What Would Martin Do?
Isaiah 62:1-5;Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
As we celebrate the life and witness of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s easy to talk about “King the dreamer” or “King the drum major for peace and justice,” but there was another side to King. As Randall Kennedy wrote in a forum article in the Plain Dealer some years ago, King was a boat rocker with a “. . . discomforting willingness to challenge Americans’ accepted ways of life. …” Making them “…profoundly uncomfortable… “
As I read snippets from his speeches and other reflections on his life, I was struck by the fact (and more tellingly that more than 50 years since his death) that we are still a deeply divided nation and a world that needs to be challenged – that needs to be reminded about who we are and what we are called to do.
2016 is vastly different and yet so unchanged from the world Martin walked. Poverty, inequality, hatred and fear still stalk our streets and the death of all hope in the extinguished lives of children is a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. Like me, I think he would be at a loss to find God (or at least a God recognizable to him in what passes for legitimate sociopolitical debate). In all the noise, the one thing I hear clearly (and which I think would sadden and perhaps frighten him deeply) is this sense of a world still badly divided in which there is not enough:
It’s easy in such a world for some to believe they must get theirs first and leave the dregs for the rest and they willingly use their gifts and talents, power and politics to get their way. In such a world, what would Martin say and most importantly what would Martin do?
First he’d cry and then he’d raise his eyes to God for his marching orders. Martin would likely make us uncomfortable as he’d challenge us to find and be our better selves. Toward the end of his life, many saw the Prophet Martin’s powerful oratory and even more powerful witness as way too political. Which begs the question - what’s this thing about the Church and being too political anyway? And yes, I know about the separation of Church and State. But let’s get real, at every turn, Christ spoke truth to power, challenged the status quo, turned the money changers out and taught that the last and the least of us would be first. He was a rabble-rouser and boat rocker and if that ain’t political, I don’t know what is.
King’s witness to and engagement in the world reflected his belief in a gospel grounded in the life of an activist Christ. Shaped by such faith, Martin didn’t mince words. One of King’s most controversial speeches was his eulogy for the four young African American girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963. King in essence called out faith communities everywhere for their silence and inactivity in the face of such martyrdom stating that:
“…these girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and spoiled meat of racism … they have something to say to each of us black and while alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”
Our fear of being seen as too political makes it too easy to allow caution to silence our prophetic voices, leaving us with, as Dr. King said, “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” The Prophet Martin would challenge us by asking what is political about the cry for justice and the yearning for peace. He’d want to know what’s wrong with wanting to earn the same wages for the same work or being treated with dignity and respect.
Dr. King would affirm that the achievement of all of these things are a reflection of the beloved community, of what God’s kingdom in the here and now would and should look like. Just as he spoke such heartfelt truth in that eulogy, he would bluntly tell us that prayer, while needed, is not enough. If we can’t, don’t or won’t advocate for such things, we cannot assert that we are a faith community professing Christ as Lord. If we walk with Christ, we must be Christ’s voice and Christ’s hands in the world. As such, we must not be afraid to speak truth to power and set our hands to work for peace.
Thankfully I don’t think that “…an uncertain sound” is a problem in this place, given the diversity of voices reflecting on the intersection of scripture and our journey in the world. I am sure, given some of the topics God has laid on my heart, that some might say that I am sometimes too political or too focused on African American themes in my sermons. All I can do is own both of those things – as I am an African American women raised during the last half of the 20th century (and all that means). As a deeply faithful woman, I see the African American journey as a reflection of the journeys all of us share on this planet.
Clearly, the African American journey, deeply-rooted in issues of faith and power, is the well from which Martin drew his prophetic vision and voice. I also see the strong link between scriptures’ call for us to bear witness – and what I believe was the call to speak truth to power that Martin heard and acted upon. He didn’t stop there, as his vision led him to give voice to issues many saw as beyond the scope of a black preacher from Georgia. He saw that amidst the challenges that shape our various lives, our concerns are no different as we seek to live in peace; make a living wage; be accorded dignity and respect in our engagements with others; and finally, to leave the world a better place than we found it for our children and our children’s children.
What would Martin do? He would say “cry if you must, pray because you must and then lift your eyes to God for your marching orders.”
He would push us to move beyond our red doors and embrace the message at the heart of our scriptures today, which run counter to that narrative of a glass-half-empty, telling us that there is abundance in God’s kingdom and economy. As Paul tells us, God has chosen and equipped us with the gifts necessary to be his voice and hands in the world. We are witnesses to Christ and the good news revealed at the wedding feast of what the world would and should be like when God is among us - none will go without and the best is yet to come.