Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Great, But also Good
It is hard to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. as an 83 year old man. We who have aged without him remember a vigorous man of early middle age who seemingly drew from a bottomless well of physical energy and moral passion, whose sonorous voice never seemed to tire. Maturity rested on him not so much from chronological years as from the enormity of the national emergency he sought to address. If, at times, he appeared older and wearier than his years, it was likely the occasional experience of melancholy that Gardner Taylor saw in all great preachers, the pathos of the preacher and prophet whose sensitivity to the suffering of others and to the righteousness of God registered with a kind of gravitas not to be confused with sadness and an urgency not to be mistaken for naiveté.
Pondering what might have been save for those stolen decades of the young prophet’s life is no doubt a useless exercise, perhaps even perilous. What has ensued in this land since 1968 is, in the end, our responsibility, not the fault of an assassin in Memphis. That we lacked his clarifying voice when we needed it most, perhaps above all in the days when our response to 9/11 was being shaped for good and for ill – more for ill I’m sad to say – is to be mourned. But we bear the burden of what has become in recent years a sad betrayal of many of his most cherished commitments.
Could those of us who shared our youth with King have imagined that we would observe his 83rd birthday in a country where state legislatures are engaging in a full scale assault on voting rights, cynically depriving African Americans and others of the core sign of full citizenship in this democracy simply to make partisan gain? Could we have anticipated a nation that has been at war for over a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars whose lies and deceptions, deaths and futility bear such an eerie resemblance to the conflict in Vietnam he spoke against so courageously and eloquently? Could we have thought that a mainstream politician in 2012 would feel comfortable once again rhetorically reducing African Americans merely to food stamp recipients (most of whom are white, by the way), betraying not only the persistence of racism but also implying that there is something evil about a government that seeks to feed children and the elderly?
Racism, poverty, and war were the terrain King sought to illumine with his prophetic critique and his Gospel hope. Our willingness to allow all three to thrive, indeed to grow respectable in his absence suggests that were he here for his 83rd birthday the country would treat him as the fading grandfather whose stories are endured more as entertainment than instruction, and whose birthday candles are seen more as the wishful thinking of a dreamer growing slowing out of touch than as real hope fueled by the flames of corporate repentance and renewal.
That said, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday should not be relegated to lament any more than it become simply another excuse for a welcomed three day weekend. Professor James Washington, who edited the definitive edition of King’s writings, linked him to a “tenacious tradition of social reform” whose prophets and martyrs attacked what historian Sidney Ahlstrom called the “radical inequality and massive forms of oppression [that] have been features – fundamental features – of the American way of life.” “These Americans,” Washington wrote,
“believed America could not only be great but also good. They saw something fundamentally noble about a nation of people who believe character should be a corporate as well as an individual virtue.” Washington went on to note that “consensus faded when the nation sought to unpack the contents of its national moral creed.”
It was, of course, this corporate ambivalence which cost many of these reformers and martyrs their lives.
To our generation has now been given the task of unpacking the nation’s moral creed. Ambivalence can be read everywhere, most prominently these days in the mean rhetoric of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, but also in the weak resignation that has overtaken so many of the rest of us. It is work done today in the face of resurgent racism, American imperialism and militarism, and an epidemic of poverty. Many overtly partisan and tragically partial agendas will no doubt be linked to King on his 83rd birthday. Washington, writing in the mid 1980’s, captured the real significance of the holiday with his haunting question about its meaning: “Whether this symbolic act is seen as an example of shrewd political subversion or a majestic action of national repentance for the violation of sacred beliefs in democracy, justice, freedom, and peace, depends greatly on how thoroughly America with address those injustices that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life to eradicate.” Like the ancient prophets, King knew how to weep over his people. But he also shared their deep understanding of providence, the arc of justice that is long and sure because, in the end, it is of God. Perhaps it is in that spirit, then, we are still able to say gratefully, “Happy birthday brother Martin!”
John H. Thomas