a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland Maine,
Sunday January 20th, 2008
OPENING WORDS: from “A Knock at Midnight” by Martin Luther King Jr.
“Faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just. When [some]one believes this, [they] know that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate. They can walk through the dark night with the radiant conviction that all things work together for the good for those that love God. Even the most starless midnight may herald the dawn of some great fulfillment.”
I’ve been thinking an awful lot this past week about the idea of martyrdom, especially after hearing our preacher last Sunday, Marta Valentin, paraphrase a sentiment I’ve so often heard attributed to Martin Luther King, that a person who doesn’t have something worth dying for has nothing worth living for. It sounds so logical in its grammatical structure, and yet one thing that has always bothered me about this sentiment is that it also seems such a short leap of logic (or maybe you could call it “faith”) from having something worth dying for to having something worth killing for; or at least the willingness to take the lives of other people as your sacrifice your own to whatever noble purpose you’ve chosen to die for. Personally, I’d just as soon leave the dying and killing part out all together, and reframe the question in a different way. How do we determine what things in life are truly worthy of our devoting our entire lives to them?
About fifteen minutes research on the internet and you will find that the original form of this quotation was: “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” And apparently it’s something that Dr. King plagiarized from one of his most important intellectual and inspirational role models, Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi. Some years ago I happened to see an interview with the actor Ben Kingsley, who observed that the secret to his successful characterization of Gandhi in the renown Richard Attenbourgh film of the same name, was his realization that Gandhi was not so much a saint who "stooped" to participate in politics as he was a politician struggling to become a saint.
I've thought an awful lot about that apparently offhand remark as well since first hearing it, especially at times like this, in the midst of a prolonged and hotly-contested political campaign. Why is it that professional politicians are so universally held in such low esteem, so much so that even honest-to-God “saintly” individuals (like, say, Jimmy Carter or even Al Gore) invariably appear "compromised" in the public eye when they attempt to participate in the political process? I can’t help but be reminded of yet another story I once heard about the syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers, who was approached one evening by a member of the Senate at an Embassy Reception in Washington D.C.
"So you're Ann Landers," the Senator remarked. "Say something clever."
To which Ms Landers immediately responded "So you're a politician. Tell me a lie."
Political activity is the lifeblood of a democratic society; it is the means by which the will of the people becomes the law of the land. Yet for some reason we find it all too easy to believe that those who choose to practice politics as a vocation are motivated principally by their own personal ambition -- that they are avaricious, deceitful, with only their own personal advancement in mind, rather than motivated by a heartfelt devotion to public service and the best interests of their constituents and fellow citizens. It’s as though we believe that “true” saints must somehow be "above politics" -- unsullied by the strange bedfellows encountered in smoke-filled cloakrooms. Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread; and Saints, of course, are expected to behave like angels. Politicians on the other hand, remain free to behave like fools.
But what about that rare politician, like a Mohandas Gandhi, who struggles to become a saint -- who seeks to express through his or her political convictions the high ethical and humanitarian principles of a profound and deeply authentic religious faith? Actually, I suspect that this sort of politician is far more common than we suspect, and that our appreciation of their efforts depends considerably upon the degree to which our own political opinions are in agreement with theirs. The road to sainthood is long and arduous, and the dividing line between “saint” and “fanatic” is typically razor-thin; many are called but few are chosen; ultimately only history will decide whether or not the struggle was fruitful. Sainthood and the Aspiration to Sainthood are hardly one and the same. Indeed, so rarefied is our view of the former that often merely the appearance of the ambition to attain it is enough to taint its purity in our eyes.
Yet it would be equally misleading to assume that only those who do not seek it -- who have their greatness thrust upon them -- are somehow deserving of the mantle of our praise. The essential inner quality of sainthood is a peculiar combination of humility and arrogance: the arrogance to believe that one's deeply held principles and convictions are important enough to make a difference, and the humility to recognize that this challenge cannot be met by aspiration and personal strength of will alone.
Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 years old when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, an ad hoc black community group which had been organized to oversee the now famous Montgomery Bus Boycott. As best I can tell, judging from everything I have read, he probably didn't even want the job. At the time, King had been pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for less than two years, and had only completed the final requirements for his Ph.D. at Boston University that previous spring.
