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Icons and Agitators: Maladjustment to the Way Things Are–UUSS Sermon for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday

Rev. Roger Jones, Acting Senior Minister

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

January 19, 2014

Hymns: #116, I’m on My Way; #155, Circle Round for Freedom; #1018, Come and Go With Me

Choir:  Hush!  Somebody’s Callin’ My Name

Piano:

Prelude:  Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Meditation:  Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Offertory:  Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

Postlude:   It Is Well with My Soul

 

Sermon

What fascinates me about the study of history is learning how the social advancements we consider to be normal, to be “the way things are,” did not come about easily.  To people who lived in the past, the achievements of equality and fairness that we take for granted were not assured or guaranteed.  Indeed, every step toward equality involved struggle and upheaval.

Should women have the right to vote and run for office?  Of course!  Few in public life would now say that’s a debatable question.  But until 1920, the road toward voting equality was messy and full of setbacks.  Some states allowed voting, others did not.  After the Senate approved the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and enough states ratified that amendment, voting equality became the way things are.  Twenty-five senators had voted no, but history moved on, passing them by.  Many women who had begun the struggle in the 1800s were dead by then. They had given themselves to a cause that would outlive them.  Success was not predictable or guaranteed.

Likewise, ending American slavery was not predictable or guaranteed.  Nor were any of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, of which Martin Luther King Jr. was the most prominent and inspiring leader.  But after we expand the circles of opportunity and freedom, it becomes easy to talk as if justice was obvious and success inevitable.

It is tempting to frame the history of a struggle for freedom in sweet words and warm images.  We can use the words of daring women and men not to urge us to achieve more, but merely to comfort ourselves, to make ourselves comfortable with the status quo.

We can use the words of heroic people only to honor them, while we avoid hearing them.

Martin Luther King worked against racism and segregation.  But he also preached against militarism and economic inequality.  According to scholar Michael Eric Dyson, in the later years of his brief life Dr. King’s views grew more radical.  Upsetting his colleagues and staff, Dr. King became one of the first high-profile leaders in America to oppose the American military involvement in Vietnam.  King highlighted the hypocrisy of suppressing freedoms in the name of protecting freedom.  We could not defend freedom by supporting rule by generals in Southeast Asia, he said.

Many politicians and the press ridiculed him for expressing his opinions about the war.  They questioned the ability of a southern black Baptist preacher to analyze international affairs (according to Dyson).  However, King had a Ph.D. from Boston University.  He had won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The historian Taylor Branch writes that King was the “the moral voice of America,” more than any office holder or elected leader.[i]   His opinions mattered, and he felt compelled to speak out.

His colleagues didn’t want his involvement with another controversy to dilute and distract from civil rights.  They feared he would alienate the Congress and President Lyndon Johnson, who had been a forceful supporter of the civil rights agenda.  Indeed, Johnson did feel betrayed by King’s opposition to the war, according to Dyson.[ii]

King’s response to his critics was this:  “I have worked too long now and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern.” By articulating the linkages among types of injustice and oppression, he raised our discomfort, raised our national tension.

This was Dr. King’s gift and his role as a leader.  He could orchestrate a mix of tension and inspiration, the right blend of discomfort and conciliation.  To change, America needed challenge.  This took standing up and sticking his neck out.  That is a challenge that many of us can recall having in our own lives from time to time.  Dr. King did it for all our lives, for our common life and the common good.  Many times, Dr. King said:  “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”  Such words, and his commitment to them, unsettle my comfort with the way things are.

Since his assassination in 1968, Dr. King has been turned from a strategist and an agitator into an icon. Leaders from all across the political spectrum and the range of religions now salute Martin Luther King.  It’s easier to honor someone who’s dead.  You don’t have to listen to him for real.   Leaders from across the spectrum make their own assertions about what Dr. King wanted for our society and what he would want.  This is what you can do with icons. With real people who carry out real movements for change, you have to wrestle.  They make us uncomfortable.  They unsettle our adjustment to the way things are.

