Saturday, January 19, 2008


In my last post, I went on for page after page to sing the tributes of a legitimate heir to Martin Luther King, Jr. This week, however, is the time to put aside the disciples for a moment and consider The Man himself.

There are few more inspiring Americans in our nation’s history than MLK. I would put him right below Lincoln in the pantheon of beloved Americans. Not surprisingly, both men are primarily associated with the same cause: racial justice for African-Americans. The way we have treated black people is the most blatant blot on our history – and given the way we’ve treated Native Americans, that’s really saying something. In Lincoln’s day, it was commonly believed among American whites that black people weren’t even human. By the time MLK came of age, I’d like to think that our society had progressed beyond that primitive view … but it is equally clear that in places as diverse as Birmingham, Blacksburg, and Boston, white people overtly labeled blacks as genetically inferior, both intellectually and morally. Human, perhaps, but inferior just the same.

Thankfully, though, overt racism is now passé. More importantly, with the passing of each generation, even subconscious racism appears to be on the decline. You can’t attribute this welcome development to any one factor, but I think it’s safe to say that we owe the waning of modern American racism more to MLK than to any other person. It almost makes you sad that the visionary behind Mount Rushmore wasn’t born 100 years later. King’s image certainly deserved to be chiseled in that stone.

This weekend, those of us who have joined the 21st century can reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. as proof positive that racism is bankrupt as an ideology. We can also consider the man as a wonderful symbol of non-violence – the Western Hemisphere’s answer to Gandhi, if you will. Finally, we can reflect on MLK as one of the last truly great orators – a salesman, par excellence, for the worthiest of goals. Those three elements are commonly regarded as his legacy. And if he stood for nothing else, that would be dayenu … that would be enough.

Fortunately, Dr. King’s legacy is even more pregnant with riches for those of us who are willing to look for them.

Think for a moment about Dr. King from an occupational standpoint. The dude wasn’t a doctor, lawyer, or businessman. He wasn’t a teacher. Nor was he an entertainer. And believe it or not, he wasn’t even a politician. He was a clergyman – a Christian clergyman.

It sounds crazy to think of him that way today. Christian clergymen don’t march down the streets for justice – or if they do, it’s justice for “people” who have yet to be born. Christian clergymen don’t spend days at a time in jail – or if they do, it’s because they’re visiting inmates, not serving as one.

Surely, there are as many inspired, passionate, and effective Christian clergymen today as there were back in the days when MLK preached. The problem, of course, is that today’s clergy tend to be forces of conservatism. These are the people responsible for the re-election of our President in 2004. These are the people responsible for convincing their “flock” that whether one woman is permitted legally to “marry” another is a more important issue than whether our country made the right choice in spending a trillion dollars and destroying thousands of lives in Iraq.

I can accept that there exists influential right-wing Christian clergy, just as there are right-wing Jewish and Islamic clergy. That’s as it should be. But here’s what I don’t understand: where are their progressive counterparts? Which movements are they leading? Which laws are they treating with civil disobedience? Where are they taking to the streets? How are they affecting the public discourse?

Just as the name of Jesus of Nazareth – an egalitarian, anti-establishment figure, if ever there was one -- has been usurped by the forces of status quo, so too has the name of Dr. King. Right wingers love him because they’ve always been afraid of uprisings by the “masses,” and he abhorred violence. Plus, they (correctly) appreciate activists who, while supporting blacks or women, steer clear of opposing whites or men. But let’s not kid ourselves. This man, had he not been shot, would have embraced one liberal cause after another in addition to racial justice. While alive, he was a fighter on behalf of the poor, the environment, and public health … and spoke out against our discretionary war overseas. One can only imagine all the progressive changes he could have made in these areas were he permitted to grace us during the past few decades with his oratory, charisma, and convictions. Unfortunately, once Dr. King died, a void was created that was never filled. Now, it’s our job to help fill it.

No, my friends, I’m not suggesting that we all go to divinity school, collect our PhDs, and attempt to replicate Dr. King’s vocational trajectory. But I don’t think we have to.

I have met numerous talented progressive clergymen and women who would love to make the kind of difference MLK made 40 years back. The fact is, though, that these clergy can’t accomplish anything all by themselves. Right now, progressive religion has become something of an oxymoron. It’s not hard to find churches and synagogues that call themselves progressive, but the numbers of their congregants who are truly committed to progressive causes are few and far between. Just consider the reaction on the street to our crazy war in Iraq. Where’s the outrage? If MLK and his friends were around, we’d have ten times as many protesters. But today, to quote Abby Hoffman, our society has become a “hotbed of rest.” And while Hoffman was whining about the pathetic state of college campuses, I think you can pin the problem largely on the pathetic state of progressive churches, synagogues, and mosques. The bricks and mortar are doing fine … but the passion and conviction have somehow evaporated through the windows … and down the street to Fundamentalist establishments instead.

If you want to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., do us all a favor. Search in your community for spiritual leaders who most authentically follow his example -- people who preach from the heart, tell us the blunt truth, demonstrate courage as well as insight, focus on achieving fundamental changes, and are fueled by love rather than ambition. Yes, I know, you’re not likely to find King’s clone, or even his equal. But you don’t have to. Just do the best you can. Find that church or synagogue with “relatively” inspired clergy. If you don’t believe in God, pick a Secular Humanist or Ethical Culture establishment. It really matters little what group you pick. Just pick one. Join a progressive organization and get actively involved in it.

Most importantly, when the time comes for “we the people” to take to the street on behalf of critical causes, make sure that your organization is there in force. If you are around to see it all happen, you will literally be able to give the finger to James Earl Ray and bring Dr. King back to life.

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