The Prophet Within
The challenge of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
By 1967, Martin Luther King had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in overturning the vicious Jim Crow laws that denied African-Americans their God-given freedom and equality by forcing them to live a separate and unequal existence, whether on buses, in schools or in most other public places. We know the story, Amen?
In the year 1967, US citizens who were previously denied the right to vote through all manner of unjust poll tests were now allowed to cast their ballot free of the raced-based discrimination that plagued many Southern precincts. We know the story, Amen?
In 1967, because of Martin’s movement, young African-American high school students could think, for the first time, about attending colleges and universities that previously had been off-limits. We know the story, Amen?
As a result of Martin’s success, he had the ear of presidents and kings; senior clergy and religious leaders of every creed; captains of industry and politicians and civic leaders of every rank and stripe. Indeed, even though he was only 38 years old, 1967 would have been an ideal moment for Martin to take the role of retired clergyman and national elder statesman and live a quiet existence with Coretta, perhaps serving in a minimal capacity assisting at a small church somewhere. We wouldn’t have been mad at him if he told us he wanted a break.
But God had different plans for Martin. In the Spring of 1967, Martin gave a speech out of his growing conviction that the United States government must immediately cease its efforts in the Vietnam War. And so on April 4th of that year, Martin ascended a pulpit not far from this one at the Church of St. Joseph, right here in Morningside Heights, the gateway to Harlem, in the famous Riverside Church, to deliver a speech entitled: “A Time to Break Silence.”
In this speech, in which he spoke out against the Vietnam War for the first time, Martin gives us more than simply a well-reasoned and rhetorically powerful argument against that awful conflict; on a deeper level, Martin defines for us the four-fold task of the prophet.
Now lest you believe that prophecy is a task reserved for religious leaders like Samuel, about whom we heard in today’s first reading, or John the Baptizer, whose prophetic ministry is described in the Gospel reading, or for well-known social activists such as Gandhi and King himself, let me remind you that our Church teaches that all of us who are baptized receive the office of prophet, and are given its responsibilities, duties and powers through the life-giving waters that washed over us the day of our baptism, and through the Spirit which eternally inhabits our believing hearts.
So Martin’s four tasks of the prophet are tasks that each of us—whether we enter this sanctuary as a student, a parent, grandparent, working or retired, married or single—each of us are called to embrace and live.
So what are these four prophetic tasks in Martin’s 1967 speech, and how can we incorporate them into our everyday lives?
The first task of any prophet
…is to allow the Spirit to help him see the truth of reality. The prophet has a responsibility to take off his blinders and see the truth of the situation for what it is.
Thus, in his biography of King To the Mountaintop, Stewart Burns describes how a change happened in Martin’s thinking about the Vietnam War:
The point of no return came in mid-January 1967. Martin was waiting for a plane at the Atlanta airport, flying to Jamaica for a month of rest and relaxation, and to write his fourth and final book, Where Do We Go from Here. He bought a copy of Ramparts, the glossy New Left magazine at a newsstand. Over lunch his eyes seized on an article, “The Children of Vietnam,” graphic photos of kids fiendishly burned by American napalm bombs. Martin’s aid Bernard Lee recalled that he ‘froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam. He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby, a baby killed by our military. Martin pushed his plate away from him. ‘Doesn’t it taste any good?’ Lee knew his boss loved to eat. ‘Nothing will ever taste any good for me,’ he replied testily, ‘until I do everything I can to end that war.’
Seeing the truth for what it is—prophetic vision—is also the task exemplified by John the Baptizer in today’s Gospel reading: “John was standing with his two disciples and as he watched Jesus walk by he said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God.'” Later in the in the reading, Jesus invites John’s disciples to come and see. Peter himself declares: we have found the messiah—again seeing in Jesus the Truth.
We, too are called to this task: we are called to see the Truth of Jesus, and to see the Truth of any and every situation in which we may encounter injustice or hatred that conflicts with the love that Jesus is and calls us to become. But this task requires us to take off our blinders, and see, as Martin did, injustice and hatred in a new situation—not just in the old one of racial discrimination that he had seen for so long in the South and northern American cities.
