Voice of the Prophet

Sarah Richards
January 15, 2017

Voice of the Prophet

Today would have been Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 88th birthday. We Unitarian Universalists celebrate him on MLK Sunday as a great American of deep faith who led and sparked justice-seeking movements founded on the principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person; peace, liberty and justice for all. Cornel West wrote, “The radical King was a spiritual giant who tried to shatter the callousness and indifference of his fellow citizens.[i]” Here is the interdependent web and the principle of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. We have much to celebrate in Dr. King’s legacy; we have much more to learn and apply in our own times.

Last October, my husband Mike and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. Nothing in my previous life and educational history prepared me emotionally for that visit, one that I feel every American should experience. It’s not just that the more we learn of our history, the more we will understand about our present. It’s not just the piercing sorrow of standing in the Lorraine Motel room where he spent his last hours wondering what might have become of our country, if Dr. King had survived. The most stunning thing to me about moving through all of the exhibits was the parallels between the world of fifty years ago, and our world today. Oh yes, simpler times, no internet, no digital technology, no skinny jeans….and legal protections for fewer segments of the population, but when we stopped in the “World in Transition” exhibit about the turmoil of 1968, all I could think about was how we are still concerned with the same issues: unending wars of occupation, environmental degradation, minority rights, and economic inequality. One of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Points, “We want full employment for our people” rang a very familiar bell. Is it really that much different from the cries from white working class people in our area?

I say we have much to learn from Dr. King and apply in our own times because one week from today, we will wake up with a new President who has an agenda seemingly opposed to our principles and covenants. Many of us, myself included, will say to ourselves, “This is where we are. Where do we go from here?”

I suggest that we listen to the prophetic voice of Dr. King, because I believe he speaks to our times. “First,” he says, “we must massively assert our dignity and worth.” The image of black sanitation workers in Memphis marching with placards saying “I AM a man” comes to mind here. Dr. King brought his support and presence to that local campaign as a part of the national Poor People’s Campaign. Expanding from the struggle for civil rights to human rights, King called for an Economic Bill of Rights. The basic thrust of the campaigns was to draw public attention and massively assert the dignity and worth of poor people. In his article “Showdown for Nonviolence” published a few weeks after his assassination, King wrote:

We need to put pressure on Congress to get things done. We will do this with First Amendment activity. If Congress is unresponsive, we’ll have to escalate in order to keep the issue alive and before it. This action may take on disruptive dimensions, but not violent in the sense of destroying life or property: it will be militant nonviolence. We really feel that riots tend to intensify the fears of the white majority while relieving its guilt, and so open the door to greater repression. We’ve seen no changes in Watts, no structural changes have taken place as the result of riots. We are trying to find an alternative that will force people to confront issues without destroying life or property. We plan to build a shantytown in Washington, patterned after the bonus marches of the thirties, to dramatize how many people have to live in slums in our nation….[ii]

I thought of the Occupy Movement when I read that line. And when you think of it, how different is the meaning behind I Am a Man and Black Lives Matter?

Another excerpt from “Showdown for Nonviolence:” “White America, [King wrote] has allowed itself to be indifferent to race prejudice and economic denial. It has treated them as superficial blemishes, but now awakes to the horrifying reality of a potentially fatal disease. The urban outbreaks are “a fire bell in the night,” clamorously warning that the seams of our entire social order are weakening under strains of neglect.[iii]” Replace “urban outbreaks” with “police killings of black men” and it could have been written last week.

“This is where we are. Where do we go from here?”

Dr. King said, “We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values….” Not just this weekend or next weekend, but everyday there are opportunities for us to stand up as individuals of conscience and as a faith community.

