Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Inspiring, admired pulpit orator or street-level change agent?

OUT OF THE PULPIT. Most images of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation observed on Monday, depict the pastor/civil rights leader behind a pulpit or before a great throng of adoring people. But I prefer the more rare pictures of this Christian minister being manhandled, hand-cuffed, or intimidated by government authorities serving vested, bigoted white interests.

POWER IN THE STREETS. King's primary witness and power come not from the pulpit and podium, but from his stand in the streets with unnamed people with whom he identified and for whom he gave his life. My favorite photo of King was taken in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama. In it, sheriffs are twisting the minister’s arm behind his back and forcing his head down onto a counter while his wife, Coretta, looks on. He was arrested for "loitering"; the charge was later changed to "failure to obey an officer."

PASTOR [GASP!] ARRESTED. This image of King and others like it were intended to scandalize him, to discredit him in the eyes of most people who do not think a pastor should stoop to disobeying governmental authorities. Instead, such photos called attention to unjust authority and corruption. Question: when was the last time we read of a Christian minister being arrested for any issue of peace and justice? Plenty of ministers have been arrested for fraud or other immoral behavior. But help me recall those who have so irked the powers that be regarding peace and justice that the fallen principality we call "government" has had the audacity to lay hands on them? I know of only one: Darren Cushman-Wood, a United Methodist Pastor in Indianapolis who works with the Justice for Janitors effort in downtown Indy. I applaud his efforts. I have not yet taken advantage of such opportunities.

STATE OF THE DREAM. King’s dream of a nation of races reconciled, diversity embraced, and poverty rolled back gets mixed reviews today, at best. Fear, hatred and "tolerable" levels of oppression fester beneath a relatively smoother social surface. Civil rights and equal opportunity still do not come voluntarily. They must be enforced, particularly in the face of a conservative Supreme Court that continues to bleed away their strength. Those who three years ago voted for a President who promised to install judges to uphold “conservative moral values” unwittingly voted to install jurists who have proven records of rolling back civil rights and civil liberties for people of color. As if that is not a moral value?

VIETNAM AND IRAQ. Each MLK Day since President Bush attacked Iraq under false pretenses, the thought occurs to me that King would have not been silent about or acquiesced to the Iraq War. Based on his outspoken perspective on the Vietnam War (a perspective largely based on that war’s impact on poverty and economics), I doubt many would want to hear what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have to say about the Iraq War today. King’s stand against Vietnam was very unpopular; some of his handlers felt he should not speak out against it. But his last speech was a vow to stand solo, if need be, as a black civil rights leader against war.

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