Today we remember MLK and his great contributions to our society and world. I was honored to be asked to speak at the PSU service later today. My remarks are below. After having spent the last several weeks reading Dr. King’s sermons I am keenly aware of how limited and poor my own sermons and speeches are. His work remains for us to continue; there is still much to be done.
“Go and do likewise.”
It is truly an honor to be here with you today. I grew up in the wake of the civil rights movement in intergrated schools in the suburbs of DC. We lived just a scant 30 miles from where Dr. King and so many others marched on the nation’s capital and made their stand for the rights of all men and women. Mine was a middle class and privileged childhood; fortunately there were many people of color in my school and situation as well. It would not be until I was in junior high and high school that I would realize that this was not the norm. But it was in college that I really began to learn about Dr. King and the message that he carried to this country and our world.
I studied his speeches and learned about the civil rights movement in history classes and in civics courses. But it wasn’t until I moved deeper into my studies of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and began to learn about the prophets that I realized I was learning the language of Dr. King; I was learning what he was. Today, as a professor of ancient Judaism every time I teach about the prophets I lift up Dr. King as an example of a prophet.
You see, even in the Bible a prophet was not primarily someone who predicted the future or performed miracles. A prophet in ancient Israel had one primary characteristic: he called Israel back to their covenant with God. The prophet reminded Israel that God had chosen them, God had made a contract with them and that God would protect them if they made good on their side of the contract. If they would obey God’s word for them then all would be well. The prophets called Israel back to their founding covenant, promise with God.
And that is what Dr. King did for the United States. He called out to Americans, white, black, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim and reminded us all of our contract, our covenant, the premise and promise of our nation that said “all men are created equal.” His message could not be ignored because any who claimed to be an American laid claim to that great promise that all were created equal. All!
But prophets do not just point fingers. They don’t just stand on a corner and shout “sinner!” They point the way back towards restoring that relationship. The ancient prophet of Israel told his people that if you return to God’s law then God will remember his people. The sign that they were obeying God was that they were caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in their midst. Why these people? What was it about these groups that would signal that they were living out the law God had given them? It was because these were the people most ignored by society; they were the ones that no one cared for anymore. When they were brought back into the community, given love, hope, and a place at the table then God would know that his people truly loved him obeyed his law. Is this not Dr. King’s message as well? That even the most despised and rejected shall have a place at the table?
Dr. King called upon all Americans to return to our great contract and founding document, towards the vision of equality that was not to be diminished by any other human, an equality that was established in our very creation. Dr. King reminded us of our past and pointed the way to our future, a way to bring all Americans together so that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” This was his dream and it was not an illusion, it was not a delusion, it was the vision of a prophet. A greater prophet we have not known in our time. And like all the great prophets Dr. King called us to action, but how, how shall we act?
When I was asked to speak today I believe the organizers had it in mind that I might share something from my experience in New Orleans during and after Katrina. To speak of the injustices that were done, that were revealed, and that continue. I cannot, for so many reasons, I cannot speak to it other than to tell you this. The inequality that was revealed by the waters of Katrina was not so simple as racism (as grotesque as that sounds) it was the far more insidious division between those who have…those who have power, wealth, opportunity (and fail to use them for the good of others)…and those who do not. Yet New Orleans continues to serve as an example to us all of the hurt and healing that remains in our country. It is to the healing, the rebuilding that I would like to speak now.
In the days and months that followed Katrina various communities within the New Orleans began to consider how we might rebuild, what would the city look like, most of all, how can we make her a better place for all her residents. The Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, the Right Reverend Charles Jenkins, proposed a new program of housing based upon one of Dr. King’s interpretations of a favorite parable, that of the Good Samaritan and the Jericho Road. While the phrase “Good Samaritan” is known to almost all I have learned in teaching this material that not everyone knows its origins so I hope you will indulge me in a bit of an academic lecture. I promise, I will keep it under 45 minutes.
This parable is found in the New Testament, in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10. The setting is that a Jewish leader is trying to test Jesus’ knowledge and authority.
The power of this story comes from knowing something about the identities of the injured man and of each of the three men who passed by him. The man attacked is presumably a Jew and the two men who first came by are members of the religious leadership; a priest, who would have been from one of the high priestly clans in charge of the Temple and the community, and a levite, a member of the clans who operated the Temple on a daily basis, offering sacrifices to God in Jerusalem. In other words, these men were the pastors, rabbis, social workers, student affairs, faculty, and administrative members of the injured man’s community. They were the very people who that man might have expected to help him, members of his own community. Then along came the Samaritan. The history of the Samaritans is complex; they worshipped the Lord, but not in the same ways as the Jews, they believed the Temple should have been on Mount Gerizim instead of Mount Zion, and they were considered by the Jews to be ethnically inferior. These two people groups were just enough alike to hate each other deeply and passionately. I will allow each of us to imagine our own modern analogy.
So who is it that comes to the aid of this man beaten, battered, bruised, and left for dead? His own people? The religious leaders that he may have at one time looked to for guidance on how to interpret the very laws that Jesus was being asked about? No, it was the enemy, it was the man who followed a different version of that law, but one that still taught (and still teaches to this day) that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was the neighbor of the man in need.
On a number of occasions, including during his last speech, the night before he was slain, Dr. King referred to this parable.1 In a sermon delivered in 1967 Dr. King considered this parable and contemplated our own concerns for self-preservation.
Dr. King went on to challenge us saying,
The title on all our posters this year is “His Hope: Our Responsibility.” What is our response? How do we respond to the truth in the parable? How do we respond to Dr. King’s life? “What will happen to humanity if I don’t help?” Each of us will have our own answer, our own response. Not all are called to be activists or to be social workers. Not all of us are called to be teachers or leaders. Not all of us are called to run for public office or to march on DC. But all of us are called to love one another. We are all called to ask “what will happen if I don’t….” We are all called to respond.
In establishing the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative in New Orleans Bishop Jenkins invoked Dr. King and his interpretation of this parable. Reminding us that the challenge is not just to help the man injured by the road side, but to fix the road and make it safe so that no one would be attacked again. Bishop Jenkins, a white child of the south, was transformed in his youth by Dr. King, his faith, and his vision for this country. As Bishop Jenkins responded to the needs of the people of New Orleans he drew upon the vision of Dr. King. We are all called to respond to this vision and to the injustices that are all around us. How will you respond?
In a few minutes we will pass out slips of paper and markers. Each of us will be asked to write a promise to ourselves on the piece of paper. A promise to ourselves and to one another. How will you respond? As we leave, we will drop our slips into a glass bowl filled with water and the ink from our words of promise will run together. So must our actions come together, one with another, to make a world that is stronger because we are working together. So I ask you again, how will you respond?
Finally, Dr. King, firmly believing that our ultimate judgment is not based upon what we have, but what we have done, said this.
It is good and right that we should remind ourselves and others about what Dr. King did and what he said, but it would go directly against his own wishes if we were merely to eulogize him, to immortalize his words and thoughts, without emulating and immitating his actions and the deeds of his life.
“Go and do likewise.”
- “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” (Delivered at New Covenant Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 9 April 1967), A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr,. Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, eds. (New York: IPM/Warner Books,1998); and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 3 April 1968, Memphis, TN.“The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” (Delivered at New Covenant Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 9 April 1967), A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr,. Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, eds. (New York: IPM/Warner Books,1998); and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 3 April 1968, Memphis, TN. ↩︎