It’s a surprising thing, isn’t it, that a man who died just 39 years ago has a major holiday set aside to honor his life. Here in Washington they are planning a memorial on the Mall to celebrate his life and work—the only person to be honored on our nation’s sacred ground who wasn’t a President. I would guess that every city and most towns in America have a Martin Luther King street or boulevard, a King post office, federal building, or high school. With amazing speed Martin Luther King, Jr. has entered the pantheon of the greatest American leaders, and our Episcopal Church remembers him in its sacred calendar as one of the great Christians in the church’s history.
With all those accolades, it can be easy to forget just how troubling a figure Dr. King was in his time. I can tell you, he was no hero in the white world of the small Mississippi town to which my family moved in 1965. I was in high school then, and there were plenty who hated him. Most of my family saw themselves as moderates—certainly not racists, but not inclined to get involved in this troublesome cause. When King’s march came through town in 1965, it might as well have been happening in Detroit or Cleveland. Everyone just went about their business, kept their heads down, and waited for it to pass.
A friend of mine remembers a more dramatic scene when Dr. King led a march in Columbus, Ohio. There was fear of potential rioting, and so my friend’s father sat all night long in the living room of their blue-collar neighborhood house, with the lights inside turned out, a rifle stretched across his lap, ready to protect his family. Dr. King was no hero to him.
Martin Luther King was not a comfortable, reassuring figure. Though he was by all accounts a courtly, gentle man, as a leader he was a relentless, provocative disturber of the peace of segregated America. That was an America that I remember well—of signs saying “colored” and “white” posted on restrooms, and in bus stations, doctor’s offices, and theaters. He was always controversial. Many people criticized him for pushing too hard and moving too fast. But on the other side many civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael denounced him for refusing to call for violent revolution.
Many saw him as the new Moses, who, as we heard in our first lesson, was called to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to a new Promised Land of justice and hope. People saw him as a prophet like Amos or Isaiah, demanding on God’s behalf a just society. But for today the word I want to use for King was one he applied to himself. He believed he was called to be “an extremist for love.”
I say to you, Love your enemies, [Jesus says in today’s gospel] do good to those who hate you, pray for those who abuse you.
That’s extremist, and King actually lived that way. Listen to these words of King that seem almost unimaginable:
To our 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. Beat us and leave us half dead and we shall still love you…We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory shall be a double victory.
An extremist—that’s what he was. A provoker, a visionary, a courageous leader who never stopped teaching the power of tough, truth-speaking, justice-making love.
Was not Jesus an extremist for love [King once wrote]—‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you…’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice—‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream…Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Christ…Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist…So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremist for hate or will we be extremist for love?
The words come from one of his most important writings, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In 1963 King and his colleagues decided to take their movement to the heart of the Confederacy, to Birmingham, to work for civil and voting rights, and they were soon arrested for marching without a permit. A group of “liberal” Alabama clergy had published an open letter calling on King for moderation, for him to allow the battle for integration to continue in the courts and warning him that his movement was going to cause major civic disturbances. They supported his goals, they said, but wished he could wait and be more patient.
And so sitting in his jail cell, King wrote a firm, thoughtful letter, free or anger and bitterness, addressing his critics point by point.
For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’…I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will;…when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity;…when you suddenly find yourself tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park…and see the depressing clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky…and when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
We will have to repent in this generation [he went on to say], not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
For King patience and moderation were no virtues. After the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Dr. King, to the dismay of many of his friends and colleagues, began expanding his agenda. He launched the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, demanding jobs and decent wages, health care and decent education. And with great controversy he began to oppose the Vietnam War. On the last Sunday of his life Dr. King stood in this pulpit and spoke passionately of all these concerns—racism, poverty, and war.
Martin Luther King was a prophet in his time. And of course all of those problems persist today. I’ll never forget an African American woman in a congregation I served, with a young son just turning 10 or 11, saying to me with tears in her eyes, “I can see it happening. Until now I’ve been able to protect my boy from all the terrible messages this world gives him about who he is as a young black man. But now it’s happening, and I’m starting to see the anger, the acting out, the signs that he doesn’t believe in himself.”
A few years ago Cornel West, now a Professor of Afro-American Studies at Princeton, described a typical experience, waiting a full hour for a taxi in New York City while all around him the whites were picked up, and of being stopped three times in his first ten days living in Princeton for driving too slowly on a residential street. The burden of race in America is relentless still.
In his book Race Matters Cornel West says that the “fundamental crisis in black America is twofold: too much poverty and too little self-love.” And it is “overcome not by argument or analysis—but by love and care.” Racism is both a social evil and a spiritual disease.
And the statistics bear out the costly impact of this racism on African Americans. More than one-third of black males under thirty are involved in the criminal justice system. One out of two African American children live in poverty, and they are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to education, health care, and hope.
Yet somehow as a nation we still can’t fully commit ourselves to address the toll that America’s sins of slavery and racism have taken not just on our African American brothers and sisters but on all of us. I know that as a white American male I stand here as the beneficiary of centuries of affirmative action that have given me every chance to build a good life. Can I, can we, not reach out to those who have started so far back in the race and do what we can to give them an equal chance?
We need Martin Luther King as much as ever. We need his holy impatience for justice, his insistence that we not wait, his passionate commitment to say and do what needs to be done to build a more just society. We need his call to nonviolence, and in the midst of our own war in Iraq today we need his insistence that our nation find ways other than devastating armed conflict to build peace in our world.
And here in the church we need his clarity that Christ calls us to stand with the poorest in our society, to continue working to rid our hearts and this society of racism, to resist the natural tendency to complacency in our privilege. In our time when churches have spent so much energy fighting internal battles, it is vital to remember a time not long ago when churches stood for something important and played a vital role in creating a more just society. We as a cathedral, each of us ourselves, need to ask, “What is God calling me to do?”
This past week I visited the Cesar Chavez Charter School for Public Policy located in a struggling neighborhood not far from Capitol Hill, and there I saw Dr. King’s dream alive. There were young African American students being treated with love and dignity and with demanding expectations. Their teachers were mostly bright young idealists, many of them in the Teach for America program. Everywhere in the school was an insistent call to excellence and a spirit of love. And walking around you couldn’t help but sense the hope—that with enough schools like this around this city and across this country, at least some of the ravages of poverty and racism could begin to recede. King’s dream seemed possible.
I don’t often quote Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, but he said one thing that has stuck with me. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” I regret the safe, privileged moderation that even at my young age kept me and so many others in the 1960’s safely on the sidelines of the struggle for justice and hope, and often still does. That moderation is, for me at least, no virtue.
Let us give thanks to God for Martin Luther King’s immoderate life and holy impatience. May this extremist for love still inspire and guide us in the work ahead.