A New Unity Sunday Gathering
Excerpt from “I Have A Dream”, by Martin Luther King, Washington D.C., 1963
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. *We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Excerpts from Abraham Joshua Heschel, Religion and Race Conference, Chicago, 1963.
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.”
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.
A prophet is a person who holds God and men in one thought at one time, at all times. Our tragedy begins with the segregation of God, with the bifurcation of the secular and sacred. We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. We think of God in the past tense and refuse to realize that God is always present and never, never past; that God may be more intimately present in slums than in mansions, with those who are smarting under the abuse of the callous.
What we need is a total mobilization of heart, intelligence, and wealth for the purpose of love and justice. God is in search of man, waiting, hoping for man to do His will.”
Message by Qaisar Siddiqui
What could possibly unite a Genoese conquistador, a New England statesman, and an Atlantan Baptist Minister?
That sounds like the beginning of a joke, but the answer is that Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Martin Luther King are so far, the only three men deemed worthy enough to have an entire day in the American calendar dedicated to their memory. Not that it takes too much. Indeed, if ever you wish to have a federal holiday named after you, all you need to do is pioneer a socio-political revolution of Copernican proportions and forever alter the course of human history. I’m sure there’s an app for that.
Like Gandhi before him, Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence and his untimely assassination have granted him a near-Messianic aura, while his “I Have A Dream” speech is as much a part of the American canon as Twain and Fitzgerald. Dr. King, alongside Columbus and Washington, looms large enough over the American psyche for generalisation and appropriation to become all but inevitable, and I can’t help but wonder if, when we set aside a day to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King - or Columbus and Washington, for that matter - we affirm only a secular divinity and not a lived humanity. Perhaps it allows us enough distance to pay superlative, if empty, respects to a man without demanding that we engage with a radical, flawed life and its potent message.
Nowhere could this distance be more obvious, than in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi; flashpoints in America’s tempestuous history with race relations, where the public holiday celebrating the country’s foremost champion of Civil Rights is shared with that of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general who led Confederate armies into battle for the sake upholding the institution of slavery. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described indifference, rather than evil, as the opposite of good, and the lip service paid to Martin Luther King’s birthday, jostling awkwardly next to celebrations of General Lee’s high treason, is indifference par excellence.
Our theme for this season is Justice, a theme that was central, not peripheral, to Martin Luther King’s theology. What I find most resonant about Martin Luther King’s oft-referenced, oft-repeated, and oft-perverted speech that he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that August afternoon, is the fact that, for all the progress the Civil Rights movement has made in the subsequent decades, so many of the injustices that Dr. King outlined remain. In an age where Cable TV news and her rent-a-pundit antics tell us that a black President represents the apotheosis of the Modern Freedom Struggle, and that endemic racism can be finally consigned to the dustbin of American history, public buildings and popular culture romantically yet stubbornly cling to the Confederate flag, while countless boulevards across the South continue to bear the names of those men who profited most from America’s original sin.
One must wonder how much - or how little - Dr. King would have had to have changed in his most famous speech, were he alive today. He’d only have to punctuate his description of the “unspeakable” police brutality disproportionately meted out to African-Americans with names like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice. How would Dr. King have reacted to pizzerias and wedding cake shops in 21st century Indiana, refusing service not to African Americans, but to the LGBT community on the grounds of “religious freedom”? Casting a brief eye over the circus the Republican primaries have devolved into, perhaps Dr King would speak of “children (who are) stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity” with reference to the Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s rabid attempts to dehumanize Muslims and refugees.
Yet Dr. King delved even further – not content with chastising visible segregation in the form of Whites Only signs and designated bus seats, he savagely rebuked the economic injustice of his age, pointing out how the future of his community at the time meant little more than “mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one”. Alongside his staunchly anti-war stance in the midst of the Vietnam conflict, Dr. King’s recognition of the interdependence of injustices disrupts our image of the sunny Baptist minister as fighting solely for the right to eat at a lunch counter. Martin Luther King wanted more than platitudes, more than symbols and the mere act of desegregation. He wanted a justice that was comprehensive, thorough, and equitable for black, white, old, young, rich, poor. But given his greatest successes remained the removal of the most visible symbols of American racism - rather than the primal causes - we naturally speak of liberation in the language of symbols, and offer nothing else. It makes me wonder if he would even have wanted his birthday sanctified and elevated to the status of public holiday.
In his speech at the National Conference on Religion and Race in 1963, Rabbi Heschel flagrantly compared the struggle for Civil Rights with the story of Moses leading the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, astutely noting that the story was far from over. By no means the first Jewish man to note the parallels between Exodus and the American South, Rabbi Heschel, on meeting Martin Luther King for the first time at the conference, remarked on the minister’s prophetic qualities, comparing his oratory skills to those of Moses as he commanded Pharaoh to liberate his people. Rabbi Heschel’s religion, of course, is all about symbolism. Judaism positively traffics in the use of light, song, textile and oil in demonstrating acts of faith. Yet the Hebrew texts are nothing if not works of law, philosophy, and ethics.
Yet Rabbi Heschel speaks not all stringent restrictions on personal conduct and hygiene, But instead draws on the lives of the Prophets, of Man confronted by spectacular awe and eternal love, and the radical pursuits of social justice that followed, in order to bring his interpretation of the Bible screaming into contemporary America. It shouldn't be easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea, than for an African-American to cross university campuses, or indeed to walk to the local off-licence to buy a pack of Skittles.
Ultimately, the problem is not the use of a symbol, but the loss of the meaning behind it. And in much the same way, the problem of lip service justice is the lack of love and meaning that could drive the movement forward into real justice and change.
Two years following his speech in Washington, Martin Luther King walked arm in arm with clergy from across religious divide, including Rabbi Heschel, at the march from Selma to Montgomery. Rabbi Heschel later wrote, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying”. The message is simple, but like the burning bush that confronted Moses, radical. To fight for justice without love, without passion, without humanity, is to pay lip service to an idea of justice. An indifferent justice, consigned to the second Monday of January, violates the spirit of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, and countless others, and we owe it to them and ourselves to engage not just our feet and our minds, but our hearts too, in the pursuit of social justice.
On Friday, January 27th, 1955, long before his triumphant speech in his nation’s capital, Martin Luther King returned home after his first night in jail. Recounting the insurmountable terror and anxiety he faced, Dr. King later wrote;
“And I got to the point that I couldn't take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, you can't call on daddy now, he is up in Atlanta 175 miles away. You can't even call an mama now. You've got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee…I never will forget it….And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
May it be so.