This year marks 50 years since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. In those 50 years, whiteness and white supremacy have done their best to domesticate the words of Dr. King. He has been turned from a revolutionary voice who existed in and was supported by a raucous community of revolutionaries who challenged the status quo and spoke of upending the power structures in America as we know them, to a nice guy who wanted us to all like each other. His face has been put on memes decrying protest. People (who clearly have no desire to actually know Dr. King or his work) have said things like, “Dr. King never blocked traffic” (a patently false statement) to proof-texting his words to decry the work of Black Lives Matter (in particular) and others fighting in the streets, in their homes, and in communities for racial and economic justice.
While in jail in Birmingham in 1963, King penned the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which included a scathing critique of all of the people telling him to calm down, to take it slowly, and to wait -- his critique was particularly aimed at white moderates. And yet here we are, 50 years later, still debating the very existence of white supremacy and the systemic reasons for poverty. We lift up the words of Dr. King when they are convenient, and fail (by and large) to allow them to convict us or our congregations. We are more than happy to talk about his dream of a society in which all of the little children can hold hands and sing, “Free at last, free at last!” but we shrink away when called to do the work to get us to that dream, “preferring an absence of tension to the presence of justice.” For the sake of our jobs, we as preachers too often remain quiet, turning our congregations into, as Dr. King stated, “irrelevant social clubs with no meaning.” Like so much scripture, we lift up the words of Dr. King that are convenient for us, and obscure or hide those that are not. We need a radical remembering of who Dr. King was and what he stood for. We need to remember that while his choice to protest peacefully was not only born out of a conviction that peaceful protest was the best way to accomplish desegregation and work towards the end of white supremacy, it was also the only way their message could be heard *because* of white supremacy. He knew that black people protesting in destructive ways would be seen by the white establishment as proof they were less-than-human, and that behavior would feed into the sub-human narrative white supremacy has created about black people. He knew that in order to be successful, he had to subversively feed into the politics of respectability -- that a well dressed, peaceful black man being beaten on tv would receive more sympathy than one who fought back. He knew the movement *had* to work with this narrative. He knew white moderates would have far more sympathy for someone who was “following the rules” than someone who was not. In many ways it was working within the system as much it was to try to break the system apart.
We try to neuter King’s message so we can lift up a hero we are “supposed” to lift up without making people uncomfortable, and by doing so we completely misunderstand the subversive way King used respectability. He didn’t use it to be gentle. He used it to be heard. Today many use Dr. King’s words to decry violent protest, forgetting that Dr. King deeply understood the riots, calling “a riot a language of the unheard.” He called our our desire to pray for justice and peace while not working for it by telling us we had created for ourselves an impotent God and/or were asking for God to be a cosmic butler. Dr. King did not have time for those asking him to wait. Nor did he have time for those who weren’t willing to pick up their cross and follow Christ. King preached, “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and yet is not concerned with the economic and social conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is the kind the Marxist describes as “an opiate of the people,” followed by, “... we must admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty stricken humanity.” These are not soft words, these are not comfortable words, but they are exactly the words our people need to hear in our current moment.
People of color should not have to play respectability politics. It should not matter what a person is wearing if they are beaten by police or by another human being. It should not matter if they had a criminal record. And it certainly should not matter if they are black. And still, we white moderates play into this trope all the time, judging bodies that lie in the street based on the color of their skin, the hoodie they were wearing, their criminal history, their size and a whole manner of other things. We have decided that some bodies are more deserving of respect, dignity, freedom and, well, life, than other bodies.
In today’s reading from Paul, he is talking about bodies. As Lura pointed out in her commentary for the week, do all bodies matter? If we are reading Paul and professing that our bodies are temples, are not all bodies temples? Should we not see the bodies of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Brandi Seals, Trayvon Martin and all of the other black and brown bodies that litter the streets as temples as much as we view our own as temples? Do they not deserve the same respect? Are we willing to speak about the destruction of black lives both individually and collectively as a destruction of the temple and a disrespect of God’s creation? Are we willing to not only #saytheirnames but to speak out regarding the reasons we have to say their names? Do we have the strength to shed our comfortable white moderate skin and really speak into this moment in the way Dr. King asked us to 50 years ago? Are we willing to go beyond honoring Dr. King this one day a year and honor him (and, in turn, honor Christ) by doing justice? Are we willing to speak the truth of white supremacy into our congregations? To educate them about the school to prison pipeline, the racism in the criminal justice system, and to endorse Campaign Zero from the pulpit and in our classrooms?
The gospel for the day has Christ saying to the disciples, “Come and see.” This is how he did his ministry. He invited people to see who he was and the only way to truly understand who he was was to come and see. Is this not true of how we all must understand each other? If Christ lives in all of us, is not Christ inviting us to come and see the pain of our neighbor? To visit the Baltimore schools to see children being frozen in their classrooms? To visit people living in prisons, jails and detention centers to hear their stories and see their humanity? To look into the eyes of immigrants to see who they are beyond the rhetoric?
Come and see the black bodies laying in the street. They are temples of God.
Come and see the brown bodies languishing in prison. They are temples of God.
Come and see the black trans folx hiding in the shadows for fear of death. They are temples of God.
Come and see the black and brown children freezing in their classrooms. They are temples of God.
Come and see the dream deferred.
Go out and tell of the dream deferred.
Dismantle the systems that have paused the dream.
Leave behind the ways of the white moderate.
Step up to the plate.
Work to see the dream realized.