Martin Luther King is in danger of becoming a classic, so I want to consider the words of a man who really stood for change. His sermon on 31 March 1968 was: Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution . He took as his text Revelation 21, and he started off with the story of Rip Van Winkle who slept through the American Revolution, a revolution which, as Dr. King noted, changed history.
First, think about how truly frightening this statement is (and the fact that it was made over 40 years ago; there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun):
There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare; then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place. And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away."Why do I call it "frightening"? Because I learned in ministry that the one thing people do not want, is change. We all say we do. We all claim we want to be different, that "change" is good, that "improved" is better than the status quo, that we have to "move forward" toward an undefined goal which is always identified as better than what we have now.
And yet nobody wants that.
What we want is what we have: the familiar, the known, the same cereal/soap/politics/spirituality, just in a shinier, re-designed, labeled "NEW & IMPROVED!" box. We don't want something we've never had before; we want more of what we know. I look back over the 40+ years I've been observing/participating in American politics, and I realize no real change was ever in the offing. The ending of the interminable Vietnam War was supposed to change things, finally. A generation later, here we are again. The Civil Rights struggle was supposed to change how we talk about race in this country. 40 years after the death of Dr. King, the hidden wound of racism in America means we still discuss the candidacy of Barack Obama in terms of race. Some support him simply because of race, others say almost any criticism of him is inherently about race; and how does one argue they are wrong? Any attempt to slap that tar baby just gets you mired more deeply in that which you assure yourself you don't participate in. Change is the most frightening thing of all. It is a frightening thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges and new opportunities. And I would like to deal with the challenges that we face today as a result of this triple revolution that is taking place in the world today.But Dr. King could speak words of reassurance as well as challenge, something seldom heard from public officials today (and almost never heard from politicians). Change can be what happens to us; or it can be what helps us in our predicaments. The impact of "automation and cybermation" makes it possible for you to read these words right now, for me to access the sermons of Dr. King and read them again and again, even to listen to them. Change can certainly be a good thing, but that kind of change, again, largely happens to us, not with us. Someone brought us computers, the internet, blogs; and we took them and accepted them and adopted them. "And there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away." And still nobody wants that. Look; look at how much has not changed:
The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.The hidden wound is racism; but the hidden wound is also denial. We willfully inflict this wound on ourselves everytime we deny the reality of poverty, of sin, of selfishness and evil. Two words in there are theological ones, and perhaps are too freighted to be included in that catalogue. But they are not just concepts; they are realities as much as selfishness and denial are realities. Still, Dr. King puts it just a bit better, when he introduces the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and he points out that the rich man didn't go to hell becaus he was rich:
One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, "Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out."
There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used wither constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time."
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.
They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years.
In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number of years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, "Now you are free," but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.
Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this, and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, "You’re free," and it left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man, though an act of Congress was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.
But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every years not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.
We must come to see that the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.
There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.
I remember some years ago Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India. And I never will forget the experience. It was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India, to meet and talk with and to speak to thousands and thousands of people all over that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.
But I say to you this morning, my friends, there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night? In Bombay more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night. In Calcutta more than six hundred thousand sleep on the sidewalks every night. They have no beds to sleep in; they have no houses to go in. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than five hundred million people, some four hundred and eighty million make an annual income of less than ninety dollars a year. And most of them have never seen a doctor or a dentist.
As I noticed these things, something within me cried out, "Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?" And an answer came: "Oh no!" Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking of the fact that we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, "I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night." And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.
Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying.
I was in Marks, Mississippi, the other day, which is in Whitman County, the poorest county in the United States. I tell you, I saw hundreds of little black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear. I saw their mothers and fathers trying to carry on a little Head Start program, but they had no money. The federal government hadn’t funded them, but they were trying to carry on. They raised a little money here and there; trying to get a little food to feed the children; trying to teach them a little something.
And I saw mothers and fathers who said to me not only were they unemployed, they didn’t get any kind of income—no old-age pension, no welfare check, no anything. I said, "How do you live?" And they say, "Well, we go around, go around to the neighbors and ask them for a little something. When the berry season comes, we pick berries. When the rabbit season comes, we hunt and catch a few rabbits. And that’s about it."
And I was in Newark and Harlem just this week. And I walked into the homes of welfare mothers. I saw them in conditions—no, not with wall-to-wall carpet, but wall-to-wall rats and roaches. I stood in an apartment and this welfare mother said to me, "The landlord will not repair this place. I’ve been here two years and he hasn’t made a single repair." She pointed out the walls with all the ceiling falling through. She showed me the holes where the rats came in. She said night after night we have to stay awake to keep the rats and roaches from getting to the children. I said, "How much do you pay for this apartment?" She said, "a hundred and twenty-five dollars." I looked, and I thought, and said to myself, "It isn’t worth sixty dollars." Poor people are forced to pay more for less. Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. It becomes a kind of domestic colony. And the tragedy is, so often these forty million people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich. Because our expressways carry us from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor.
