13 January 2005

Martin Luther King, Jr: Not too late to listen

One of the great speeches of my lifetime was Martin Luther King's sermon at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. I began playing a version of this speech at some of my talks on Friends and evangelism last year; his words never failed to result in a hushed silence.

I don't know where I got my copy of the recording, but here's one source. Unfortunately, it begins after these words available from the printed text, which are very relevant to the evangelism theme:
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission - a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men - for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the "Vietcong" or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life? [Source.]
Martin Luther King gave a similar sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church twelve days later. Here's my attempt to transcribe the powerful, prophetic close of this version:
And don't let anyone make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You're too arrogant. If you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I am God."

Now it isn't easy to stand up for truth and justice. Sometimes it means being frustrated, when you tell the truth and take a stand. Sometimes it means you will walk the streets with a burdened heart. Sometimes it means losing a job; it means being abused and scorned; it may mean having a seven- or eight-year-old child asking you, "Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?"

But I've long since learned that to be a follower of Jesus Christ means taking up the cross. My Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter, and before the crown we wear there is the cross that we must bear. Let us bear it - bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have not lost faith; I'm not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven't lost faith because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing "We Shall Overcome" because Carlyle was right: "No lie can live forever."

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: "Truth, crushed to earth, shall RISE again."

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future...."

We shall overcome because the Bible is right: "You shall reap what you sow." With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to go out and transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when JUSTICE will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid because the words of the LORD have spoken it.

With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we're free at last!" With this faith, we'll sing it as we're getting ready to sing it now, "Men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war any more." And I don't know about you - I ain't going to study war no more.
PS: One of my favorite commemorative articles on Martin Luther King was written by David Finke and published in Quaker Life five years ago.

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