Furthermore, his selection as President of the M.I.A. was an overtly political choice. As a relative newcomer to the city of Montgomery, King had yet to become too strongly identified with any particular element within the black community, and thus it was felt that perhaps he could provide precisely the kind of neutral leadership that would allow all of the rival factions within that community to come together in this one common purpose. There was a downside consideration to his nomination as well. Should the boycott fail (as many of the more experienced black community leaders believed it might), this young preacher could easily be sacrificed without endangering these more established leaders' hard-earned credibility with both the white establishment, and their own constituencies.
Knowing this side of the story, one might easily say that Martin Luther King did indeed have his greatness thrust upon him, and with the unanimous consent of older, wiser, and more politically savvy colleagues at that. But this would be only part of the tale. More importantly, there was an inner quality to this young preacher, a “seed” of saintliness if you will, which, once exposed to the light, blossomed forth into a strength which enabled him to endure receiving dozens of threatening letters and telephone calls each day; to survive slander and harassment by police and other government authorities; to have the front of his parsonage blown off by dynamite while his wife and few-month-old child huddled in the kitchen...to experience all of the doubts and fears and pressures to which the human soul is vulnerable, and still not lose sight of the larger aspiration: a goal which in its very rightness and importance dwarfed both his abilities, and his frailties, as a human being.
To be sure, in many ways Martin Luther King Jr. simply happened to be in the right place, at the right time. But the reason we honor him with a national holiday on his birthday is because he also happened to be the right PERSON to be there in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Yes, there was an inner quality of greatness to him. But more importantly, he did not shy from his responsibilities when the need to express that greatness presented itself before him.
From Montgomery, as we all know, King went on to face new challenges and achieve new triumphs: in Birmingham and Selma, in Washington D.C. and Oslo, Norway, where he became the youngest man ever to receive a Nobel Peace prize. Yet I've often wondered whether or not King's greatest challenge and achievement might not have been related to the conflicts which he faced within his own soul, such as the temptation to "retire" as it were from the Civil Rights movement, and accept a lucrative post somewhere in academia, or to spend more time with his wife and his children, away from the death threats and the FBI wiretaps; to grow old in the bosom of the liberal white establishment, lecturing to wide-eyed admiring freshmen about Socrates and Jesus, Gandhi and Thoreau, while writing best-selling books for Harper and Row.
And don’t kid yourselves, these options were certainly made available to him many times. And yet he chose instead to continue in the role which destiny had thrust upon him there in Montgomery in 1955; and this, to me, seems a far more telling mark of King's true "saintly greatness" than any of his other achievements or laurels. It is not merely because King achieved great things that we celebrate his birth as a National holiday. It is also the price he was willing to pay in order to achieve these things -- not for his own personal benefit, but for the benefit of an entire society.
It is difficult for those of us who lack this inner quality of saintliness, this peculiar combination of humility and arrogance, to fully understand what was at stake in Martin Luther King Jr's decision to continue along the path that destiny had chosen for him, a path which eventually led to his death on a motel balcony in Memphis. There have been those who have suggested that King was, in fact, a megalomaniac, or that he suffered from a "martyr complex;" that his ego was such that he simply could not step out of the national limelight once he had tasted the sweetness of being Time magazine's "Man of the Year."
Nothing, I think, could be further from the truth.
King himself knew better than anyone what was at stake in the drama that was being played out in his frail, mortal human existence. And he spoke of it simply in terms of "The Strength to Love:" the power of God's own overflowing, passionate, creative love for human kind manifesting itself in a single human life. Perhaps it was a form of megalomania, a delusion of grandeur of the most grandiose proportions. But it was also an ultimate act of personal surrender, a martyrdom of the self in the truest sense of that word, as witness to a creative power for justice far greater than one's own power or creativity.
In the final analysis we must recognize that it was not delusion, but vision, which animated King's career as a civil rights reformer. Commentator Garry Wills has noted that the changes which Martin Luther King Jr. brought to American society were "so large as to be almost invisible." In a few short years, King and those who worked with him swept away an entire system of American apartheid which had existed in the South for nearly a century. Men and women of my generation have had no experience of "whites only" lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountains; we have been educated in integrated schools, voted for and elected black politicians, patronized black-owned businesses; and, for the most part, we have done so without giving it second thought.
I think it’s even fair to say that many Americans now even understand that the whole idea of “race” itself is simply a figment of our imaginations: a social convention and shared fiction with no real basis in biological science, which we have taught ourselves to see, generation after generation after generation. Yet even though the idea of Race may have no basis in reality, the ideology and historical legacy of Racism are still very real. The Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators are still alive and kicking; access to jobs, housing, justice, and educational opportunity is still not completely color blind. In many ways racism has become much more subtle, even sophisticated, in the 21st century; it has replaced its white sheets with pinstriped suits, and is fueled as much by the ignorance of the well-intentioned, who wish that the problem would simply "go away," as it is by the malice of those few kooks who would just as soon trot Jim Crow back out of the closet, if they thought they could get away with it.
In contemporary America, skin color has in many ways become a symbolic marker of social class. Successful Americans of African heritage: Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Denzel Washington, and many others I’m sure we all could name, are perceived by dominant “mainstream” society as merely a little darker shade of white; while the essential “blackness” of the hip-hop inner-city urban youth underclass is so well-established that even a highly-respected community leader like Bill Cosby can be sharply criticized for his “political incorrectness” in suggesting that “it’s not what [white people are] doing to us. It’s what we’re NOT doing [for our own children].” And how many of your can remember the recent kerfufle over whether or not Barack Obama (with apologies to Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Alan Keyes and Carol Moseley Braun) was really “black” enough to serve as America’s first “serious” African American Presidential candidate?
Yet underlying this ongoing and complicated societal conversation regarding skin color, social class, and competing cultural identities, Dr. King's vision of a truly pluralistic, inclusive, and democratic society, in which individuals are judged by the quality of their characters and not the color of their skins, remains a vivid beacon of our future, untarnished in the half-century which has now elapsed since the bus boycott in Montgomery first brought this amazing man to our national attention.
It’s a little known fact (and one that typically doesn’t show up on my resume), but my former wife and I spent our honeymoon in Atlanta. It’s kind of a long story: she was living in Seattle, I was living in West Texas, and our minister lived in Boston -- but it just so happened that we could all get together during the third week in June at the UUA General Assembly, so I wrote to the Fulton County clerk and got a license and we tied the knot at midnight on the longest day of the year. It was the only time either of us had ever been to that city; but while we were there we had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, which is located just up the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, "Daddy" King's church, in the neighborhood where young M.L. King spent his childhood. It was really the only "touristy" thing we did while we were in Atlanta (we were much too busy being newlyweds to bother with such foolishness as plenary sessions or the Coca-Cola museum), but we made the most of it; we even bought each other T-shirts at the gift shop. And we were also able to spend an hour or so in the small museum there, which is filled with memorabilia of the Civil Rights Movement, and Dr. King's ministry.
The one exhibit I found most fascinating was that of Dr. King's preaching robe, a robe not so different from the one I'm wearing now. It surprised me to discover that he was actually a rather short man; I had always envisioned him as some sort of giant, yet I doubt the man whom I imagined could have ever squeezed into the tiny robe I saw hanging there in that glass case. Nor would he have had to. For I realized in that moment, standing there in awe before that tiny robe, that stature is not always a function of physical size.
Nor is the significance of a life extinguished by death, when all which that life stood for still burns within the hearts of others. There is a vitality to all that Martin Luther King Jr stood for, an immortality if you will, which still lives today beyond the grave.
It is a vitality which grows from the capacity for self-sacrifice, from the willingness to stand faithfully in the presence of evil, and surrender one’s ego to the truth of a higher principle.
It is an immortality born of our Strength to Love....
READING: from The Kennedy Imprisonment by Garry Wills
The 1960’s was a period obsessed with power – the power of the American system, or power to be sought by working outside it; the power of insurgency, or of counterinsurgency; the power of rhetoric and “image” and charisma and technology. The attempt to fashion power solely out of resource and will led to the celebration of power as destruction – as assassination of leaders, the sabotage of rival economies, the poising of opponent missiles.