I recently watched a TED talk by Rabbi Sharon Brous, who told the audience,

“I have found now in communities as varied as Jewish indie start-ups on the coasts to a woman’s mosque, to black churches in New York and in North Carolina, to a holy bus loaded with nuns that traverses this country with a message of justice and peace, that there is a shared religious ethos that is now emerging in the form of revitalized religion in this country. And while the theologies and the practices vary very much between these independent communities, what we can see are some common, consistent threads between them.[iv]

The threads she found are commitments to wakefulness – to not give in to the numbing litany of bad news but hasten to the prophetic voice in all of us that not only recognizes the interdependent web but takes responsibility for tending it – it’s our web. The second commitment is to hope. Rabbi Brous says: “Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and against a culture of despair. Because what hope does for us is it lifts us out of the container that holds us and constrains us from the outside, and says, “You can dream and think expansively again. That they cannot control in you.[v]

I hear echoes of Dr. King’s message of hope – “I have a dream” – in the Rabbi’s words. And I hear them again in the final two commitments of reinvigorated religious communities: mightiness and interconnectedness.

Isn’t that what King is talking about when he tells us,

We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values…

What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive,

And that love without power is sentimental and anemic.

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice,

and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.[vi]

Let’s take a moment to envision what standing up and developing –and expressing – unassailable values looks like in our daily lives right now. We have some opportunities for standing up coming up very soon. Why not go together, in a group to this afternoon’s MLK community celebration, and to the MLK Breakfast tomorrow? Maybe wear our CUF t-shirts (over turtlenecks, of course)? What about joining in the Women’s March in Carbondale on Saturday following the CUF banner? Learn about the New Poor People’s Campaign, happening all over the country and see how we can be involved?

And what about developing and living those unassailable, majestic values? We could say, that’s what we’re doing right now, and in all of our Fellowship activities. But I challenge us all to be more intentional in our internal process, as we take on our world’s challenges. I invite you to the first of monthly salons exploring our worship themes on Tuesday, January 31. And why not participate in the Religious Education Workshop exploring models for all ages’ spiritual development on January 29? Why not participate in the Listening Campaign that will start here at the Fellowship next month as we ask ourselves “How can we better understand and live the values stated in our Fellowship’s mission, vision, and covenant? What’s the next step forward in the process of revisioning and reenergizing our congregation’s social justice efforts?” Armed with our unassailable values, and a willingness to stand up, it’s time – again – for us to get a move on.

I conclude with the end of King’s final writings, “Showdown for Nonviolence:”

The American people are infected with racism—that is the peril. Paradoxically, they are also infected with democratic ideals—that is the hope. While doing wrong, they have the potential to do right. But they do not have a millennium to make changes. Nor have they a choice of continuing in the old way. The future they are asked to inaugurate is not so unpalatable that it justifies the evils that beset the nation. To end poverty, to extirpate prejudice, to free a tormented conscience, to make a tomorrow of justice, fair play and creativity—all these are worthy of the American ideal.

We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony. We can write another luminous moral chapter in American history. All of us are on trial in this troubled hour, but time still permits us to meet the future with a clear conscience.[vii]

Friends, forty-nine years on, we are called to listen to the words of Dr. King so that we might find how we can be a community of prophecy for our place and time. May we be a community of wakefulness, hope, mightiness, and interconnectedness. May we work together and with other communities to create a new spirit of harmony across all barriers so that we may meet our future with a clear conscience.



[i] http://www.uuworld.org/articles/radical-mlk, accessed 1-6-17.
[ii] “Showdown for Nonviolence”Look Magazine, Tuesday April 16, 1968, vol. 32, no. 8, p24. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/showdown-nonviolence accessed 1-13-17.
[iii] Ibid.

[iv]http://www.ted.com/talks/sharon_brous_it_s_time_to_reclaim_and_reinvent_religion?language=en accessed 1/13/17
[v] ibid.
[vi] King, Jr. Martin Luther. Reading 149 in Lifting Our Voices: Readings in the Living Tradition, Boston: UUA, 2015, p. 50 (adapted from 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?”)
[vii] “Showdown for Nonviolence”Look Magazine, Tuesday April 16, 1968, vol. 32, no. 8, p25. http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/showdown-nonviolence accessed 1-13-17.