was touch and go whether 18th Street — four houses from my door — would join the flames. Just barely, our neighborhood’s interracial ties held fast.
By April 6, there was a curfew. Thousands of Blacks were being herded into jail for breaking it. But the police did not care whether whites were on the streets. So for a week, my white co-workers and I brought food, medicine, doctors from the suburbs into the schools and churches of burnt-out downtown Washington.
King’s ultimate vision was not just about race or nation, but new relationships — between people from different backgrounds, between America and the world, between humanity and God. That is why people from every country and faith derive inspiration from his legacy, a legacy best summed up in one of King’s final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community: “The great new problem of mankind (is that) we have inherited … a great ‘ world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu … Because we can never again live apart, we must somehow learn to live with each other in peace.â€
King does not belong only to people who look like him, or pray like him or speak like him.
King belongs to people who live up to his legacy of pluralism.
Rev. Bob Edgar:
I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a February day in 1968, when, as a seminary student, I took a long bus ride to Washington D.C. to hear him speak at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church about the connection between the cost of the war in Vietnam and its devastating impact on the poor.
His courageous words that day — earnest, unafraid, challenging America’s moral failings without judgment or alienation — changed my life. He inspired my political activism that came to include serving in Congress for 12 years, and now serving as the president of Common Cause.
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The Rev. Anne Howard writes:
Jeremiah (known now, of course, as Jeremiad) Wright preaches in a way that white preachers like me just don’t dare. And we don’t even know how.
Let me speak for myself: I come from a tradition of reserved Scandinavian Lutherans, and I know that no Minnesota pulpit of my childhood would countenance the kind of impassioned gospel that Rev. Wright proclaims–and certainly not about things that might be “too political”.
And I also know that the churches of my adulthood, my own Episcopal church and just about any other white Protestant church, is not familiar — to put it mildly — with the kind of preaching we see in Jeremiah Wright. We just don’t know that tradition. We just don’t know how.
We are subtle and nuanced when we broach a topic that might smack of politics. When we muster the occasional guts to preach a social justice sermon, when we dare to take on, say, this five-year war, or the need for immmigration reform, or a living wage, we are very very careful and we leave lots of room for interpretation and others’ views. Our version of “pastoral” often means “do not offend.” That’s how we’ve been trained, not to mention socialized.
Now, many of us would say that Rev. Wright was more than offensive with his anti-American comments, that his words were divisive and hateful. If any pollsters are paying attention, Jeremiah Wright’s ratings could be even lower than George Bush’s right now.
And I would say that his statement regarding the opposite of “God bless America” was both a bad choice of words and bad theology; the overarching evidence of the bible shows us a God who redeems and rescues, not a God who “damns” anybody or anything.
Still and all, my guess is that when Jesus dumped over those tables in the temple, his speech might not have been pretty.
And we need to remember that we preachers are called to preach truth to power: how do we do that? What words do we use to decry this 5-year war, our punishing neglect after Katrina, our head-in-the-sand response to climate change, the travesty of No Child Left Behind, our abandonment of our returning wounded soldiers, etc. etc. etc.
What words do we use?
For my part, I envy Jeremiah Wright and his outrageous audacity to speak stinging truth as he sees it from his unique perspective as a black pastor in white America.
Speaking the truth, we remember this Holy Week, leads to the cross.
The cross always carries a kind of irony. Brother Wright, with his outrageous and harmful choice of words, has made us face into one of the largest crosses in our American landscape, the cross of racism. Wright’s harm asks the rest of us to attempt healing, to use words that can be heard, words not of blame but of contrition, conviction and courage, words that name the crosses of our day.
Only if we face into this cross, and all the crosses we continue to plant, will we move through to the hope of Easter.
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You’d be hard pressed to find a clearer example of faith’s power to inspire and sustain social movements than African Americans’ long struggle for freedom and equality. From the beginning, when slaves found in faith the strength to endure (and in some cases resist) indescribable oppression, to the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement when Christians, Muslims and Jews gave their lives to the struggle, the cause of justice has always been rooted in and animated by religious faith.
As Black History Month begins, that is an example to honor, not just by listening to “I Have A Dream,” but by recognizing that the struggle is not over, and by involving ourselves in it. As long as we have separate and unequal education systems, unequal access to healthcare, and an ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots — all breaking down on racial lines — faith should compel us to act, in our own communities and in areas of greatest need. The best way to honor our heroes is to emulate them.
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I’m writing from my home in a section of Washington, DC, that burned after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
The motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, has preserved the room in which King spent his last night on earth, and in the anteroom you can play his “I have been to the mountaintopâ€ speech by pushing a red button. A wreath marks the spot outside where he died as his companions pointed at the shooter’s position. It is heartbreaking and inspiring, to an extent that dwarfs the power of words.
The Bible is replete with such powerful stories, and from time to time I thank God for animating them by guiding me to the history of civil rights movement (my undergraduate concentration), and especially to Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading and hearing the words of a person willing not only to challenge the powerful to honor the word of God, but to follow his Christian convictions to an early grave is humbling and gratifying, and it has repeatedly reminded me of the power of faith.
The fire that destroyed my neighborhood following King’s death must be viewed within the context of the world from which he was violently taken. While the rage of oppressed people consumed uptown Washington and gave grist to opportunistic segregationists, a few miles down the street the federal government was escalating a war that was antithetical to everything for which King stood. That he gave a speech condemning the Vietnam war and the socio-political structure that enabled it exactly one year before his death is a detail lost to the cliffs notes history fed to us by popular culture.
Some 40 years on now, we have a Martin Luther King federal holiday, but a mixed (yet sum positive) record of racial and socio-economic progress, and a seemingly steadfast commitment to the militarism and economic inequality King decried in his final years. In recent years it’s become common to commemorate Dr. King by using his holiday as a day of service; in keeping with his words and deeds, we should also use the day to call leaders to honor the teachings of the faiths they espouse.
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The National Labor Committee (NLB) reports that US-based Christian retailers are selling crosses made in Chinese sweat shops. Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLB, said “the factory’s mostly young, female employees work from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., seven days a week and are paid 26 cents an hour with no sick days or vacation. Workers live in filthy dormitories and are fed a watery ‘slop.’”
The Association of Christian Retail denied the claims in the AP story. Association president Bill Anderson’s statement downplayed the sweat-shop issue entirely:
While we occasionally hear this issue raised, and believe there are factories in China where human rights are violated, we believe claims that products sold through CBA member stores are made in these shops are irresponsible and unfounded.
His statement leads one to think that there may be a few human rights violations here and there, but that talking about them is somehow uncivil.
These workers, and millions like them, are left exhausted and dehumanized at the end of their work day. With one poor soul at the end of a 19 hour shift, crying out, “Jesus, take pity on me! I’m going to die of exhaustion.â€ Shouldn’t the primary consideration be finding the truth and remedying such horrible abuses? It’s irresponsible to dismiss these charges, not to make them.
These sweatshop crosses, most likely, were to be purchased as gifts. As we purchase gifts for our loved ones this holiday season, let’s support products from businesses that offer fair wages and livable, humane, working conditions.
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