Unfinished Business

I originally delivered this as a keynote address for The Albina Ministerial Alliance’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service at Allen Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon on January 15, 2012. As we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy together today, I wanted to share these words again.

This evening, we have gathered together to remember, celebrate and act upon the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We have unfinished business to which we must attend. God is not finished with Dr. King’s vision being lived out in our midst. We have his God-given vision to fulfill. It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be asked to give this address. For one, Dr. King is one of my heroes for reasons that I will soon share. Moreover, so too is Dr. Leroy Haynes, Jr., Senior Pastor of this historic sanctuary and faith community, Allen Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Dr. Haynes has been a prophetic voice of constancy for justice in a culture ceaselessly consumed not by rights but by opinion polls, passing fancies, and profit margins. I wish to thank Dr. Haynes, Dr. T. Allen Bethel, Bishop Grace Osborne, Bishop-Elect Pastor William Turner, Reverend Clifford Chappell and other leaders here for their passionate commitment to the Lord Jesus and his kingdom values as modeled by his servant, Dr. King. To share in their struggle and all of you in the struggle for justice as African Americans is a gift from God to me. Tonight is one momentous moment and mile marker for me in that drum major march toward justice.

As individuals and as a community, your passion and commitment to the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. far outweigh my own. You live it daily. I share these reflections on the life and legacy of Dr. King given how much they challenge me personally and how much you have shaped me. I hope you find these meditations to be of some value and encouragement: your efforts in reaching out to me and the white Evangelical Christian community of which I am a member are making a difference. The irony is that we in the white Evangelical Christian community have only recently begun engaging in significant ways on matters of injustice that concern us all. And yet, we often think and operate as if we are the ones leading the charge. Please forgive us for our arrogance. Please keep modeling for us how to run this marathon race of justice and lead us forward to build the beloved community.

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Dr. King was more than a Christian professional. He was a prophet. In fact, he sacrificed his profession for his prophetic call. Our society talks a great deal about making a profit, but not nearly enough about being prophetic. King, however, taught us how to be prophetic. King was a true prophet. He called people back to God’s Word and to our nation’s highest ideals, and he laid down his life to make it happen. Like Moses of old who led Israel to the Promised Land, King led his people at great sacrifice to himself. Just as Moses would die before the people entered the land, so King died before his people would enter the land. Both Moses and King looked over the Promised Land and they overlooked themselves while caring for the people’s needs. King had more than a professional career. He had a prophetic calling. As in the case with all great leaders, the concern for the people far outweighed his own self-concern. How are we wired? What wins out in our lives? Self-concern to do more than make ends meet and to make it big, or concern to make things right for the people around us who are in distress?

One of the most vivid examples of King putting his prophetic call and the people before his profession and his personal life is an event early on in the civil rights struggle. In 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King came home late one night after a civil rights meeting. His family was asleep. The phone rang. King answered. The person on the other end of the line told him that he had better get out of town or he would be dead. After the person hung up, King recalls making himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen and sitting down at the table. He writes:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak…With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…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.’” At that instance, King recalls, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before.” King writes, “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world’…Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson {New York: Warner Books, 1998}, pp. 77-78.)

A few days later his home was bombed. Providentially, no one was hurt. Still, King knew that the day would come when he would meet the assassin’s bullet for meeting the people’s needs. Still, he marched on: the concerns of the people far outweighed his own self-concern. What about us? What bears the greatest importance in our lives? What preoccupies our attention—concern for the people or our own self-concern as professors, pastors, politicians, and people of various other professions? Remember Dr. King’s life. Celebrate his calling. And act it out. We have his God-given mission to fulfill.

I first read this account during my visit to the King Center in Atlanta several years ago. I was struck by the profound prophetic life of Dr. King and my own pettiness. How often have I cared for my profession over against my prophetic call to give myself to the orphans and widows in their distress? (James 1:27) How about you? I will ask the same kind of questions of us, after I discuss King’s legacy in terms of his ideals.

