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The Light of Human Conscience – 1/15/2017

In his song, “Shed a Little Light,” American singer-songwriting James Taylor began with some words which, though not written for this weekend’s holiday specifically, summarize some of the laudable sentiment usually expressed in its observation. Here is some of what he sang:

Oh, let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King

and recognize that there are ties between us,

all men and women living on the Earth.

Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood,

That we are bound together

in our desire to see the world become

a place in which our children can grow free and strong.

We are bound together

by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead.

We are bound and we are bound.

Tomorrow, our nation will mark its annual observation of Martin Luther King Day, and so this weekend, in churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country, his memory is being invoked and his words are being intoned. To join with that practice, I want to begin with a long passage from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which is, in my opinion, the most insightful and eternally relevant of all his well-known writings. Before I begin reading, let me remind you of the context of the text. In Alabama, and in fact throughout much of this country, in 1963 racial discrimination by means of segregation was not only legal but the law. In order to confront an unacceptable status quo, a coalition of local leaders and organizers from across the South led a month-long campaign of protest and non-violent resistance in Birmingham, Alabama, then one of the most segregated cities in America. Dr. King was the leading face of the campaign, and was among those arrested for it on April 12th – the Friday before Easter. While he was in jail, a friend smuggled in a newspaper to him which included a letter published by white faith leaders in Alabama – 4 ministers, 3 priests, and 1 rabbi – denouncing the campaign. They called it ‘unwise and untimely,’ claimed that it was inciting ‘hatred and violence,’ and dismissed it as the work of outsiders. Dr. King penned his response while still in jail, beginning in the margins of the newspaper itself until his lawyers were eventually allowed to bring him a writing pad. I want to share with you three paragraphs from that letter, this morning. Here is the first:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The traditional commemoration of his birthday emphasizes Dr. King’s message of commonality across division, and the necessity and promise of a world defined by equal freedom and mutual understanding – built by all, to the benefit of all. Now, that is not just made up out of whole cloth – it is, legitimately, an ideal which Dr. King espoused, which he preached about, and which, by every possible measure, he believed. But it is, too often, the only message from his life and work lifted up on his holiday. Hopefully these words from his letter are a reminder that he had more to speak to than just the grandiosity of peace and love. If the man and his message are to be considered seriously, on this day, then we must pay attention to his indictment not only of those most actively seeking to establish and enforce injustice, but also of those standing too idly by. I will admit, friends, that I have rarely, in my lifetime, been accused of being a moderate. But here Dr. King lays out a definition for that term that convicts me, and, I suspect, a few of y’all as well.

He describes the moderate, in part, as someone “who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”” Though I have, for the whole of my life, followed a religion which demands the full freedom and dignity of all people, and which requires of me that I work to see that demand fulfilled, I must confess to you that there remains something in me which gets itchy when the status quo gets upset. Which begins to get worried when voices get loud, and fearful when an argument comes to blows, no matter who might be doing the swinging. I recognize that I have said before to the most outspoken and indignant of the marginalized and oppressed, if only in my heart, something like those damning words, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” If you have ever accepted the absence of tension in substitute for the presence of justice, perhaps those words ring as loudly in your ears as they do in mine. Dr. King continues to indict the moderate with the fierce truth in his letter’s next paragraph:

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

It is so easy and so common-place to place all, most, or even just some of the blame for the disorder and disruption caused by acts of protest at the feet of the protestors. And indeed, in every struggle for freedom and justice there are always debates and disputes about tactics – conversations that need to be had. But Dr. King reminds us, reminds me, that the righteousness of a cause is to be measured by the depth of the injustice it seeks to overturn. Where there truly is something wrong with the world – painfully, harmfully, gravely wrong – the only moral answer is to fight it. We may take issue the strategies employed in that fight, but only once we have come off of the sidelines and made it plain that we are enemies of what is wrong and advocates for what is right. If a newly-revealed tension, that makes my mind worry and my stomach rumble, is the price of taking that position, I must be ready to pay it.

Dr. King’s words about exposing injustice to the light of human conscience seem to me to have a particularly urgent meaning for us today, less than a week away from the inauguration of our nation’s next president. In an age in which, more and more, we choose our facts to fit our opinions, and lies are allowed to stand side-by-side with the truth and crow angry demands for equal attention, simply to affirm what is true has never mattered more. It has been demoralizing to many of us – myself included – to see how far empty-bravado, disingenuous doublespeak, and professionalized ignorance can take a person in the public life of our country. Falsehood has won a great deal, and I cannot promise you it will not win a great deal more. But it cannot possibly lose, until and unless it is answered even more loudly with the truth. Fierce, unadulterated truth, resilient in the face of tension and even of violence, may not be a panacea, but it is the only cure we have for what ails our society and our world.

In the third paragraph of Dr. King’s letter which I want to share with you, he turns again to address his critics directly, beginning by underlining the injustice and unreason of criticizing the victims of oppression for seeking to do something about their circumstances:

“In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Our Unitarian ancestor, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, coined this idea which Martin Luther King rephrased somewhat and popularized enormously, that: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It should be clear to us, however, as it was clear both to Parker and to King, that this bending does not happen entirely of its own accord. “Time itself is neutral,” as Dr. King said. It is up to all of us, who live together in the present, to lend our efforts to bending that arc. To use time even more effectively than have those folks driven by hatred or ignorance. Four long years’ worth of time stretch out in front of us, now. The task that stands before us, and the road that lies ahead is not well-marked nor neatly paved, but it can only be traversed by setting out onto it. The alternative is to stand quietly, along the side of that road, and simply watch the grim parade go by. We are bound together by our common humanity and, I believe, our shared will to see the world become a finer place than it is now. And so, too, we are bound towards that finer place, creeping forward, bit by bit, no matter how difficult the journey.


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