Over the course of 2008 the issue of race has become a subject of conversation for many Americans. The political candidacy of Senator Barack Obama has guaranteed that this would happen. And the preaching segments of Dr. Jeremiah Wright, seen for days on national television, forced us all to have a "brief" conversation about race once again. After saying that he would not disown Wright Senator Obama then chose to do exactly that. Wright responded by reminding us that Obama is a politician and that this is what he knew he would eventually have to do. My guess is that he meant that in a mostly positive way but I am not sure.
What I am sure of is that all prophets, of all colors and types, cannot be good politicians. I watched the PBS video, Citizen King,
this weekend and was made aware of this by rethinking the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. The video covers a five-year period of King’s life leading up to his assassination in April of 1968. These were his most active years of national work to bring about an end to systemic injustice and racism. The story begins with the struggle in Birmingham and ends with his last hours in Memphis. This is an excellent video that explores these five years by using a number of great interviews and a large amount of video footage from the era. Diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts, friends, journalists and political leaders all appear and thus give the film rich texture.
There are a number of things in this presentation that reminded me of the power of Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak with integrity to moral and social issues. Less than a year before his death Dr. King decided to express his open misgivings and opposition to the Vietnam War.
People around him argued about the responses that he should give but the platform King chose was the famous Riverside Church in Harlem. There, on April 4, 1967, a year before his death, he preached a sermon in New York that was featured on this film. Here is a portion of what Dr. King said:
I speak as one who loves America and the leaders of our own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours, the initiative to stop it. . . . Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force, to be a sort of policeman for the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America "You’re too arrogant! If you don’t change your ways I will rise up and break the backbone of your power and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I am God."
I was so taken by this portion of Dr. King’s sermon that I played it several times and then wrote down the words printed above. I was moved to ask: "Where are the voices in our day that have the platform and the willingness to say such a thing to the powerful in America, found obviously in both political parties?" These were the powerful words of a moral and spiritual prophet who refused to allow politicians to silence him.
President Johnson was angered by this sermon. He felt that King owed him a lot since he had promoted Civil Rights legislation and welcomed him to the White House on several occasions. (After this speech Dr. King was never invited to the White House again!) To LBJ, a consummate politician, King’s reponse was seen as a politically stunning move against him. King knew that he was not attacking Johnson as a person but rather speaking to power as God’s public servant. LBJ, in private, called King (after this sermon), "a nigger preacher."
King went on to lead "the poor people’s campaign" until his death. When he died he was in Memphis to support a strike by the garbage workers who were grossly underpaid and working in unsafe conditions. (Two had been killed in an accident and this sparked an open protest!)
So King died serving the weakest and poorest people in Memphis, the garbage collectors. This is truly a fitting context for the end to such an amazing life.
Here is the point. King was respectful toward LBJ but he never entered the political arena and thus never became a partisan. In fact, he was not a social reformer or a politician if the truth be known. He was a minister of the gospel who wanted to see freedom and justice for the weakest of those who were Christians and citizen of the U. S. He remained a faithful minister/prophet until the end.
The film includes a clip from a young Senator Robert Byrd, one of the biggest hypocrites and pork spenders in U. S. history, who attacked King publicly in 1967 by saying that when the trouble started King always ran away. It is pretty stunning to watch this man, who now acts so self-righteous and holy in his very partisan speeches, display his true colors, colors which are plainly rooted historically in his membership in the KKK as a young man, a membership he will not talk about now.
The more I have read and studied Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life the more I have become amazed at his unique greatness. He did not live the good life. He was flawed and openly admitted it. But he rose above those private flaws and restored his marriage and his love for his wife and children. (This information came about via J. Edgar Hoover’s wire-tapping his phone so they could find something with which to discredit him with in public.) But King rose above all of this and laid down his life for his God and his prophetic calling.
The one aspect of his preaching that I most disagree, and this only became prominent in his last year, is his approach to economic solutions for the the poor. During the "poor people’s campaign" he said, "We cannot solve our problems without a radical redistribution of economic power." I profoundly disagree with this solution and believe it will not solve the economic woes of poor people. This form of socialism is so appealing to well-meaning young Christians but it is fraught with massive problems. What African-Americans need, and many now have, is equal access to education and jobs. We are not where we should be but we’ve made progress. If the church can help solve community problems, especially the in breakdown of morality and the family, then the system may yet work for all if justice prevails. (Unless you are a radical socialist you know that Utopian ideas very often drive this agenda and these will always fail.)
The question we still face is I think is this: "Can we embrace racial diversity and personal freedom, as well as economic diversity and social freedom, in a context of moral responsibility that will benefit the least among us and maximize true freedom in the very best Constitutional sense?" The way to do this is where there will always be legitimate debate. While unfettered wealth production can spoil a nation it need not do this, especially if we can again see the kind of moral courage that Dr. King lived as a prophet, not as a politician.