We may be comfortable imagining Dr. King and his challenges to the America of 50 years ago, but what would his challenges be for us today?  What tension and what inspiration would he bring to us?

In King’s last years, he addressed poverty and economic injustice.  He launched the Poor People’s Campaign and argued for another March on Washington, like the one in the summer of 1963, but one lifting up economic injustice and poverty.  Men on King’s staff opposed this campaign—and they were all men on his staff.  They feared it would be a disaster, generating only the resistance of Congress and the anger of President Johnson.

According to Michael Eric Dyson, in 1966, King admitted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had failed to improve the condition of poor blacks.  He said that progress had been “limited mainly to the Negro middle-class” (Dyson, 87).  With his Poor People’s Campaign, King endeavored to focus on the need to lift all people out of degrading poverty, including all black people.

He saw people as connected, no matter our identity and life circumstances.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is how he said it.  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In private, Dr. King told colleagues that he believed America must move toward democratic socialism. However, in public he did not use the term socialism.  The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had waged a campaign to discredit the movement by smearing Dr. King as a Communist sympathizer.        King did not have Communist sympathies or alliances.  Communist regimes were anti-democratic, and Communist theory was anti-religious.  King said:  “I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx.  I got it from a man named Jesus.”  He said that Jesus was “anointed to heal the broken hearted” and to deal with the problems of the poor, and those in captivity” (Dyson, 130).  In this spirit, King called for job creation programs, for full employment and for a guaranteed minimum income.

Dr. King said that full-time work should yield a person enough money to support a family.  In the years since 1980, for most of this nation’s people, income and wealth have stagnated, even shrunk when you consider the eroding effects of inflation.  Wealth has been concentrated more and more in the hands of a smaller percentage of people at the very top.  Two years ago, the Occupy Wall Street Movement brought to public attention the idea of the 99% and the 1%.  At the top, the 1%, are those who have gained by the shifting structures of economic policy, international trade agreements, tax breaks, and lax regulation in the financial services industry.[iii]

Meanwhile, for a growing mass of people, it has become harder to support a family on full-time work, even if two parents work full-time.

If Dr. King were alive right now, perhaps he would embrace campaigns for better funding of public schools and a restoration in financial aid for college.   Perhaps he would lead campaigns for a single-payer health care system available to all and for a higher minimum wage.  In pursuit of economic fairness, he might advocate for regulation of the financial services industry, and a reform of crop subsidies to move away from industrial agriculture and toward smaller, sustainable farms.  Perhaps he would speak for these goals, but I can’t be sure.

Such goals have come to seem less radical in these times, as ordinary American have grown more desperate, and as more working people feel the loss of economic security, and the loss of food security.  I am sure Dr. King would have would have made us uncomfortable.  He would have turned up the tension that political leaders feel about these issues.  Maybe he would call for more subsidized housing for low-income families and more mental health care for the lost souls wandering and sleeping on the streets.  He said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

If he were speaking to most of us right now, would he ask us if we need all the square footage many of us enjoy in our homes?  Would he challenge us for having a car of our own and the petroleum to run it, given what oil extraction does to local and global environments, not to mention to indigenous tribal communities who live near oil wells?  Would he ask us if we couldn’t still do okay financially without investing in portfolios that grow by pushing down worker’s wages and benefits, and by tearing down rain forests for beef grazing?

In India, Martin Luther King met with Mohandas K. Gandhi, to learn about the “soul force” of nonviolent resistance, which had been a tool of the Indian Freedom Struggle.  King saw dissent and rivalries among Gandhi’s inner circle, something he would find among his own leaders and staff members at home.  And he saw the massive poverty of people sleeping on the streets in Calcutta, hungry children and begging parents and elders.

Ten years ago I traveled in India, during a sabbatical for five weeks.  In cities around the country, I saw masses of barely housed and homeless and hungry people.  Many were begging, but some only were sitting in the heat, exhausted.  I even saw some of them weeping.  What came to my mind on my journey was the idea that most Indians seemed to accept this as normal, inevitable, the way things are.  There will always be destitute people around you.  Your task is to learn how to refuse the destitute, walk around them, ignore them.  The task of one who is not hurting in that way is to do anything except ask why such hurt persists.   If this is the way things are, you need not imagine how to change the system or why.  I could be wrong about Indian social attitudes—I bet I am wrong—but it made me think about us.

