Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

MLK, Jr. Day

It is entirely fitting that we in the U.S.A. have a national holiday on the birthday of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), nonviolent warrior for justice and peace. Nevertheless, the WAY we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy is usually disappointing: a day off from work for many, coupled with 30-second sound-bites of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington–not even the whole speech and no context. Politicians congratulating themselves that “we have overcome” racism even while we are busy re-segregating our schools because housing patterns remain segregated (de facto, though no longer de jure) and busing is now taboo, and even while the race gap in wages is huge, and African-American and Latino children are now routinely fast-tracked from kindergarten to prison.

Our children have a distorted view of the Freedom Movement, believing that one day Rosa Parks sat down in a ‘white’ seat on a Montgomery Bus, the next day King gave the I Have a Dream Speech in D. C. and “poof”–segregation disappeared. The numerous campaigns and the struggles of thousands of ordinary people are thus masked. And Dr. King’s increasingly radical economic views (calling himself a democratic socialist and working on a Poor People’s Campaign that would unite all races to end poverty) and ever stronger opposition to the Vietnam War (which lost him the support of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and even many other civil rights leaders who thought he had no business speaking out on foreign policy), are also hidden.

The tragedy of this is that it is precisely the radical King of 1965-1968 whom we need to remember and look to for guidance today. This was the King who pointed out the connections between government-sponsored violence and the violence of city streets, and who saw the connections between the money spent on war and the money unavailable for economic justice here. This was the King who had to be silenced.

To remember the radical King, read or listen tohis “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech/sermon, delivered on 04 April 1967 at Riverside Church in New York–one year to the day before he was assassinated.

Listen to former Sen. John Edwards update that speech for our time, speaking yesterday at Riverside Church.

Act on that legacy by working for justice with nonviolence: Take action with others to work for racial or economic justice or to end war. Or go beyond the struggles of King’s day and work for justice for women and GLBT persons. Defend persecuted Muslims and Arab-Americans.

And help the young get past the easy stereotypes and sound-bites. Get the Eyes on the Prize videos from your local library and watch them with your children, helping them to understand this greatest U.S. socio-drama of the 20th C. Help them notice how young many of the marchers are and help them claim their power as youth to change things.

Resolve with your children to study together the history of nonviolent social movements and the various theologies and philosophies which have undergirded it. See that Dr. King belongs in a great cloud of witnesses that, for Christian pacifists, begins with Jesus and includes people like St. Francis of Assissi, Menno Simons, George Fox, Dorothy Day, Muriel Lester, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams, Mubarak Awad and so many others. And study also the nonviolent warriors for justice of other faiths: Buddha and such Buddhists as Aung San Suu Kyi and the 14th Dalai Lama; Muslims like Badshah Khan, Rabia Terri Harris, Shirin Ebadi, & Muhammed Yunus; Hindus like Mohandas K. Gandhi; Jews like R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb, and so many more.

Start a peacemaker group in your local church. Study the Sermon on the Mount as you begin a journey together.

Soundbites are one thing, but Dr. King’s Legacy should be so much more.

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January 15, 2007 Posted by | economic justice, heroes, human rights., MLK, nonviolence, race | 2 Comments