Because he allowed himself to see, he could identify the same hatred and violence thousands of miles away in the rice fields and villages of Vietnam, where the young and the innocent were being slaughtered for reasons not entirely clear, and motives not obviously just.
Thus, in our day, we too must see into the Truth of the situation, for example, that allowed so many of our impoverished African-American brothers and sisters to be so severely victimized by Katrina this past fall. We are called to allow those images to transform our thinking about race and poverty.
The second task of the prophet
…is to listen. Having recently spent so much of his time in the Northern cities which were burning out of control due to the riots of young African Americans who were impatient with his campaign of non-violent direct action, Martin was often despondent by their response and frustrated by their acts of destruction. And yet, he did, indeed listen to what they had to say. In fact, in his speech, Martin cites that one of his main reasons for opposing the war in Vietnam came through listening to these young disaffected perpetrators of urban violence:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked—and rightly so—what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home”
If we want to become the kind of prophet that our baptism calls us to, we must be willing to listen to those who are disaffected. We must be willing, as Samuel was in the first reading we heard, to shake off our slumber and hear God’s voice—no matter how strange it comes to us, and no matter how unlikely its source?
Like Martin and Samuel, we must avoid “selective hearing,” and be certain that we are listening for voices that challenge our own complacency, our own passivity, and our own hypocrisy.
The third task, after we see, after we listen
…is to speak out. Martin’s speech is nothing if not a call to, as his title elegantly puts it, “break the silence.” In this, of course, the challenge is greater, because, like Martin, we are required not simply to observe through sight and sound, but to give voice—to testify and to witness—to the Truth. In speaking out and calling for an immediate cease fire in Vietnam, Martin tells his audience that it is nothing less than his calling as a child of God that compels him to “speak for the weak, the voiceless, for victims of our nation and those it calls our enemies, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers or sisters.”
So this, then is the question for all of us prophets: do we speak out, at our schools and in our workplaces for those—usually the little people—who are in any way victimized and diminished by injustice or hatred or even careless neglect? Do we take an interest in those who marginalized by economic class, by gender, by sexual orientation?
Indeed, we can even apply this task of speaking out within the confines of our very Church, can’t we? For we have heard some of the most courageous voices in the past few years, as victims of clergy sexual abuse have told us their stories, and challenged the culture of power that allowed Church authorities to turn a blind eye and preserve their status rather than confront their peers who were destroying the lives of children and families.
Finally, Martin’s speech calls us to consider the fourth task of the prophet
…the call to action. As Martin exhorts his audience, “We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. And we must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.”
After seeing, listening, and speaking, we must not simply stay on the sidelines. As we hear in the letter of James, faith without works is dead. We are called to get into the game, and to act with justice.
Thus Martin began to organize all kinds of protests against the war. He encouraged young men to become conscientious objectors, and refuse to serve in the military.
Now there may be no protests on a grand scale today, however, we are nonetheless called to act in other ways. We are called to think about the companies we support with our shopping dollars. Do they pay their workers a just wage and provide them with healthcare? We are called to think about how we exercise that most precious right we have in our democracy, our vote. Do we vote for candidates whose policies uphold the dignity of every human being, from tomb to womb—especially, the unborn, the criminal on death row, and handicapped, and the elderly? Let’s commit ourselves to become prophets who act.
It’s not easy for us to see, to listen, to speak and to act as the prophets we are called to become; we need strength and nourishment.
That’s exactly why we come into God’s house, week after week. We gather so that we might find our strength and nourishment in the Word proclaimed; in the Bread of Life broken and shared; and in the Cup of Salvation poured out among us. Let’s pray this morning, that as we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., that singular Christian prophet of our nation, we could find within our hearts—and within our sight, our hearing, our voices and actions—the same call to become prophets of God’s Truth.