I see people begging for money at street intersections around here, holding cardboard signs.  I see more of them at more corners than I did just a year ago.

In thinking about India, I’m thinking about the person I saw Friday night at my apartment building in a sleeping bag, lying in the car port by the dumpster.   I’m doubtful that a handout of money would change such a situation.  But I wonder how normal we have let it become that so many people live on the street.  Is this now the way things are?  Is the choice now merely whether to give a dollar, or smile, or look the other way?

Is the question no longer, how did we let this happen?  Is the question now just whether to call the cops or the landlord so the person can be rousted from beside our dumpster, and find another dumpster to sleep near?

In May of 1966, Dr. King addressed the ministers and lay delegates of the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Association, meeting in Florida.   Every year the General Assembly holds a major lecture, the Ware Lecture, and he gave this lecture in 1966.[iv]

He called on our congregations to assert the basic sinfulness of racial segregation, refute the idea of racial superiority, and engage in action on legislation to expand the circles of equality and fairness.

And he cautioned us against the “myth… of exaggerated progress,” the idea that we’ve arrived.   He said:  “We should be proud of the steps we’ve made…. On the other hand, we must realize that the plant of freedom is only a bud and not yet a flower.”   He said we cannot stop with the way things are.

He spoke about the psychological term or label of a maladjusted personality.  He said:  “I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted….  I call upon … all people of good will to be maladjusted to those things until the good society is realized.”

He listed the problems of life in America to which he wished we could remain maladjusted.   He said:   “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

King’s life, and the deeds of so many people in the struggle for civil rights, unsettled a country that had adjusted to the way things are, as if it was always how things were going to be.

His words and life and the movement he led continue to challenge us to pay attention, take steps toward healing, stretch ourselves and let ourselves feel discomfort and maladjustment/ for the sake of a better world.

King said that life’s most urgent and persistent question is, “What are you doing for others?”  His legacy is the legacy of standing up for others, and standing up with others.

This legacy should discomfort us, and unsettle us, but it shouldn’t paralyze us.  His words and deeds should not freeze us in a sense of smallness or shyness or shame.  We should hear his words as the call to community, the call to standing up with others.

Part of the King legacy is the fact that today many organizers, leaders, volunteers and advocates of all generations are doing this work, bringing attention to unfair and unsustainable conditions.

I give thanks for those who give of their time in service, their treasure in generosity, and their courage and hope toward a better country and a better world.  I give thanks for those who dedicate their lives to the needs of others and those who risk their lives for the betterment of all of us, everywhere.

May the deeds of all those who struggle, serve, hope and give of themselves give us the courage not to get too adjusted to the way things are.  May their deeds challenge us.

May they awaken us into attention, imagination, action and courage.  So may it be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes


[i] Branch, Taylor. The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[ii] Dyson, Michael Eric.  I May Not Get there with YouThe True Martin Luther King, Jr.  New York:  Free Press, 2000.

[iii] See more analysis and stirring comment in columns by Chris Hedges on truthdig.com.



Can You Help–UU People & Information needed for Civil Rights UU Legacy Project

The Unitarian Universalist Living Legacy Project is seeking your help in
locating someone who apparently was related to your congregation in 1964-65.
We are attempting to contact Unitarian Universalist veterans of the Civil
Rights Movement to make them aware of a Gathering of such veterans we are
planning for March 30-April 1 in Asheville, North Carolina.  (Please see the
attached description of that event for more details on what we hope to
accomplish.)

In January of 1965 a team of four staff members of the UUA and UUSC traveled
through Mississippi.  They compiled a list of 36 students and faculty who
took part in the Mississippi Summer Project (“Freedom Summer”) and/or other
civil rights activity.  We are trying to locate those people to invited them
to this Gathering next spring.

