Hear these things that he said that still ring true today:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
“The choice is not between nonviolence and violence. The choice is between nonviolence and nonexistence.”
“The long arc of history bends toward justice.”
“Human liberation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
“Segregation is the adultery of an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality.”
“When you are right, you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.”
“The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
“The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
“Nothing in this world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
“Justice is love correcting that which would work against love”—MLK
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
And of course, “I have a dream today. It’s a dream deeply rooted in the American dream…”
It’s all so inspiring. It is like a light that shines in the darkness. A light to all nations. And we wish and wonder and hope who the next Martin Luther King is going to be. We dream.
We tend to think about the early Martin Luther King. The King of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The King of the prophetic letter from the Birmingham jail. The king of the 1963 March on Washington. All of those images are etched in our memories. We resonate with the words of the I Have a Dream” speech, hauling out those 20-second soundbytes once a year to have us wax nostalgic about the dream, or to pat ourselves on the back by saying, since we now have a Black President, all of those dreams are fulfilled.
But I encourage you to look at the post 1964 King. This was the King who after accepting the Peace Prize moved his view away from simply race to also look at the need for economic parity and peace on earth. Talk about being a light to the nations. Hear what he said in 1967 in his famous, though often overlooked speech known as “the World House”. It makes up the last chapter of his final book, aptly titled, “Where Do We Go From Here?”
“Equality with whites will not solve the problems of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world society stricken by poverty and in a universe doomed to extinction by war.”
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.” Were he writing today, he would have used “brothers and sisters”.
In "The World House," Dr. King calls us to do four things: 1) transcend tribe, race, class, nation, and religion to embrace the vision of a World House; 2) eradicate at home and globally the Triple Evils of racism, poverty, and militarism; 3) curb excessive materialism and shift from a "thing"-oriented society to a "people"-oriented society; and 4) resist social injustice and resolve conflicts in the spirit of love embodied in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
He declared that we need to wage a world-wide war on poverty. This is where he gets really threatening. For he declares that it is our sacred responsibility to take care of each other. And the only way to do this is to redistribute wealth. He had the audacity to call on the wealthiest nations at that time: the US, Canada, Russia, Great Britain, Australia and others to donate just 2% of their national resources to alleviate poverty and suffering in Africa and South America. He called this The Marshall Plan for Asia, Africa and South America. He specifically said, “the aid program I am suggesting must not be used by wealthy nations as a surreptitious means to control the poor nations.” This would lead to paternalism and neocolonialism. It must come from a place of compassion and a desire for the betterment of all. As a side note, the IMF and the World Bank did exactly the opposite of what King suggested. They gave development loans (not grants) to third world countries only if they agreed to privatize utilities, transportation and develop goods for export. The result has been a deepening of world poverty even though we have the means to end it.
Like a good Baptist preacher, King called for repentance from the United States. He said that the West must enter into the program with humility and penitence and a sober realization that everything will not always "go our way." We must not forget that the Western powers were the colonial masters. "The house of the West is far from in order, and its hands are far from clean."
King declared in this speech (while our country was awash in the terror of war in Vietnam) that increased militarism would not solve the problems of the world. Indeed today we spend over 20% of our budget on the war machine, making our military spending more than the next eleven countries combined. And then we have the audacity to fight over who gets food stamps or unemployment benefits when the bloated military is the sacred cow to which we all sacrifice. It’s like a magician’s misdirection. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
"There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminates even the possibility that war may serve any good at all. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war." He dismisses the idea of a so called "limited war" in a nuclear age with these words: "A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil and spiritual disillusionment. A world war will leave only smoldering ashes as mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine."
King advocated until the end, the strategies of nonviolence. This strategy is not simply passivity. It is active work that transforms enemies into friends. It is a transformation of values. It is a lifestyle choice in which we see our opponents as distant cousins who are longing to be reunited in a world of peace.
Hear what he said 47 years ago. It’s still relevant and we’re still fighting the same battles: “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to school teachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood." This is our revolution. A revolution of values. Our sacred responsibility.
We wish someone would bring this light to the nations, because we need it ever so much right now. Who is the new prophet to bring a light to the nations that we can hear and follow today? Maybe it’s Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow. Maybe it’s the poet Maya Angelou. Maybe it’s the filmmaker Spike Lee, or the actors in Captain Phillips and 12 years a Slave. Maybe it’s someone we don’t even know just yet. Here’s the question, without a clear leader, who will take up the mantel? Whom will we follow?
If we know anything about Jesus’ ministry, the ministry that inspired King, it was that Jesus was uncomfortable with the label Messiah. Maybe even the label “light.” Whenever people tried to trumpet him as the messiah, Jesus said, “be quiet”. Don’t call me that. Instead do the work. You see, if everyone saw Jesus as the one unique, very best light, then when that light was snuffed out then the entire world would live in darkness. Better to build a movement that cannot be snuffed out. That’s what the resurrection is all about. It is about the resurrection of Jesus, sure, but more important, it is about the people taking on the mantel of being the light. Spreading the light. Doing the work that will bring about this reign of God, the kingdom of God, or the economy of God. We’ll talk about that part some more next week.
Martin Luther King, too, was not so much interested in being the light to the nations. He was interested in people recognizing their own light.
How are we doing on that? Are we lights to ourselves, our neighbors, our cities, let alone the nations?
The work we did on the marriage amendment is bringing light to the nations. I mean Utah and Oklahoma being the next states in line for same sex marriage? That’s the power of the light that we have spread from one to another.
May we have the courage to speak with the strength and conviction and analysis of Martin Luther King, for we remember what the prophet Isaiah said, "YWHW called me from the womb, from the body of my mother God named me. God made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of thy hand was I hid."
It is our sacred responsibility to educate ourselves and to never settle for business as usual if that business happens at the expense of our sisters and brothers in need.
It is our sacred responsibility to imagine an even better way.
In Isaiah, the servant calls to the coastlands. Calling to people from far away.
The servant is prepared, but fails to live up to the calling “I have labored in vain”(v. 4). God knows we have all sung that song.
But God says to us, all suffering servants, I will give you as a light to the nations in order to redeem and reclaim the true calling of all nations.
I will inspire in you the power to unmask evil, and banish narrow-mindedness, make willful ignorance a relic of an old world order. I will inspire you to remember your sacred responsibility, and we will be a light to the nations. And all will see clearly.
We will put aside racism, sexism, compulsory heterosexism, classism, militarism, even violence itself. When we live into our sacred responsibility to be a light to the nations we will hasten the day when all of God’s children would join hands and sing in the words of the spiritual, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last."
I am indebted to the sermon by Gary Percesepe, former Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America entitled, “Seeing Beyond the Dream Speech”, and A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. compiled by my Seminary Church History professor and advisor, the late James Washington.