This is the annual weekend dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. With each passing year, following his 1968 assassination at age 39, his significance in the American Narrative has grown. On a very short list of contemporary prophets, I rank him at the top. And when I say prophet, I am placing him squarely/appropriately in the Jewish Christian Prophetic Tradition.
Evolution of the Prophetic Tradition in Ancient Israel
Let me sketch for you how the Prophetic Tradition evolved through the history of ancient Israel as recorded in Hebrew scripture.
The Jewish Prophetic Tradition revealed God's design and will to humankind. The prophetic tradition progressed through three historic stages:
At first, more than 3000 years ago prophets gathered in guild-like groups and engaged in ecstatic practices in which they would lose their self-consciousness in a God-consciousness. Ethics were not part of the first stage of prophecy.
In a second stage, known as the Non-Writing Prophets through 850 BCE, particular prophets filled with God's spirit, emerged from the guild-group as inspired individuals to personally and dramatically confront egregious injustices. The names of some of the Non-Writing Prophets are familiar: Elijah, Elisha, and Nathan. Two stories illustrate how this second group of prophets dared to challenge the king for his immoral behavior. Until then, no one dared question royal prerogative.
In one tale, Elijah berated King Ahab, who through state trickery stole the vineyard of Naboth, which Ahab had coveted. God told Elijah to go to Ahab and say: "In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood."
David and Bathsheba tells a similar story. David lusted for Bathsheba. To make her available for his pleasure, David sent her husband Uriah to the front lines of the battlefield to be killed, which he was. Hearing of this, Nathan the Prophet went to King David and relayed God's displeasure over this injustice, promising to David that he would reap what he had sewn. What he'd done to Uriah, Nathan prophesied, God would similarly do to him— taking David's wives and giving them to other men.
These two tales from the Non-Writing Prophets tell of a radical innovation: royal prerogative was subject to a higher, that is God's, law; and more significantly, the royals could be called to account by ordinary people in whom God's Justice burned—ecstatically! This challenging of authority in the name of Justice was a radical departure in the course of civilization.
The third stage of the prophetic tradition, 800 through 400 BCE, involves the great Writing Prophets, who left behind books that became scripture. The Writing Prophets—including Hosea, Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah—lived in a morally decadent era, when the rich and powerful of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah lorded it over the enslaved, the poor, women, children and other underprivileged. The great Writing Prophets spoke out against not merely corrupt individuals, but against the whole corrupt social fabric that had become the people Israel and the nations of Israel and Judah. These Writing Prophets invoked the demands of the covenant relationship Israel had with God, even as they intoned God's displeasure. They warned that God's righteousness would punish an evil people who had abandoned right relationships with God and with one another. The moral imperative they proclaimed was simple: establish what we now call social Justice—an equitable and fair society kept through "laws" that reflected transcendental (or Divine) ideals, not selfish special interests.
A Progressing Heritage
The progressive ideal of social Justice realized through the Prophetic Tradition in ancient Israel are early and secure links in a long chain that have made Justice a centering principle of Western societies. Justice has passed from the ancient Jews, through several millennia of complex evolution, to come to us today in ever expanding understandings. (Whether or not the ancient Jews came up with the varying aspects of Justice all alone or borrowed and adapted from surrounding peoples is moot. But it is a fact that the ancient Jews focused Justice as a beacon for the ages.)
Whenever I read the founding sentiments of our nation, phrased by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, I hear a resonance with ancient Israel. In particular, two related notions strike a harmonious chord: the notion of the Divine in every person (rudimentary humanism) that comes from ancient Jewish doctrine that humankind was formed in God's image and the notion that Justice has a transcendent source. Recall now, Mr. Jefferson's words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
I think it's relatively easy to recognize that what we have come to cherish as "unalienable Rights" have a sure resonance, if not a source, in Judaism's remarkable parlay of covenant, election, humanism, and Justice. The Jewish religious and ethical consciousness firmly established society's purpose not in politics or power, rather in transcendental ideals.