Margaret Benes and Jonathan Else were two of those people.  We realize that
in this mobile world these people have almost certainly moved since 1965,
but we wanted to ask for data you may have which may help us locate them.
Some of the questions we can think of are given below.  Please answer any
further questions we haven’t been clever enough to frame but that might help
us in our task.

In 1964-65 was these people members?    “friends” of the congregation?
students in an area college or university?

Do congregational records or the memories of long-term members suggest where
this person moved if/when this person left your area?  (Even a generalized
impression may help if we have to resort to a Google search.)  Or is the
person still in your general area?   Do you, miraculously, have an exact or
approximate address for this person?

Do you have any data on possible name change for this person due to
marriage, gender reassignment, or other cause?

Are there other sources you suggest we check with for data on this
individual?

If we succeed in locating this person, would you like for us to suggest that
they re-connect with your congregation so that you can learn more about how
you related to their 1964 experience in Mississippi?

Please send whatever data you can gather (or a note that you could turn up
nothing) to the Rev. Gordon Gibson.



Sermon: Words & Deeds of Prophetic Women & Men

The talk-radio ranting and Fox News fulminating on the right, the gnashing of teeth and temptation to despair on the left and center-left make me look for inspiration to those brave people who changed history and hearts by their words and deeds.  So, in the wake of the recent Massachusetts election and reactions to the President’s State of the Union address, I offer this old sermon.

Sermon from M. L. King Sunday, January 20, 2008,  Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship

Invocation

For the gift of life and the gift of this new day, let us be grateful and let us rejoice.  On a day of deep cold, we gather in this place for the warmth of companionship, the shelter of community; a time of rest, reflection, and renewal in silence, song, and the spoken word.  May our gathering together enlarge our souls and renew our commitment to the human values we hold most sacred.  Let us rejoice at this time we have together.  Amen.

Sermon Part I

Today’s sermon is one in a series about the Sources of our tradition of liberal religion.  Of the seven mentioned in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the second source reads:  “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been one of those prophetic people.  He was born 79 years ago last Tuesday and murdered at the age of 39.  By his own account, he had an easy and fulfilled life growing up, with concerned and loving parents and “no basic problems or burdens.”[i] He wrote that he sailed through all stages of his education, ending with graduate school in theology, and became a Baptist preacher like his well-regarded father.  However, in 1955, as a new minister in Montgomery, Alabama, he became the president of Montgomery’s organization behind the boycott of the segregated bus system.  The boycott lasted over a year.  From the start King and his family received threats by letter and phone call.  The hostile threats increased and he began to take more of them seriously.  He later said: “I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.”  One night, when his wife was asleep and he was dozing off, “the telephone rang.  An angry voice said, ‘Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you.  Before next week, you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’”

King said: “I hung up, but I could not sleep.  It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once.”  He got up and walked the floor, then went to the kitchen and “heated a pot of coffee.  I was ready to give up.  I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, . . . I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud:…. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’”

Then, King said, he experienced the presence of the Divine. “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.’  Almost at once my fears began to pass from me.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”

Three nights afterward, their home was bombed, but King later said it did not remove his strength and trust.  When I read this passage, it became understandable to me that King’s favorite Gospel hymn was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”  It’s in our gray hymnal at #199.  I invite you to rise as you are able as we sing this hymn in the spirit of solidarity.

Hymn: #199:  “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”  Hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY2xIoNKXD8

Sermon Part II

It has been written that the social purpose for leaders and institutions of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  This is the role of the prophetic person—to help the hurting and speak up for the oppressed, even if it creates tension or makes us uncomfortable to do so.  It nearly always makes me uncomfortable to do so.

In February of 2007 I was recruited to be part of a delegation of religious leaders and union organizers to the airport in San Jose, California, where I was living.  Our purpose was to voice concerns and make requests about the treatment and wages of workers for a company called Aviation Safeguards.  This company is a contractor for the airlines, and its workers do not have union representation.  These are the non-airline employees who check in baggage at the curb, take passengers in wheel chairs to their flights, and check our ID at the start of the line to the x-ray security area.  They make low wages and have no health insurance, except for a plan with premiums they cannot afford.  A few have been there for nearly 20 years, and their pay has barely increased.  Some had begun union-organizing activity, and had been intimidated for it.

