In a truly stirring address to our reader one of the most august voices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Kenneth Wheeler, weighs in with a passionate reminder of how Jesus call for love and justice animated the very soul of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and by extension must continue to do so today. So on this day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, take in this reflection and ask God where you are to be sent!
Francisco Herrera – PhD student and Interim Editor
Edgar Hoover who was the Director of The F.B.I. during Dr. King’s life called him the most dangerous man in America. He said that because he believed although wrongly that Dr. King had Communist ties. But although Hoover was wrong about Dr. King having communist ties he was right in calling Dr. King dangerous.
He was dangerous because his message was a prophetic message that challenged a Nation’s assumptions about truth and power. Power that defined itself in the misguided notion of white supremacy that would violate and denigrate the personality and humanity of African-American people;
Many of our churches and our Pastors have lost the capacity to be dangerous because we have lost our prophetic voice and we have lost our prophetic voice because we have cleaned Jesus up and made him antiseptic and sterile so that the crosses we wear around our necks are just decoration.
In times like these we need for the church to recapture its reputation for being dangerous.
In times like these we need the church to be a drum major for Justice. In times like these we need a prophetic church – called by God to be God’s mouthpiece, called to declare “thus said the Lord.” Called to speak a Word and let the chips fall where they may, Called to march into the palace of the King and tell him, “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream” (Micah 5:24).
Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah were prophets who functioned in the 8th century BCE in Israel. They were speaking to a social and economic context very much like the times in which we live. There was a huge gap and a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
The majority of wealth was concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite while the poor were scraping to get by. And most egregious was an unbridled greed and arrogance that made those in power callous to meting out justice fairly and evenly. And so when we read these words in Isaiah 58 we understand the basis for the harshness of the prophet. He says to them that God will not honor your worship because it is a sham. “You gather into your houses of worship and on your fast days you cover your head with ashes and sackcloth but you refuse to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free” (Isa. 58:4-6). Prophets don’t fleece their people.
Prophets aren’t governed by public opinion polls. By the nature of their call they will often create enemies especially those who are in seats of power. Their prophetic task will mean that they will find themselves alone and alienated from family and friends. Near the end of Dr. King’s life he found himself standing isolated and alone when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam.
In 1967 Dr. King delivered perhaps one of the most important speeches of his life. Delivered at Riverside Church in New York, it was entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” – and it he made official his opposition to the Vietnam War and the reasons for his opposition. Dr. King was widely criticized for this speech from every corner, including those who had been very close to him during the Civil Rights movement. Some folk would call him a traitor because they saw this speech as an attack against President Lyndon Johnson, who had been deemed as a great friend to the Civil Rights Movement. Time Magazine called the speech demagogic slander, and The Washington Post went so far as to declare that Dr. King had diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.
King’s opposition to the war was rooted first and foremost in his understanding of a faith that saw the sanctity of life all life. War and particularly the Vietnam War and we could add the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and are fundamentally destructive to this divine principle. King saw faith as real and that is why he clung to the principle of non-violence. Non-violence was a practical and pragmatic way to live out the words of Micah 6: . “The Lord has shown us what is good and what does he require of us? But to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”
All of life he said was interwoven; inextricably bound. Justice was indivisible. Violence is fundamentally a threat not only to justice but to community. Our commitment must be to justice, to building communities that provide for fairness and economic health that reach across all communities for where justice reigns peace reigns.
Too many young men and women have lost their lives over insignificant things like some insignia that bears the name of some athlete on a shoe or a jersey that somebody wants and would be willing to kill for because we have come to a place in our culture where things have become more important than a human life.
Several years ago I preached on the Southside of Chicago, in a neighborhood of where a week prior a father was in a van changing the diaper of his six month old infant when someone pulled up who obviously knew the father and let out a barrage of bullets – five of them ripping through the body of that baby. Our associations have consequences. The people we hang with if they are dealing in unsavory things have consequences and sometimes the consequences are tragic and ugly.
