Eight years ago, almost to the day, I was speaking at the annual Martin Luther King breakfast, at the Bayview Baptist Church, a large African American congregation in San Diego, California. The date was almost 33 years after Dr. King had been assassinated. As I looked out at over 800 people gathered at the breakfast I asked this question: “How many of you were actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement during Dr. King’s lifetime? If you were actively engaged in any way, would you please raise your hand!” Fewer than 100 hands went up. It was then that I realized that I was from another generation and another time. Those of us who marched, challenged, worked in the inner cities, fought for voting rights, and engaged in non violent protests are a graying lot and are becoming fewer with each passing year. Dr. King’s death in 1968 in Memphis seems like so long ago. And you know, it really is!
In some ways, it seems as if we have come a long way from the days of lunch-counter sit-ins, Rosa Parks, Brown vs. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, extending voting rights, outlawing racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and at facilities serving the general public. Yet, as the years go by, one generation connected to Dr. King and the movement is now being replaced by another generation that can only know those times and experiences and Dr. King through history books, grainy black and white news reels, recorded speeches, published sermons, and the oral histories of those who lived those heady yet painful times.
And I must say that there is potentially a great danger that happens when one generation that has lived a moment in time passes its moment on to another generation that can only experience it from a story-telling, didactic point of view. The danger that lurks in the transfer of one generation’s story to another is that Dr. King’s life-long quest for justice and compassion is sometimes tempered by a new generation that receives it either with apathy or as “old news” in a “new news” world.
There is a Native American wisdom story that goes like this: One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces. “There are two wolves struggling inside each of us,” the old man said. “One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, and fear.” The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, and love.” The grandson sat thinking for a moment and then asked; “Which wolf wins, grandfather?” His grandfather replied; “The one you feed!”
In a sense this story gets played out in the lesson from the book of Exodus. It was God, not Moses, who heard the cries of misery of the people in Egypt. It was God who came down to deliver the people in bondage, and it was Moses who said he was not the person for the job. And in the struggle of the two wolves, it was God’s power “feeding” Moses that allowed Moses to respond to the plight of God’s people with courage and compassion.
In the Gospel, Jesus has just come down from the mount, and Jesus feeds the better wolf inside the disciples when he says to them, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” In other words, be a people of compassion and justice.
In the life of the institutional church, too often as leaders we choose to feed the wolf of anger, self pity, and fear. And it is this wolf that neutralizes prophetic action and engagement with the hard work of seeking justice and compassion, the hard work that must be done for the betterment of all the people of God.
As an example, on April 2, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King opened a major desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. He would not be deterred. He was arrested for violating the state injunction against demonstrating. And for his actions he was roundly condemned and castigated by eight very influential white Christian and Jewish clergymen who were leaders in the Birmingham community. Their public call to Dr. King was: “Press your case in the courts and get off the streets.” Their condemning public call to both blacks and whites engaging in civil disobedience was feeding the wolf of fear and anger. And feeding that wolf will always lead to indecision, empowered by fear, that ultimately will lead to inaction.
Later today several thousands will gather in this Cathedral to pray that God will empower us and feed our better wolf in order that we may for the moment relieve the suffering of the people of Haiti. Well over 100,000 souls have already lost their lives. And the expectation is that many thousands more will die. From the Episcopal perspective: Saint Vincent’s School for the handicap…GONE; Holy Trinity Music and Trade School…GONE; the rural schools near Darbonné Leogané, and Chateau Gaillard…GONE; our hospitals and clinics GONE; the bishops house and office complex…GONE; our social services and networking agencies…ALL GONE. And Haiti is the largest diocese in all of the Episcopal Church.
Like the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in our country that devastated New Orleans and raised the ugly specter of racism and abject poverty that had been overlooked and neglected for years, we now must face into the ugly truth of the abject poverty that has for too many years been quietly ignored by the international community and that has crippled this Caribbean country of Haiti. God certainly did not cause this horrible disaster. It was a matter of shifting plates along an unstable fault line. But this event, like so many that always seem to impact the lives of the poor and disenfranchised among us, requires all of us to feed the better wolf inside of us; to feed the wolf of justice and compassion. And once and for all to address and work actively to end the poverty in this Caribbean country that has plagued its development for too long.
As we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this morning, so hear the power of his words that are as fresh now as they were when he preached them more than 40 years ago: “As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than 28 or 30 years, I can never be totally healthy. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world was made.”