Our delegation met in the baggage claim area to confer about our purpose and plan.  Before heading up to find the company manager, we held hands in a circle and someone led a prayer.  From afar, it may have looked as if we were praying for lost luggage. I was wearing a black shirt, white clerical collar and a dark suit. I do this for demonstrations in order to be recognized as a clergyperson, to show that religious people are bearing witness to the cause at hand.  We found the manager and asked for a commitment that he and his firm would not interfere with union activities. After all, it’s the law.  He gave us that commitment. Weeks later, however, stories came to us of unfair treatment as retaliation. Some had had their hours cut, had been denied vacation requests, or had been let go. One was fired while tending to a family member having surgery.

So, we went back.  Six weeks later the union and the Interfaith Council held a demonstration outside the airport, near the taxi pickup area.  In spring sunlight we sang songs and heard speeches in English and Spanish.  A few of us prepared to go in the terminal to confront the manager.  The crowd prayed over us and wished us well.  I needed it!  This was a task that I had been talked into, not one I’d looked for. With me was the pastor of a conservative African American congregation. This took place during the Jewish Passover, and we carried with us a small basket of horseradish root—bitter herbs to give to the boss.  Along with us were a few off-duty workers and a member of the staff of our local State representative.

Inside the terminal, we found the Aviation Safeguards manager standing by the line of people waiting to go through the X-ray security line.  We introduced ourselves and started to voice our concerns about the workers.  He barked at us, “Get back behind that line. Arriving passengers come down this aisle.”  We moved back, but asked him if he would meet with us.  He said:  “I know all I need to know.”  From 15 feet away, my clergy friend spoke loudly, voicing our concerns about the workers.  The manager pretended not to hear.  The departing travelers passing through the security line did hear us. I said little and felt rather shy, but my friend was eloquent and powerful.  He announced we had brought an offering of bitter herbs to leave with the company; he said it recalled the oppression of the Hebrew children working under Pharaoh.  After a few minutes he stopped talking.  I revved up and spoke, repeating the same themes.

A few times we drifted back into the aisle, and the manager yelled:   “Get back, move over there.” We finished our pleading, went down to the baggage claim area, and met up with a couple of young union organizers.  Two police officers came up, asked us for our ID’s, and asked what we had been up to.  We explained why we were there.

My friend inquired “Why have you been sent to talk to us?”

“For causing a public disturbance,” an officer said.  I thought, “I wonder if I’m going to get arrested.  Do I want to get arrested?”

“Are you detaining us?”  my colleague demanded.   Uh-oh, I thought. “No, we’re asking you to wait for the sergeant.” This turned out to be a great opportunity to explain the issue to more people, and we did.  As I waited, I told the officers that we were standing up for the workers as they were standing up for themselves.  Soon the city’s manager on duty for the whole airport came to see what the problem was.  I told him about the intimidation the workers had faced, as well as their low wages.  This was news to him, so he said he’d ask Aviation Safeguards about it.  Then the sergeant showed up.  In calm but firm tones he told us we should have stayed outside the airport at the union rally, in an approved area.  I was calm too, and explained why we had come inside. Then he let us go.

That morning at the airport was hardly a risk of my safety or career, merely a donation of my time and presence. Bearing witness to the struggles of others may not call for much courage, but our presence can encourage them as they take real risks to improve their lives and their communities.

Had I gone to jail that day, I would have followed in the footsteps of many people.  In the Interfaith Council I knew old Catholic priests who couldn’t remember how many times they’d gotten  themselves arrested.

In our faith tradition, the most famous person jailed for taking a stand is Henry David Thoreau.  He was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts.  It was a Unitarian environment in which Henry David grew up and was educated, including Harvard College.  Unitarian minister and author Ralph Waldo Emerson was Thoreau’s friend and spiritual mentor.