Dr. King was about rights, but he was also about more than rights. He was about building beloved community that would benefit all people across the ethnic and economic spectrum. Just as there are far too many people concerned with their careers, and not callings to care for others, so too there are far too many people in our society concerned for their special interest groups rather than the common good and greater good of all. King was not simply about rights for his own people. He was about reconciliation that entailed justice for all people. That is why he said that he had a dream that “one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” King had a dream “that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.” (Taken from “I Have A Dream”; accessed on 1/16/12).

King’s love of rights for all people and the right to love all people were powerful and omnipresent ideals that energized King’s quest for building beloved community. As King said in a sermon at Christmas in 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama,

To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’ (found here; accessed on 1/16/12)

Such conviction, courage and compassion flowed from Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). The late Evangelical Anglican statesman John R. W. Stott claimed that King was the greatest model of Jesus’ ethic disclosed in this text in the modern age (“The Message of the Sermon on the Mount {Matthew 5–7}: Christian Counter-Culture,” The Bible Speaks Today {Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978}, 113).

Do we have these same ideals? Do we love our enemies? Do we so wear them down with our love that we don’t simply win freedom for ourselves, but also freedom for them and for those who do not belong to our socio-economic and ethnic groupings, winning a double victory in the process? A lack of practical love so often shapes my life. An unwillingness to reach out and forgive and accept forgiveness and move toward reconciliation and commitment to all people for the cultivation of the beloved community. If Dr. King could forgive his white oppressors for the horrific harm they did to him, his family and his community, I can certainly forgive those hostile toward me. Otherwise, I have no business being here this evening paying tribute to King. Each of us must ask ourselves if we are sons and daughters of the King of kings and Lord of lords and servants of the King of Dr. King, or sons and daughters of thunder, like John and James who wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town that opposed Jesus and his message (Luke 9:51-56). Jesus rebuked James and John for it. And he so often rebukes me, too.

While Dr. King demonstrated incredible social etiquette in his public personae, there was nothing charming about the racism and classism he gave himself so tirelessly to address. And while he was engaged in battle at every turn, he fought hate with love. King was about the power of love, not the love of power. He was about redemption, not retribution. We must continue this fight. We will never attain the beloved community in Portland and the surrounding region if we do not continue to keep in place Dr. King’s inspiring ideals, vision, and exemplary life.

In Oregon and Washington, we don’t face racism in the same way as King did in the South. We approach it differently, but not necessarily more redemptively. What was said by black leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s still rings true today: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close you get, as long as you don’t get too high. In the North, he doesn’t care how high you get, as long as you don’t get too close.” For all our tolerance in the Pacific Northwest, such tolerance does not translate all that well into love. Love is tenacious. It does not endure “the other.” It pursues life together with the other. As the Apostle Paul writes, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

“I would rather be loved than tolerated,” I once heard someone say. I am so thankful that John 3:16 does not say, “For God so tolerated the world that he chose not to send his Son.” Rather, it says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” for us so that we might find eternal life through faith in him. God did all this, even though he knew the world would reject his love and hang his Son on the cross. Still, God’s love pursues us and breaks through our hate to transform our hearts and lives. Will we respond to God’s love and love where there is hate? King did not simply tolerate people, including his enemies. He tenaciously loved them so that they would become his friends, and so that they could build the beloved community together.

So, what does the beloved community look like, and what is the unfinished business to which we must attend in light of King’s life and legacy? The beloved community is a community of love and justice and peace and equality that breaks through the chains of racism and classism and abuses of various kinds. Beloved community requires that we connect the dots of those things that destroy beloved community and come together in solidarity to consume those dots and connections, just as King did. We learn a bit of how to connect the dots from Dr. King. In King’s sermon on his opposition to the Vietnam War (delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967; watch it here; accessed on 1/16/12), King spoke of the slave triangle of “poverty, racism and militarism.” King maintained that this triangle was enslaving America. Today, we are fighting a war right here in Portland with gang activity and violence. How will we fight it? What is involved? King’s opposition to the Vietnam War (not an opposition to the men and women laying down their lives) was based on conviction, not opinion polls, and it lost him a great deal of support in certain quarters, even among people who had celebrated his leadership in the civil rights movement. But King connected the dots and saw that the war taking away from the civil rights struggle, dramatically draining the fight against the war on poverty for blacks and whites, and sending the poor in far higher proportion than the rich to fight the war in Vietnam. Many people could not connect the dots that King did in speaking of the relation of poverty, racism, and militarism. But he was right to make such connections in his efforts to build solidarity and the beloved community.

In our day, we must connect the dots of problems like unequal access to quality education and economic inequality to the problem of gang violence. We must also connect the dots of the negative forces of gentrification to gang violence. According to a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, for many African Americans in Portland, urban renewal is Negro removal. Such vulnerability and transiency, where people are uprooted from their communities, makes a damaging difference. We must also connect the dots involving these problems to a prison system so often based on retribution, not reformation. How are people to be reintroduced to society and make a vital contribution to society if they are never prepared to become vital participants and welcomed back through networks of support? We must come together to right the wrongs of a prison system that enslaves black men (it has been argued that the percentage of black men in prison far outweighs their proportionate presence in society). We must also attend to the fatherlessness so rampant in our society. Do we honor the fathers and mothers in the home, the fathers and mothers in our churches, and the fathers and mothers in our society as a whole? We must make sure everyone is welcome at the table of beloved community and make sure that we bring honor not simply to Dr. King but to the fathers and mothers and sons and daughters who have marched in the band that King led as a drum major for justice. These marchers are here this evening. They include you. We must support one another in the ongoing efforts to build beloved community in our day.

A political leader responsible for building vital connections between the faith community and civic leaders and activists in Portland asked me this past week: “Why don’t the white evangelical Christians and white Christians generally concern themselves with gang issues? Why is it simply an African American concern in so many quarters? The white Evangelical Christian community is rightly concerned for addressing homelessness and the sex trade, but is not involved by and large in building the infrastructure that will bring an end to all the gang violence in our community,” this leader said. I responded by saying that it is because we in the white Christian community—especially white Evangelical Christian community of which I am part—does not connect the dots very well. We do not see that all these forces have a bearing on one another. Nor do we think that the African American community’s concerns are our own. Nor do we sense that we ourselves—I myself—have been guilty in part of creating the vacuum and fragmentation that leads to gang activity and violence. For if I benefit from a system that keeps people underprivileged and do nothing to change the structures, I am causing that destructive system to become further entrenched and to expand. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. We must connect these various dots. Not only must we connect the various dots, but also we must become more connected to one another if we are to carry out Dr. King’s vision and build the beloved community. Each sphere is related to all the others, and so we must address them together, all of us together.

We must continue to support the life and legacy not only of Dr. King but also of the late Rob Ingram, and his living contemporaries Robert Richardson, John Canda, Mark Strong, Clarence Larkin and the African American leaders in this sanctuary. We must continue to work with our political leaders and support them in their various efforts to bring an end to the violence and build the beloved community. We must show gratitude to the often thankless labors of love of mothers who serve their families so sacrificially, fathering their children, holding down multiple jobs, teaching their children the value of hard work and how to stretch a dollar and stretch a hug to heal a family and a community. As someone once said, mothers are the cradle of our civilization. We must support them and learn from them and from the civil rights movement. In the civil rights movement, the people did not have much by way of financial resources. They had to stretch their resources, but they had one another. Look what they were able to accomplish as they stretched out their arms to heal their communities!

What kind of leaders and community will we be and become? What kind of community will we build? Will we follow through on our prophetic calling to build beloved community and break through the divisions in our society together, divisions that are symbolized and further solidified by the gang violence tearing through our community? We must remember, celebrate, and act. We still have unfinished business to which we must attend. We have Dr. King’s Spirit-inspired vision to fulfill.

This piece is cross-posted at The Christian Post.

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