The equation of real power with power to destroy reached its unheard refutation in the death of our charismatic leader, [John Fitzgerald Kennedy]. As children can wreck TV sets, so Oswalds can shoot Kennedys. The need to believe in some conspiracy behind the assassination is understandable in an age of charismatic pretensions. The “graced” [leader] validates [their] power by success, by luck. Oswald, by canceling the luck, struck at the very principle of government, and it was hard to admit that he was not asserting (or being used by) some alternative principle of rule. Oswald was a brutal restatement of the idea of power as the combination of resource with will. Put at its simplest, this became the combination of a [mail order] Mannlicher-Carcano [rifle] with one man’s mad assertiveness. Power as the power to conquer was totally separated, at last, from the ability to control.
Robert Kennedy’s assassination gave lesser scope to conspiracy theorists – no one knew, beforehand, his route through the kitchen. With him, the effect of sheer chaos was easier to acknowledge (though some still do not acknowledge it – they think purposive will rules everything). What was lost with Robert Kennedy was not so much a legacy of power asserted as a glimpse of a deeper understanding, the beginnings of a belief in power as surrender of the will. He died, after all, opposing the caricatures of power enacted in our wars and official violence.
But another man was killed in the 1960’s who did not offer mere promise of performance. He was even younger than the Kennedys – thirty-nine when he was shot, in the year of Robert’s death at forty-three. There were many links between the Kennedys and Martin Luther King – links admirably traced in Harris Woffords book on the three men. Together, they summed up much of the nobler purpose in American life during the 1960’s. Yet there was opposition too – Dr. King, more radical in his push for racial justice, was far more peaceful in his methods. Robert Kennedy, however reluctantly, used the police powers of John F. Kennedy’s state to spy on Dr. King, to put in official hands the instruments of slander. King was a critic of the space program and war expenditures. King, though more revolutionary in some people’s eyes, was not “charismatic” in the sense of replacing traditional and legal power with his personal will. He relied on the deep traditions of his church, on the preaching power of a Baptist minister; and he appealed to the rational order of the liberal state for peaceful adjustment of claims advanced by the wronged. His death, at tragic as Kennedy’s, did not leave so large an absence. His work has outlasted him; more than any single person he changed the way Americans lived with each other in the sixties. His power was real, because it was not mere assertion – it was a persuasive yielding of private will through nonviolent advocacy.
Since he relied less on power as mere assertiveness of will, mere assertiveness of will could not entirely erase what he accomplished. He had already surrendered his life to bring about large social changes, constructive, not destructive. He forged ties of friendship and social affection. He did not want to force change by violence or stealth, by manipulation or technological tricks. His power was the power to suffer, and his killer only increased that power.
The speeches of John F. Kennedy are studied, now, by people who trace their unintended effects in Vietnam and elsewhere. The speeches of Martin Luther King are memorized at schools as living documents – my son could recite them in high school. “Flexible response” and “counterinsurgency” are tragicomic episodes of our history. But the Gandhian nonviolence preached by Dr. King is a doctrine that still inspires Americans. My children cannot believe that I grew up in a society where blacks could not drink at public water fountains, eat in “white” restaurants, get their hair cut in white barber shops, sit in white theaters, play on white football teams. The changes King wrought are so large as to be almost invisible.
He was helped, of course – he was not a single mover of the charismatic sort. And he was helped not so much by talented aides as by his fellow martyrs, by all those who died or risked dying for their children or their fellow citizens. While Washington’s “best and brightest” worked us into Vietnam, an obscure army of virtue arose in the South and took the longer spiritual trip inside a public bathroom or toward the front of a bus. King rallied the strength of broken men [and women], transmuting an imposed squalor into the beauty of chosen suffering. No one did it for [their] followers. They did it for themselves. Yet, in helping them, he exercised real power, achieved changes that dwarf the moon shot as an American achievement. The “Kennedy era” was really the age of Dr. King.
The famous antitheses and alliterations of John Kennedy’s rhetoric sound tinny now. But King’s eloquence endures, drawn as it was from ancient sources – the Bible, the spirituals, the hymns and folks songs. He was young at his death, younger than either Kennedy; but he had traveled farther. He did fewer things; but those things last. A mule team drew his coffin in a rough cart; not the sleek military horses and the artillery caisson. He has no eternal flame – and no wonder. He is not dead.