Thoreau got a job as a schoolteacher but resigned in protest of the expectation for teachers to flog their students. When he was 29, he was jailed for having refused for two years to pay the poll tax.  His first refusal was to protest that poll taxes prevented the poor from voting, including free African Americans.  His second refusal, after which he was picked up by the authorities, was to protest this country’s invasion of Mexico the same year, 1846.  It was a terrible war, whose goal was to take over Mexican territory for American interests.  That’s how we got New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California.[ii] It was based on exaggerations and trumped-up accusations of Mexican aggression. Thoreau said the war was an example of a few people “using the . . . government as their tool . . .” for their own profit.  He resisted an evil system by withholding taxes that funded it.

It’s true that Henry David spent only one night in jail, but “very few people went to jail on principle in the mid-nineteenth century,” according to author Paul Hawken.[iii] Eighteen months later Thoreau gave a lecture about this.  Though famous as the book Civil Disobedience, his words were not published under this title until 1866, after Thoreau’s death.  His original title was more assertive:  “Resistance to Civil Government.”[iv] His lecture included the word civil only four (4) times but used the words disobedience and obedience not once!  His word was resistance!

Thoreau’s example influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi, an Indian leader of nonviolent resistance, first as a lawyer in South Africa where he lived under Apartheid, and then in his own country of India as the leader of the struggle for independence from Britain.  Ghandi and his followers knew the insides of many jail cells.  They knew the feel of clubs, fists and batons on their bodies.  What Thoreau modeled as a moral imperative of nonconformity for any person, Gandhi made into a tool for a mass movement. Gandhi later described the underlying principle as Satyagraha [SATYA-greh], which means “holding to the truth” in Hindi. Ghandhi called it “truth-force.” Sometimes he called it “love force.”  As a three-step instrument of change, “truth-force” entails protesting an unjust law, and if it is not changed, breaking the law, and then accepting the consequences of breaking the law.[v]

Ghandi’s example had an influence on the African American Civil Rights movement.  In Montgomery, Alabama, a young civil rights worker named Rosa Parks was well trained in nonviolent resistance tactics. One of the many segregated institutions in the American Apartheid of the South was the public transit system.  One day in 1955 Rosa entered a Montgomery bus from the front door, which was forbidden to blacks.  The driver dragged her off.  Some time later after a long’s days work, she entered the same bus, driven by that same driver.  She took a seat in the Negro section, in the back of the bus. It was crowded, so when a white man not could find an open seat, he told Rosa to stand and give up her seat.  She refused, and the bus driver had her arrested.  The result was a protest by the black community and a boycott of the public transit system.  It lasted over a year!  Martin Luther King, Jr. was 25 when, unexpectedly, he was nominated and elected to head the organization. At first, the King family had guns and armed guards in their home; after all, the couple had a two-week-old baby girl.  Bayard Rustin, a friend and leader, insisted that this was unacceptable—nonviolence meant no use of guns, even for self-defense.  Glenn Smiley, a Methodist minister, gave King three books:  The Power of Nonviolence, by Richard Gregg, Gandhi’s Autobiography, and Civil Diobedience, by Thoreau.   After the boycott, King gave credit to all three books for their influence on the boycott.

Such examples of courage and sacrifice can be daunting to us, even if we care deeply about fairness, justice and human dignity. As we heard earlier in the reading from Dr. King, the injustice and violence of the world can make us feel vulnerable and weak.

It’s normal to be afraid to stick our necks out, and understandable.  Somehow, though, ordinary people have done just that. Perhaps their fears get overtaken by their frustration, and they stand up to demand what they know is right.  Perhaps they are filled with a spirit they did not expect.  Perhaps they are buoyed up with courage they believe comes from a source outside them, whether it be from the Divine or from the strength of beloved community. Emerson’s book Nature inspired Henry David Thoreau with its concept of nature’s mutual dependence and inter-connectedness.  From this, Thoreau drew the principle of human kinship.  He was grounded by the idea of human inter-connectedness.

