This week our Pub Theology Group met and discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was an absolutely wonderful gathering filled with great insights and engaging conversation. We started our gathering by reading some quotes from MLK’s speeches, sermons, and letters later in his career, wondering together–how are MLK’s words still relevant, challenging, difficult, and inspiring? What do we most need to hear? I am thankful to this group who gathered and dared to name the difficult realities of our past and present, who sat with one another as we wondered about connections between MLK’s legacy and Black Lives Matter, racism and sexism, economic inequality and the call for the church to be a place where difficult and honest conversation is not only safe but encouraged, because we cannot be transformed by one another if we cannot speak our truth.
If you are interested in the discussion prompts, there are listed here (the images of MLK’s quotes were created by artist Daniel Rarela)
“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows… How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail-light behind the Supreme Court and other secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”
—Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, 1965.
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” –Martin Luther King Jr, 1967.
“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.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
The Epistle of James 2:1-17
I have been haunted this week by the image of a father being awakened by his children in the morning.
It is such a simple thing…. When you are a parent, the odds are good that, if you aren’t a morning person, you have been awakened by little hands on your eyelids, a sloppy kiss on the cheek, or that undeniable feeling that SOMEONE IS WATCHING YOU.
Little kids are like that—they wake up and they want to be with the people that they love. More precisely, they want YOU to be with them. Doing whatever it is that they want to do in that moment. It is one of those classic experiences of parenting that is so mundane, so simple, that you almost forget about it, until you are reminded.
And I have been haunted by this image, because this week, all I can think about is Abdullah Kurdi, and of the awful truth that he will never be awakened in the morning by his little boys again, because both of them drowned off the coast of Turkey this week in a desperate bid to escape the kind of life that no parent would ever imagine for their children.
“They were so wonderful,” Abdullah said of his two boys, Aylan and Galip. “They would wake me up in the morning to play with them.”
And all I can think as I hear his words, as I watch this devastated father in that space where there truly are no more words that can speak into the horror of this moment, is this: that could have been me.
I look at Abdullah, this Muslim father from Kobani, Syria, and I hear myself in his pain. I hear my own experience of loving my children, of living every day, of cherishing the little things. And when my children wake me up each morning, this week I cannot help but think of the thousands of Syrian, Afghanian, Somalian, Guatemalan and Burmese refugees who have lost the average and the everday, the promise and the hope of life with loved ones, to the crushing brutality of violence.
As I read our scripture today, I am reminded that the life of the Christian isn’t so much about defending God—we weren’t put on this earth to prove that God is powerful, or almighty, or worthy of praise. God can do that on God’s own.
But according to James, the brother of Jesus himself, we were put on this earth to love our neighbors. And as God’s people, perhaps we more than anyone else have a special calling, a commission, if you will, to protect and care for all of God’s children, because they absolutely do need protection.
For it is God’s children who are drowning in distant waters
God’s children who are wasting away, forgotten, in refugee camps and holding pens in countries that don’t want them.
God’s children who are suffocating in refrigerated trucks
God’s children who are trapped in monasteries, in small villages, in slavery, in violent societies and desperate to escape but too poor to run.
God’s children who are crying out not only for a chance at a fair wage, but for a chance at any life at all.
I was reading a popular blog this week, and in it the author observed that perhaps it is time for us to remember that, for all of the problems our country faces, every single person in this room was born lucky enough to grow up in a country that protects our fundamental rights to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness. Let’s stop acting like this is something we deserve, and remember that it was a gift. Because maybe, just maybe, if we remember that this is a gift, we might be more inclined to compassion for those who have been born into countries and situations where there is no peace, no safety, no promise of freedom. Perhaps we might be inclined to act with compassion, and grace, to extend a warm hand to our neighbors, to live out the best inclinations of a country that was first people by outsiders, refugees, and minorities from their own mother lands.
Perhaps what is required of us is the courage to respond faithfully to Jesus’ own brother, who reminds us that Jesus called us to set aside the temptation to group our neighbors into categories of those who deserve our attention and those do not, of those who are worthy and those who are unworthy, those who are rich and those who are poor, those who are in and those who are out. And instead, perhaps we are called to use our god-given energies and talents to fulfill the Scripture, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. To see our neighbors as ourselves, and respond as we would hope that others would respond if we were in a similar predicament.
“For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Mercy will cost us, friends. Mercy may require that we choose to put another’s hurt above our own comfort. That we choose to alleviate the suffering of others instead of keeping ourselves comfortable. Lord knows mercy isn’t easy—mercy got Jesus crucified, and the apostles martyred. Mercy will cost us, and it won’t make us popular.
If we cannot be merciful on our own, we may find that God shames us into action. For as I watched Germany and Austria throw open their borders to thousands of refugees this yesterday, I was put in mind of Jesus, who, in speaking of perseverance, tells this story:
Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
Or of Paul, who writes in 1 Corinthians:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
Is it not the poor, the weak of this world, who are throwing their bodies against our doors this very moment, begging for little more than bread to eat and the opportunity for their children to live and play in peace? And will we be those who shut ourselves into our homes, and thrust our fingers into our ears, or will we recognize that no-one picks up and leaves everything behind, no one treks through mountains or sneaks through train tunnels, no one boards an inflatable raft to cross an unknown sea, no person would do this if things were just fine back home. When will we see that nothing will change until our hearts are changed? And our hearts will not change until we open our eyes and our minds and our ears so that we may be informed about the suffering of our neighbor.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
“Do you love Jesus?” Asks James. Then prove it. Prove it by choosing to do the hard thing. Prove it by loving your neighbor until it hurts. Until it hurts like mercy overflowing, and justice without limits. Prove it, and remember: faith without works is dead.
