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 observes today, depict the pastor/civil rights leader behind a pulpit or before a great throng of adoring people. The monument to him in Washington, D.C., depicts him in a suit with his arms folded. But I prefer the more rare pictures of this Christian minister being manhandled, hand-cuffed, or intimidated by local government authorities serving vested, bigoted white interests.
POWER IN THE STREETS. King's witness and power come as much from his stand in the streets with unnamed people with whom he identified and for whom he gave his life as from his pen and pulpit. 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 labor initiatives in Indianapolis. I applaud his efforts. He has inspired me to lay aside my own reticence for the sake of justice for all.
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. True, Americans who voted in 2008 elected Barack Obama as President. Still, 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 articulated, demonstrated, and enforced--particularly in the face of a conservative Supreme Court that continues to bleed away their power. Those who voted for George W. Bush, 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 George W. Bush attacked Iraq under false pretenses, the thought occurred 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 had to say about the Iraq War. King’s stand against Vietnam was very unpopular. Some of his close associates felt he should not speak out against it. But his last speech on April 3, 1968 was a vow to stand solo, if need be, as a black civil rights leader against war. I know of only handful of pastors who have spoken against the Iraq War or any other. Fewer still who take it to the streets.
WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? The image of a pastor--white, black, Latino, etc.--in American society is too closely associated with a suit in the pulpit. Let us not mistake our call to interpret and articulate prophesies as being prophetic. Let us not think we have delivered our soul when we have delivered our sermons. Let us not accept a generous paycheck from a congregation that buys clergy silence and keeps pastors on the sidelines of unjust and pressing local, national and world events. Let us put our words into action. Let our calling be expressed fully--in action, in solidarity, in the messiness of community conflict, in speaking truth to power (and not just from behind the pulpit). Jesus points the way. Martin contemporized Jesus' precedent. What are we waiting for?
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA