By Rev. Trey Lyon
“Go to jail together?”
I had heard it too, and the fifth grader sitting next to me, coloring his picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., cocked his head to the side and looked at me. The truth is I had never noticed the phrase. “I have a dream today” that part I knew. “That one day every valley shall be exalted and the crooked places made straight.” I knew that part too–it’s Isaiah, after all.
“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” That sounded good–but “go to jail together?”
Somehow I missed that one over the years.
Antonio had heard it too. “Yeah–go to jail together.” I said. “You know, like how people had to fight for their rights–sit-ins at lunch counters–or even the way people protest now to get their voice heard.”
“Oh yeah” Antonio said, in a voice loud enough to startle the third grader next to him. “I remember learning about that. Why would people do that?”
I said they did it because they believed in something. Because sometimes the law is not right–it’s not just. And when the law is not just, the right thing to do is to draw attention to the right thing and work to change the wrong–even if it means breaking the law. I told him about my friend who was recently arrested for courageously trying to draw attention to a politician’s long history of racist statements and actions.
I told him what I thought was the right answer, but I was telling myself that too. I knew we should pray together, work together, struggle together–but go to jail together?
I had never noticed that before–perhaps because I didn’t want to notice. Maybe that’s getting too psychological, but Dr. King was fascinated by psychology. In a speech at Western Michigan University in 1963 he spoke of the necessity for psychology to identify and rectify maladjustment, especially among children. But as the Dreamer was wont to do, he didn’t stop there, but turned that idea saying that with regard to many things he hoped he remained firmly maladjusted.
“I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”
This would be the genesis of one of his set pieces–that to be a true person of conscience, much less a citizen of the Kingdom of God, one must be always “maladjusted to injustice.” King turns to his favorite prophet, Amos, calling for the creation of a new organization: “The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.”
A few weeks ago I preached on Amos and was struck by the image of the plumb line. My dad and granddad are both engineers, so I was about 14 when I saw an odd looking paperweight in my dad’s study that I later found out was an antique plumb bob used by my great grandfather to build homes and a couple of stone churches. Dad explained how the plumb bob worked–how it had been used to build the pyramids of Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, cathedrals across Europe, and the rock house of my forefathers in North Georgia.
Amos says God was establishing a plumb line among God’s people–a standard of justice by which all human standards of justice must be measured. King channeled that same imagery–in his speech about creative maladjustment in Michigan and in his more famous dream interpretation on the Washington Mall.
When it comes to the prophets, we tend to remember the beautiful images–justice rolling down like waters, dreams of children holding hands–righteousness like flowing streams, tables of brother and sisterhood. But that wasn’t the prophets whole message, whether they hail from Tekoa or Sweet Auburn.
In King’s case, the creatively maladjusted one stood in the shadow of Washington’s monument- a shadow that still bears silent witness to the 123 slaves our most famous founder owned-and in front of the Great Emancipator. In that space between the greats he dares speak to that history–the promissory note of freedom and equality for all–taking the allegorical read of the Founders over the literalist–that the freedom was intended for all, not just the five-fifths folks.
King says the promissory note has been returned “insufficient funds.” America’s check has bounced. The prophet says that hopes for peace will not come before justice, promising that those who “hope that the Negro will blow off steam and now be content will be in for a rude awakening if that nation returns to business as usual.” This, too, is Dr. King. It’s harder to imagine it on a postage stamp, or recited at the elementary school assembly, but if we take the dream as canon, we must also take the reckoning.
There cannot be justice unless it is God’s justice. Anything else is a leaning house, a crooked frame. The prophets know that and they call us to it. They calls us to a holy maladjustment at the justice of our culture because, as the plumb line knows gravity, we too know a higher law.
That higher law calls us to pray together, to work together and yes, to go to jail together. It means asking questions about why the jail is there in the the first place and why some folks are long term residents while others get out freer than a Monopoly game. We ought to hold the plumb line up the jail house…and the school house…and the court house…and the White House. And if it doesn’t square up, well–the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment always welcomes new chapters.