Now Abraham was a very rich man. If you go back to the Old Testament, you see that he was the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven; it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.Dives went to hell because of his sin; because he was selfish; because his selfishness was evil.
And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing’s wrong with that—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.Does this mean hell is a place, and the country itself will end up there? Not at all; but can anyone who has observed the national scene for the past 7 years seriously argue that the country hasn't gone to hell, and that our national selfishness, our pursuit of evil to ostensibly defeat evil, hasn't taken us there? We can quibble about the terminology, or we can focus on the reality. But don't take my word for it; consider the words of Dr. King:
One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.Auden famously removed his poem "September 1, 1939" from his canon because it ends with the line: "We must love one another, or die." "That's a damned lie," he explained; "we are going to die anyway." But there is physical death, and there is spiritual death, and the choice between nonviolence and nonexistence presents both to us. But one comes individually, and as a nation we are clearly willing to pay that price over and over again. The spiritual price, however, is another matter. That's the one we don't even acknowledge paying anymore; that's the one we're almost not permitted to acknowledge paying. I can't help but wonder, if Dr. King were to preach this sermon today: would the IRS investigate the church he preached in, for violating its 501(a) status*?
It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, "That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me." That’s the question facing America today.
I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution. President Kennedy said on one occasion, "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind." The world must hear this. I pray God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war.
I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.
It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together.
The judgment of God is upon us today. And we could go right down the line and see that something must be done—and something must be done quickly. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world. There is not a single major ally of the United States of America that would dare send a troop to Vietnam, and so the only friends that we have now are a few client-nations like Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and a few others.
This is where we are. "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind," and the best way to start is to put an end to war in Vietnam, because if it continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world to nuclear annihilation.
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
One day a newsman came to me and said, "Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?" I looked at him and I had to say, "Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion." Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.I've let Dr. King's words to most of the talking here as, indeed, how could I not? But his words speak to us today as much as they spoke to his audience 40 years ago. If change is the new good we seek, and certainly change from the political status quo of this country is a good thing, a desirable goal, what kind of change do we seek? "New styles of architecture/A change of heart," as Auden once described it? Or something more fundamental, more radical, something digging down to the root and seeking replacement, not just redecoration? "Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away." That is God speaking, not us. That is not the voice of the politician, or the preacher, or the pundit, or the blogger; that is the voice of the Almighty, and when God says all things are new, former things have passed away, who are we to cling to those former things and insist this "new" not include them? We want the box to be new, but the cereal inside to be the same; the soap inside to be familiar; the politics and policies to continue the status quo. Most of all, we want to be safe, to be assured the future will look like the past, and deviate from the present only by leaving what we don't like, behind. But as Dr. King never tired of pointing out, there are very few times in history when we have that luxury; and this time, is not one of them, either:
On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?
There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain’t goin’ study war no more." This is the challenge facing modern man.Our goodwill is not proven by how well we take care of ourselves, or our own; it is not proven by how secure we are in our goods, in our possessions, in our comforts, even in our opinions. We are sleeping through the revolution if we don't realize the revolution must include a change in our hearts and minds also, that everything old must pass away in order to realize, to see, the new that is being made.
The words from Revelation Dr. King cites come at the end of the long symbolic descriptions of destruction and judgment that book is famous for. Dr. King makes no reference to that theme, but it is an important one. Just as there is no Easter without Good Friday, there is no new heaven and new earth without the destruction of the old heaven and old earth, and the hope is in the redemption after the calamity, not in avoiding the calamity altogether. Revelation is about how unjust the world is, and about how God will ultimately bring justice. The Greek idea of John's culture was that creation would return to chaos; while John saw that creation would ultimately be redeemed by justice. The idea that science or nature (evolution) leads inexorably to a telos or even makes progress, is rooted in John's assurance that all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Even our science, our knowledge, is rooted in this confidence, despite the chaos our senses percieve and history teaches. So we don't have to speak in terms of sin and evil and salvation, in order to understand justice and morality, or even to pursue ethics. But we do need to understand: the problems that face us today are the problems that faced us 40 years ago, are the problems that have faced us for millenia. And the only valid response to them, the only proper answer, is a massive act of conscience, and the agreement, the confession, that we aren't going to follow the old ways, anymore. And we aren't going to sleep through this revolution; because if we do, there'll be no revolution at all. And we'll have only ourselves to blame, for that.
*King's sermon was given at the National Cathedral, an Episcopal church. Coincidence? I think not.