Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King: What Might He Say Now?

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany includes I Samuel 3:1-20, I Corinthians 6:12-20, and John 1:43-51. On this Sunday before Martin Luther King Day, a Williams sophomore (Corey) selected and read an excerpt from one of Dr. King’s sermons, in lieu of the second scripture reading.

We’re grateful to Corey for helping us today to hear the voice of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hearing a portion of the Drum Major Sermon was both stirring and challenging. After that, with what temerity would a preacher try to preach more?

Perhaps to briefly imagine what Dr. King would be paying attention to today, if he were alive. I’ve thought of him three times this past week. Each time I’ve said to myself, “He would be speaking to this situation.”

First was signaled by the headline, ”Social tensions rising,” reporting that relations and perceptions between the rich and the poor in the United States have reached an intensity of antagonism not seen in a quarter century. “Americans now see more social conflict over wealth inequality than over the hot-button topics of immigration, race relations, and age,” writes AP reporter Hope Yen. She expects we’ll hear more, as this issue moves to the forefront of the presidential campaign.

Dr. King would speak to this. What might he say? In the sermon we heard today, he spoke to those ambitious disciples of Jesus, John and James, the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to be greatest among the twelve. His words could be directed today to people at both ends of the socio-economic ladder, and all in-between: “You want to be great? Wonderful. You want to be important? Wonderful… I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity.” Dr. King would, I believe, issue a unifying challenge like that. And wouldn’t it be good, right about now, to hear a unifying voice in our land?

The second time I thought of him was hearing of the alleged defilement of Afghan corpses by United States Marines. Dr. King would speak to that. He might remind us of a man who was spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a cross, a man who fulfilled the role of the suffering servant foretold by the prophet, a man who was despised and rejected. Dr. King would remind us that this man “stands as the most influential figure that ever entered human history,” affecting the life of the human race more than all the armies, all the navies, all the parliaments, all the kings, by modeling and teaching reverence for life, even, as Dr. King said in his sermon, “when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something we call death.”

And the third time I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., was reading the article “Humankind’s Most Savage Cruelty,” written by Williamstown resident and King biographer Stewart Burns, published in the current issue of Sojourners Magazine. Burns, who has spoken here and is known to many of us, writes in this article about human trafficking of children.

If the most important thing we know about slavery is that it is a thing of the past, then we are ignorant about the world we inhabit. “Enslavement of children and adults, mostly female, has spread to virtually every country in the world, with the number of host nations—slave states—doubling since 2001. Worldwide at any given time, Burns says, more than a million children are trapped in some form of trafficking. He speaks of the 300,000 child soldiers who are fighting in more than a dozen countries, and he estimates that there are as many as 100,000 girls trafficked as sex slaves within the United States, “truck stops are the most lucrative 21st-century brothels,” he says, in “the land of the free whose (amended) Constitution prohibits slavery.”

“What is the responsibility of a great nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality—yet drenched for much of its history in the blood and tears of chattel slavery—to destroy once and for all the global holocaust of labor and sexual servitude? What is the moral mandate of a great, if imperfect, people who eventually vanquished their own slavery, to apply similar democratic and nonviolent tools to fight the modern slavery that has spread wildly with the collapse of the Soviet empire, the dominance of the globalized free market, and the entrenchment of desperate poverty? What is the responsibility of an American citizen, a global citizen, who can no longer tolerate the hollowness of easy human rights pledges while millions of children and women are raped and wrecked as disposable commodities?”

Dr. King would have ready and demanding answers to these questions raised by our neighbor Stewart Burns. Perhaps King’s sermon that we heard today guides us to our own answers, if I may paraphrase the question he put to himself: “What is it that we would want said of us?” Not so much as eulogy, but as commentary on us and our society in this 21st century that is as much in need of emancipation as was the 19th century, as much in need of achieving universal human rights as was the 20th.

Don’t we want it said of us that we were willing to be united, to care less about our place on the socioeconomic ladder, to extend our passion and compassion beyond our own most hotbutton issues, and be united “so that we can make of this old world a new world”?

(Stewart Burns’s article appeared in the February 2012 issue of “Sojourners”.)