When I was a Pastor at Cross Lutheran in downtown Milwaukee, I remember the cold-blooded murder of a mother, gunned-down like a dog as her young teenage year old son watched and then cradled his mother in his arms as she lay dying. Her life was taken for the contents of her purse.
Every time I think about the concealed-carry law I have to wonder what were those lawmakers thinking not only when they proposed it but when they passed it.
Dr. King talked about the need for somebody to exercise common sense. In a climate where our urban centers night after night continue to experience horrific and devastating acts of violence why do we need to put more guns in circulation and risk putting more and more innocent people in harm’s way? More importantly, what does this law teach our children about how they should settle conflict?
Jesus reminds us that if we choose to live by the law of retribution, an eye for an eye the result is blindness.
We’ve become comfortable as a people with the makeshift memorials that dot too many places in our neighborhoods that mark the spot where another one of our children have become the victims of gun violence.
And much of the responsibility for the violence that we witness I believe must be borne by the policies of a nation that have historically disregarded the humanity and dignity of communities of people because their skin color was red, black, or brown.
The sin of racism has perverted our religion, our courts and our body politic. This is the first violence and it is the violence that we must work diligently to eradicate whenever we see it and wherever it raises its ugly head.
I have come to the conclusion and we all need to come to understand that poverty is more than about individual choices and circumstances. To see poverty in this way is to miss the forces and the policies that are made by people outside of the community that often impact the poor in ways that keep them poor.
Hospitals who choose to close their doors and leave a community already desperate for good health care that’s economic violence.
Factories that choose to shut down and move to another region in the country or to move out of the country because they would like to increase their profit margins by paying lower wages and fewer benefits to people who would just be happy to have a job – that’s economic violence.
We close schools in the most challenged communities, in communities that need quality education the most, and who could benefit from having the most creative, seasoned and compassionate educators and we build prisons – that’s violence to the nth degree and we ought to be up in arms about that trigger that somebody is also pulling every day.
Dr. King opposed this war on moral grounds, on religious grounds – as a matter of his own faith and how he understood the mission and ministry of Jesus but he would also make a powerful connection between the injustice of that war and any war for that matter that diverts valuable resources from the poorest of the poor in our own Nation.
In his own words: “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men in my own country, I have told them that guns and violence will not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked and rightly so, what about Vietnam [and for 2020 – Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran?] They asked if our own Nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today; my own government. For the sake of these young men, for the sake of my own government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
And we cannot be silent.
Ultimately, the violence that is happening in our own communities with our children killing each other means that there is a work for us to do. We cannot give up on our children. They need us more now than ever. They need for us to care. They need for us to believe in them, to love them, to inspire them to dream. But most of all they need to see in us who are their elders a consistency between the values and morality we preach and teach matching the lives we lead.
On a larger scale we must work to build a community that is filled with quality schools and we must work to ensure that these schools are filled with educators who believe that every child is capable of learning.
We must work tirelessly to put people in offices who will pay attention to our communities and to those issues that will allow our neighborhoods to flourish and our people to succeed.
I AM CONVINCED THAT IF WE ARE TO STEM THE TIDE OF VIOLENCE IN OUR NEIGHBORHOODS WE MUST BE COMMITTED TO THE DOING OF JUSTICE. Working to bring jobs into this city that will pay a fair and livable wage.
Because there is violence in poverty. This is the first violence. Long and protracted poverty that has become entrenched so deep that it settles into the bones is violence of the worst kind because it scars the soul. It kills one’s dreams.
When I have listened to some of the King tributes in recent years I hear a King that is unrecognizable to me. He has been turned into some kind of fairy tale figure and we end up trivializing his significance in the struggle for justice and human dignity. If his life is to have any real meaning for this age we’ve got to take him out of the monument that we have placed him in, chisel away at that rock until we touch the humanity of who he was-find the soul and the faith that allowed him to lead a movement that challenged a violent and brutal system that everyday made a conscious choice to denigrate a people and squash their personality because of the color of their skin.