Though we may no longer take literally the covenant notion that sooner or later God will punish injustice, especially an unjust society, we may well take that notion metaphorically. Injustices, especially borne by the so -called “underprivileged" have in them the seeds of their own destruction. As Huston Smith phrased it, "The prerequisite to political stability is social Justice; it is ingrained in the nature of things that injustice breeds its own demise."
Wisdom guides us toward Justice, certainly. But prudence also guides us toward Justice. It's politically prudent in the short term and matter of survival in the long term to create a social system of Justice that is fair and serves everyone from the most powerful and privileged through the weakest and most underprivileged. Indeed, the Justice-deprived demand special attention so their oppressions will be lessened. True social Justice has in it the practical imperative of egalitarianism, if only equal opportunity or a level playing field, otherwise the society will eventually perish. A Prophet-voice for broad Justice resounds as passionately now as it did 2500 years ago.
I identity certain contemporary liberal attitudes and outlooks with a Jewish sense of Justice that has informed our cultural outlook that includes:
· sensitivity to civil liberties,
· compassion for the poor and unfortunate,
· a fierce commitment to a society that is fair to all—of, by and for the people,
· a willingness to adapt laws to changing awareness and understanding—a progressive vision of the rule of law centered in not only Justice but equally in mercy that edges into fairness.
This morning I look at Martin Luther King, Jr. in the context of a prophetic tradition both ancient and progressive.
MLK, Jr. and the Prophetic Tradition
Recall the main signatures of the Prophetic Tradition:
· a God-consciousness
· challenging corrupt or evil authority in the name of Divine Law and Will
· challenging an unjust society in the light of Divine Law and Will
· creating a just society through transcendental ideals and values accessible by all, as opposed to pandering to special interests.
Keep these four signatures in mind as we consider one of the great ethical documents of the 20th century—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
I returned to this Letter, written April 1963, partly in light of the recent tragedy in Tucson AZ, because it provides a paassionate summary of the strategy of non-violent protest that Dr. King embodied. In the Letter, Dr. King addresses timeless concerns, including how to determine if a law is just or unjust; and when a law is unjust, in fact or in application, how is change effected by the oppressed?
Dr. King rightly declared, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
In 1963, the Civil Rights Movement was volatile. A newly emergent Black Nationalist movement, largely associated with the Elijah Muhhamed’s Nation of Islam, particularly Malcolm X had emerged. The strategy of Dr. King and his followers was a form of peaceful resistance joined to civil disobedience, drawing on Jesus, Tolstoy, and Gandhi against laws he and his followers considered unjust compounded by centuries of oppression. In his words, “A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
Dr. King’s nonviolent campaign had followed four proscribed steps: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”
And he answered his critics call, and the famous Letter was addressed to fellow clergy who were critical, urging Dr. King to continue to relapse into negotiation rather than to continue to engage in protest. “You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension, which is necessary for growth. … The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
The Letter from a Birmingham Jail served several purposes: It stated centuries of oppression on American blacks in the South. It took the temperature of the day. It chronicled the failure and futility of so-called negotiation. It justified nonviolent protest—a calculated civil disobedience. And in it Dr. King assumed the prophet’s mantle, as early in the letter he declared, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.”
Perhaps in 1963 he didn’t seem himself as the iconic prophet he became. But he certainly saw himself within the great Jewish Christian Prophetic Tradition.
I bring you these thoughts today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., a Prophet of the American Experience cast in Biblical terms, to remind us all that righteous protest must be non-violent in its essence and that it must be integrated into a four step process that includes self-purification—a deep examination of intent as well as action. It is a way opposed to violence but passionate for justice, justice not as an abstract principle, rather as an essential aspect of life for all.
In advocating activist change against deeply entrenched systems of evil, Dr. King lifted up non-violence in the higher name of love. He called himself an extremist of love.
Where is the love today in American society—the transformative love that Dr. King realized and set into motion to bring about the American Kingdom—the more perfect union prophesized in the preamble to the Constitution?
In my estimation, the motivating factor of too much national intercourse relates to hate. Hate's harvest is violence.