Monday, January 15, 2007

Remembering Dr. King

Icon by Dr. Robert Lentz, OFM. Via Trinity Stores.

Yesterday my overwhelmingly white Episcopal parish marked the secular observance of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday by singing the hymn "Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet." As happens every year, I cringed inwardly. Let's see if I can explicate why our well-meaning appropriation of Dr. King causes me such discomfort.

In the 21st century United States, you don't get a national holiday, and recognition by religious congregations, for being a shit-disturber. Even if you were one. (To my way of thinking we mark at least one other such, in late December.) If you were a shit-disturber, we do our best to milk the revolutionary content out of your story.

"Blessed Martin" risks this I fear. The tune is a little saccharin for my taste, but what really sets me off is that some of the lyrics, though historically accurate in their intent, are extremely comforting to those of us, mostly white, who would love to domesticate the good Doctor. (The full hymn lyric doesn't seem to exist anywhere on the net; I've reproduced it at the end of this post for readers' reference.)
  • "Holy God, you raise up prophets; Praise and honor do we sing..." I'm reminded that "prophets are without honor in their own country." We don't like them much when they are around. Dr. King was jailed, spat on, and hounded by the F.B.I. throughout his life. Much of the country considered him a "communist agitator." Some, such as the so-called "Christian Party" still does -- I don't link to hate sites, but Google the names if you doubt this.
  • "your humble servant" Dr. King undoubtedly was humble toward his Creator, but principalities and powers, sheriffs, governors and even the Kennedy brothers, found him dogged and insistent that they render justice. We would do well to remember that King; his courage in the face of the unjust is what we need to find and emulate.
  • "Moral conscience of his nation, reconciling black and white..." and " Teacher of Christ-like non-violence to the outcast, poor and meek" Dr. King certainly sought to reconcile black and white -- by encouraging Black folks to demand that white folks get their feet off Black folks' necks. Here's his take on non-violence from an article in Christian Century.

    This is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence.

    ... This method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces.

    ...As I like to say to the people in Montgomery, Alabama: "The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for 50,000 Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may happen to be unjust."

  • "Preacher of Christ's love of neighbor, He won Nobel's prize for peace; Peoples, beat your swords to ploughshares, Wars' txixt nations all shall cease." In 1967, against the advice of that era's "moderates," King spoke out calling for an end to the United State's war in Vietnam. In a speech delivered at Riverside Church to assembled religious dignitaries, he insisted:

    I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin ... the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

    A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

    The challenge to our nation's leaders and values is no different today, despite several more generations of digging our own grave of imperial arrogance and material delusion.
  • Finally, the refrain: "You the mountaintop did see..." I wasn't Biblically literate enough to immediately catch the reference here. Maybe most of us are. When King declaimed "I've been to the mountaintop," he was referring to Moses catching a faraway glimpse of the land promised by God to the wandering Hebrew tribes that their leader, Moses himself, would never enter. King spoke these words in an address to striking Memphis sanitation workers the night before he was shot by a sniper. He was revving the crowd up for a non-violent march that everyone feared might be met with violence. He was very down to earth and then he soared.

    It's alright to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day....

    Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

At this distance in time, it is hard to recall that the most potent word describing what Black people were struggling for in the 1950s and 1960s was not "desegregation," or "equality" or even "civil rights" -- the central word was "freedom." Freedom doesn't domesticate easily. The struggle for freedom requires looking at and throwing off our fears. In a song of that time, "freedom is a constant struggle." Nothing about that struggle, or Dr. King, was -- or is -- comfortable or easy.

Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet

Holy God, you raise up prophets;
Praise and honor do we sing,
For your faithful, humble servant,
Doctor Martin Luther King.

[refrain after each verse]
Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet,
You the mountaintop did see;
Blessed Martin, holy martyr:
Pray that we may all be free.

Moral conscience of his nation,
Reconciling black and white,
Dreamed he of a just society,
We must carry on his fight.

Teacher of Christ-like non-violence
To the outcast, poor and meek;
Greater weapon 'gainst oppression
Is to turn the other cheek.

Preacher of Christ's love of neighbor,
He won Nobel's prize for peace;
Peoples, beat your swords to ploughshares,
Wars' txixt nations all shall cease.

Champion of oppressed humanity
Suf'ring through all the world;
He offered pride and dignity
Let Christ's banner be unfurled!

So, when felled by sniper's bullet,
Under heavens overcast,
He could cry, "Thank God Almighty,
I am free, I'm free at last."

From Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal , [Episcopal] Church Publishing Company. There is an associated recording from the Office of Black Ministries.


sfmike said...

Lord, that is truly an awful hymn. And your essay was wonderful. I stopped by the Official Celebration at Bill Graham Auditorium today and came away with a lot of the same feelings about King being appropriated by all the wrong people.

Fr. John said...

This is a very provocative and thoughtful post, especially in light of a conversation I've been following on an Episcopal listsereve, in which several (white) clergy were seeking to outdo each other in how they marked the day; indeed, condemning those who didn't.

White folks speaking of Dr. King is no doubt fraught, yet speak of him we must because he spoke to us (not simply about us) so powerfully.

Context is everything: I suppose this hymn sung in an Afro-Anglican congregation might evoke a different response.

One other thought I had reading your post: I think Dr. King spoke the hardest words to the victims of racism, who were exhorted to love their enemies. Not sure how that relates to your post . . .

janinsanfran said...

John -- I very much agree that context is everything. I think this hymn would not be so open to misinterpretation in an African American congregation.

I think you are quite right that the most difficult message King carried was to the direct victims. About finding it in ourselves to forgive, I think it is not uncommon that we can more easily forgive the wrongs done directly to us than wrongs done to others with whom we identify.

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