Equally, some of us have made Jesus so divine that we have made him untouchable. But that’s not the Jesus that I read about. My Bible tells me about a Jesus who went to the Temple and turned over tables and drove out those who were using religion to extort monies from the poorest members of the community. My Bible tells me about this same Jesus who came to his hometown and preached a message filled with the imagination of God:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to announce pardon to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind. To set the burdened and the battered free and to announce: that this is God’s time to act.” (Luke 4:14-21)
This is the Jesus that King came to know. This was the work and faith of Jesus that inspired him. But this is the same Jesus that we confess as Lord and Savior. This Jesus the flesh and blood Jesus who ate with sinners, who touched lepers, who healed the sick, who fed the hungry masses, who experienced the disappointment of denial and betrayal by his friends, who so loved the world that he gave his life for that world that we might have life and that life abundant not just in the great bye and bye but abundant life on this side of the grave.
They did not march for naught. They did not march so that we could turn on each other like wild dogs, not able to see each other as the brothers and sisters we are.
They did not suffer the daily humiliation of being called out of their names, of being addressed as “boy,” or “girl,” when they were 40-50-60 and 70 years old by whites who believed that Black people were less than human and not worthy of being addressed by the title of Mr. or Mrs. No! No! They did not suffer the kind of wounds so that we can humiliate and wound each other by using the “n-word” – word that still carries with it a kind of vitriol and poison whose primary aim is to destroy and kill; They did not march, go to jail, bleed and die so that we could ever turn on each other and wreak havoc and leave a trail of fathers broken and mothers weeping not because their children have died for something important and noble but because we felt that somebody challenged our manhood ,or disrespected us with a glance or a stare that we took as a threat.
They did not march and struggle and suffer a daily humiliation by those who thought them less than human-not worthy of the freedom of a human being-the dignity of a human being.
We celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today but surely this day is more than just about one man or one man’s life. It is about many people, a movement that grew out of a clear view that people deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.
And when I think about this struggle it was a struggle rooted in love.
Love gives us courage to fight against what is unjust and dark and evil, but it also gives us the courage to fight for our own humanity as well as the humanity of others and finally it gives us courage to act on behalf of the community to build community-a community where there is justice and dignity and opportunities for every individual to reach their full potential. These are difficult days still. There are people still living under the burden of economic oppression. We are losing to many of our young black males to prison – which Professor Michelle Alexander is calling The New Jim Crow. Poverty in this community is a nightmare. People are suffering because justice is scarce. Drugs have become a scourge on our community wreaking havoc not just upon individual lives but upon families.
God’s ears are attuned to us. He hears our every groan. He hears our every cry.
And he’s calling out with His burning question: Who will go for us? The fullness of the Godhead is united in the question and united in the vision. Who will go?
Isaiah answered ‘Here I am Lord!” Send me.”
May it be so with you and me!
Get your courage up
There are some people counting on you and me to make our faith more than just about words.
Born in Vicksburg, MS. 1952 raised in Jackson, the Rev. Kenneth Wheeler was educated in the Jackson Public School System. He received B.A. in Religion 1974 from Concordia College Moorhead, MN and his M.Div. 1982 Trinity Lutheran Seminary Columbus, Ohio – and was granted an Honorary Doctorate 2018 from Wartburg Seminary. During his rich ministry life he served 18 years as Assistant to the Bishop, Greater Milwaukee Synod (ELCA) as well as pastoring 16 congregations as a trained intentional interim. In his own words, “I have a passion for justice because I believe that Justice is a Gospel issue. I have been privileged to speak in a number of places across the country on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout my ministry and that continues even in retirement.” These days, he glories in time spent wonderful wife of 44 years, Cloria – along with their three adult sons and five grand-children. In retirement their enjoy travel, reading and spending precious time with his grand-kids.