So many of the prophetic people we admire seem to speak from a deep grounding in a religious tradition, spiritual practice, or value system. Whether orthodox, secular or somewhere in between, even with non-stop turmoil around them, such people seem to know their center and return to it for strength.

What does this mean for those who are reluctant radicals, or not radical at all?  What about those of us whose comforts, personal commitments or fears hold us back from all-out activism?  As a shy activist myself, I can think of a few things.

We can be there for others, for those who call for dignity for themselves and their loved ones.  We can listen, and be present to those who need encouragement.  We can lend our voices to the civilians in other lands who live under oppression or live in fear of military attack—by our own country.  Without favor to any politician or party, we can raise tough questions about justice and fairness.  Whether with our taxes refused, money given, letters written, placards of protest held high at busy intersections, or time contributed, we can refuse to participate in unjust or deadly systems. We can lift up the human values that we hold sacred.

This is of primary importance—to ask:  What grounds us and empowers our work?

It’s not guilt, and not self-sacrifice either.  Feelings of guilt do not ground us.  They do not empower us or enlarge our sense of self.  What calls to you?  What gives you courage?

Speaking in 1967, Dr. King explained the reason for his two decades of prophetic ministry.  He said:  “I must be true to my conviction that I share with all humanity the calling to be a child of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of kinship.”[vi]

For Gandhi,  it was truth-force or Satyagraha. Sometimes he called it love-force.

According to Unitarian Universalist professor of religion Sharon Welch, what empowers those of us who are better off to work for justice for those who are oppressed must be an expansive sense of love.  Welch writes:  “[Love] is far more energizing than guilt, duty or self-sacrifice.  Love for others leads us to accept accountability (in contrast to feeling guilt).  [It] motivates our search for ways to end our complicity with structures of oppression.  Solidarity does not require self-sacrifice but an enlargement of the self to include community with others.”[vii]

Solidarity means that we do not look the other way.  We don’t let others look the other way.  For example, as Paul Hawken notes, in the American South, when segregation was maintained by the power of law and by the terrorism of lynching, “in every community, … poor whites took it upon themselves to be enforcers of the … system while the middle class averted its eyes.”[viii] Martin Luther King, writing in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, asked people not to look away, and not to shy away from the tension that comes with change. He wondered whether “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the [member of the racist organization], but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”  (85)

Like so many others who do care, I have personal commitments, I am busy, distracted. Yet sometimes I get involved and engaged; I do something.  Almost always it’s because I’ve been invited; someone has asked me to go.  I show up, and then I learn. I meet people and learn what their lives are like and their goals and hopes.  I see the courage required to stand up for oneself and for others.  This inspires me.  It moves me to show up again.  I learn that I have so much to learn—about myself, my world, my neighbors.

Henry David Thoreau said:  “[It] matters not how small the beginning may seem to be:  What is once well done is done forever.”

Martin Luther King said: “The time is always ripe to do right.” He must have intended these words for those of us who peer out of our comfort zones, wanting a better world and waiting for the time to act. Maybe this is a mantra for those times when we are invited to show up, or just urged to listen.  Maybe it’s a mantra to use to overcome shyness and ask another to come along with us: “The time is always ripe to do right.”

Let us all move forward into life, encouraged by those whose deeds and words have improved our world and enriched our lives.  Let us be centered, grounded, aware and connected. May we nurture our kinship with all people and enlarge our own souls.

May it be so.  Amen.


[i] “Our God Is Able,” a sermon in Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1981), p. 113-14.  All quotations in Part I of the sermon are from these pages.

[ii] Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken (New York: Viking, 2007), p. 77.

[iii] Blessed Unrest, p. 76.

[iv] Blessed Unrest, p. 76.

[v] Blessed Unrest, p. 78.

[vi] Address given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in  New York City, April 4, 1967.

[vii] A Feminist Ethic of Risk, by Sharon D. Welch, Fortress Press, 1990, p. 172.

[viii] Blessed Unrest, p. 81.