In Presbyterian theology, we call this sanctification. The daily work of acting on the principles and teachings of our Lord and Savior, of living out what we have been taught. It’s the difference between reading a book about hiking and walking the Appalachian trail. And I promise you, it isn’t easy, but it is worth it in the end.
Fear not, brothers and sisters, for God walks beside you, just as God walks beside the thousands of Syrian refugees risking life and limb to find a place in this world where they might experience mercy and justice. Just like God stands watch beside grieving families on distant battle fields and beside unstill waters and refuses to let us stand silently by as God’s people suffer.
In that Momastery post I mentioned earlier, author Glennon Doyle closed with the following words:
The two most repeated phrases in the Bible are “Fear not.” And “Remember.” If someone is fear mongering, telling you to build walls instead of tearing them down, instead of scaling them to feed hungry people, encouraging any sort of us vs. them mentality….THINK HARD. The Gospel says, “do not be afraid. Remember.” Remember is the opposite of dismember. When we shut our doors to our own family: when we are afraid of each other—we are dismembered. The kingdom of God comes when we treat each other like Kin. Like family. When we remember.
We all have heard the stories of famous people who prepared and practiced their last words. Because we know that people will remember them.
So if these are Jesus’ last words, the last things he ever spoke before his death, then they must be important. We need to listen to Him. Now, as much as ever.
Woman, here is your son.
Think about what Jesus is doing here. This is a man sentenced to death. He has become a symbol of Roman imperialism and oppression as he hangs on the cross, bare and vulnerable to the world. He can’t breathe—every movement is a struggle.
But he isn’t talking about that. Instead, he is worried about the suffering he sees below him. A woman, terrified for her son. A disciple, traumatized by the loss of the Teacher. And Jesus wants to heal them. And so he does what he has been doing all along: he connects these two people together. Right there on the cross, Jesus is making relationships.
Woman, here is your son.
I keep wondering about this moment. The disciples have all ran off. They’ve been gone awhile now. Scripture tells us that only the women were left, to stand and bear witness to the agony of Christ’s death on the cross. And then there is this disciple.
What is he doing there?
Why is he the only one who didn’t run?
And then I remember: of course the disciples ran. They were literally afraid for their lives. And as men, they had every reason to be. They were adult men living in a system of domination, and as disciples of Jesus they could easily have been arrested and hung right up there with him. As far as Rome is concerned, they are a threat. The only way to avoid being eliminated is to run.
The only people left at Jesus’ side at the end are the ones who aren’t a threat to the empire. The invisible women, powerless disciples who weren’t a threat.
And this beloved disciple. Standing with the women, bearing witness to the cross.
If this disciple is standing there, he, like the women, must not be a threat to the guards. So who is he?
And then it hit me: what if the beloved disciple is a child?
What would it mean that Jesus is drawing our attention to this child as he is dying on the cross? What would it mean that a child is standing here, bearing witness to the agony and the terror that Good Friday represents? What would it mean that Jesus turns to the only adults left at his side and says to them:
Woman, HERE is your Son.
Of course, the truth is that children all too often are the invisible witnesses and victims of trauma, and terror, and violence. So if Jesus’ last words are important, what would it mean to seek out, to be in relationship with these vulnerable disciples right now? How is Jesus calling US into relationship with invisible victims and vulnerable disciples?
I can’t help but think about the reality that we live on the edge of one of the biggest cities in our country, and that every day, children and vulnerable people in our region bear witness to violence, to terror, to injustice. Death is all around us.
Did you know, for example, that Philadelphia currently enjoys the highest rate of deep poverty of all large metro areas? 185,000 people right next door live on less than $10,000 a year. 60,000 of those people are vulnerable, invisible, often traumatized children. That makes our deep poverty rate is twice as high as the rest of the United States.
Our poverty problem is so bad right now that Philadelphia is piloting a universal breakfast and lunch program, because if the schools don’t feed these children, they worry that they won’t eat at all. Teachers are spending their own salaries on toilet paper and fresh fruit for their kids, because they know that hungry kids can’t learn. And while the poverty rate was rising during the Great Recession, we were cutting school budgets, telling the Philly School System, that they need to be more financially efficient.
At the same time, prisons in the United States is pouring money into the prison system.
Did you know that one of the ways that prisons estimate future population needs is by looking at the high school drop out rate?
These days, it costs $36,000 a year to house an inmate. Anyone wanna guess how much we spend on each child in the Philadelphia School system?
I know what you are thinking. That isn’t fair. Schools take the summer off, so we will have to give the prisons a discount—let’s take 60 days off for the summer. But that still leaves us spending over $30,000 a year. On a system that, in many cases, is being filled with young, mostly men, who are victims of violence, injustice, and trauma, and mental illness. All of these are made worse by the reality of deep poverty.
Science tells us that children who grow up in deep poverty experience as much as a 10% decline in brain development. They are more likely to be suicidal, more likely to be depressed. They are more likely to have trouble concentrating at school, and much less likely to graduate. They are likely to live in communities where poverty has decimated families, leaving few positive role models. And they are much more likely to end up on the streets, or involved in criminal activity, or in prison.
Woman, HERE is your SON.
As he is dying on the cross, Jesus would have us look at these vulnerable disciples. Look at this child who is surrounded by death and destruction, who is suffering, who is abandoned and abused. Whose future is a question mark. If you love Jesus, be in relationship with him. Get connected to him. See him. Because Jesus sees him. Jesus loves him. Jesus would have us do something about his suffering, this injustice that is standing before us, living and breathing and bearing witness to Christ. Jesus would breathe his last breath trying to heal this child of God by putting him in relationship with another person. Jesus would see that child experience Resurrection. And so the question is for us as well: will you see the child? Will you answer Jesus with relationship?
Brothers and Sisters, They are Our Sons. Our Daughters.