Princeton University Religious Life

Martin Luther King, Jr. Service

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Jewish Center
January 21, 2008
Psalm 26, Excerpts from Letter from the Birmingham City Jail

Well, here we are on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day like those that honor Washington and Lincoln, situated around their birthdays, to honor a great American. King was a great American – not because he outdid himself in flag-waving or in whatever passes for patriotism, not because he affirmed his government’s actions no matter what it said or did, not because he told other people they could “love it or leave it”, but because, like Washington and Lincoln before him, he so believed in the project of America. He believed that it is simply self-evident that all men – and now we affirm, humans – are created equal, and that all the constructed categories we make to call people different from each other can never take away from this. He knew that it’s one thing to say that all people are equal and another to enact laws that put these words into practice. He knew that this country could be no more learned, healthy, and successful than the very least valued or capable of its members. He knew that no one is free until every last person is free, and he understood so expansively how it is that we imprison each other – discrimination and prejudice, bigotry, poverty, elitism, under-educating, marginalization, threats of violence (often subtle, sometimes outright murderous). Dr. King knew that the project of America is accessible to all people whether they claim a religious or spiritual tradition or abstain altogether. In the end, the project is about the inestimable value placed on every human being simply because they are human. We are not the only country with a noble vision, and we certainly have failed in our project so many times. King was a great American because he helped us keep our eyes on our prize.

The greatest Americans are often America’s greatest critics. Home-grown criticism has been, itself, criticized particularly harshly in recent years, but it is a proud American tradition. My old minister, William Sloan Coffin, used to preach not just the virtues but the responsibilities of being, as he called it, “the loyal opposition.” If the emperor is buck-naked, say so. If the country we love is getting something wrong, say so. The alternative is to stick our heads in the sand and say, “maybe things will be better when I come up for air” rather than embracing a responsibility as a citizen to keep our very wonderful, very flawed country on track.

 I think Dr. King was a particularly great American because he had choices before him, and he chose the difficult but right path. He writes in his Birmingham Jail letter (mind you, to white clergy) about middle class blacks who in certain ways benefit from segregation, and who are economically insulated enough not to have to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King was absolutely a member of that group. He had academic credentials, professional legitimacy, financial stability, and social standing (within the black community anyway) and arguably didn’t “have to” get involved. In the Birmingham Jail letter, as in his “I Have a Dream” speech and so many others, it is his experience as a parent and his compassion for his fellow humans that makes him take action. And it is the very principle of justice, based on his religious view that is messianic and eschatological. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and member of the Resistance, who was executed by the Nazis in the very last weeks of the Second World War. He, too, could have sat out that conflagration. He was elite, and he had friends in the U.S. and U.K. who wanted to give him safe haven during the war. But he couldn’t. The example of King and Bonhoeffer, I believe, asks each of us what struggles for justice we might be insulated from, even as they claim our societies and which our faith or conscience still compels us to participate in. Many of us in this beautiful sanctuary, starting with me, are not among the threatened or very desperate – not now.

 Dr. King did this, in a way. He earned a name for his efforts for racial equality, but he then expanded his mission to include the end of poverty for all, and then the end of the Vietnam War.  Some of his closest advisors begged him not to so expand his critique. They told him that black man could barely get away with calling for racial justice; if he were to take on other economic and militaristic structures he would be a marked man for sure. Arguably, they were right. One year to the day after King gave a speech called “On Vietnam” at Riverside Church he was assassinated. In that speech he made the profound connections between racial discrimination, economic disparity, and the perpetuation of the war in Vietnam. He showed their interconnection: In 2005 I was in Vietnam, and there was told by a Vietnamese economist that he recently had attended a conference in South America. There he met an American who had served as a special advisor to President Johnson. This man’s job was to spend three weeks a month in Vietnam, then the fourth in Washington, briefing LBJ with no one else in the room. As time passed this witness decided that the war was both inhumane and politically counter-productive, in terms of combating communism.  He told LBJ that the war should come to an end, and the President said to him, “I can’t stop this war! I’ve got a lot of friends making money on this war!” King was putting this all together – race, economy, militarism – what an unholy trinity. And of course he did die later by an assassin’s bullet.

 He paid the ultimate price, and no one has to do that because they’ve gone around making nice, asking people politely if they feel like ending racism soon, or having black people sit next to their own kids at school or themselves on buses. Swimming pools, drinking fountains, motels – “Would you mind if we shared?” The call for racial justice on every level was a profound challenge to this society, it still is, and to the cherished, inherited privilege of white-skinned people. It is easy to come together on King Day and talk about his dream; we can agree that Jim Crow was a horrible deformity on the soul of our country. We can agree that it is crucial to work to make our society a better and more just place. But I think we don’t appropriately honor Dr. King, who gave his life for challenging privilege and discrimination, if we just talk about a dream but not also about reality, if we lob homiletical softballs at one another, talking about love and respect and brother/sisterhood, but we don’t dare talk about what that might mean on the ground. We would quickly get into areas of disagreement – God forbid! Especially not on King Day but this can’t be a day when we just get together and are especially nice to one another!

 There will be preachers around the country today who are sure they know what Dr. King, if he were alive today at 79, would think regarding particular social issues. I am not sure I know.  He’s dead, and I’m not a psychic. But I’ve got some hunches. I think he would be advocating strongly for the rights of immigrants. I think he would be reminding all of us whose ancestors do not predate the arrival of Europeans and who were not brought to these shores in chains that we, too, are of immigrant families for whom life was not great in our countries of origin. That’s why we left. (We Bodens got out of southern Wales during a potato famine.) I think King would remind us that immigrants today do the jobs we do not want, or that we think beneath ourselves. I do not want to clean hotel toilets. Do you want to do stoop labor among fields of tomato vines? I think Dr. King would open his Bible and remind us that we are to extend welcome and respect to the foreigner in our midst, because our ancestors in faith sojourned in a strange land. He’d talk to us about the rights and dignity of all human beings, each of whose humanity is radically equal in value to our own, and equally cherished by God. For the same reason, I think Dr. King would advocate for comprehensive and high quality health care for everyone within the boundaries of the United States, citizen or not. Human worth can not equal net worth, or morally this nation is bankrupt. That people need a certain level of income or wealth to stay healthy or alive he would call, I think, a spiritual abomination – that bad health or early death for the poor should be accommodated in a rich nation like ours – he would put his head in his hands.  For the same reasons he would be advocating today, I think, for equal and good education for people of all racial, economic, and national backgrounds. To advocate today for any of these issues might cost some of us some financial privilege – we may need to pay slightly higher taxes, or we may need to advocate for recouping some of our massive military budget for human needs here at home. Political and religious enemies may be made. After almost two decades of being taken into the confidences of people in American academic institutions and communities I’ve learned that the non-religious often think that we people of faith are hypocrites because the issues we lobby for and preach at them seem, at heart, to bolster our own power, whether moral or political, at home or abroad. We tell people they have to have our personal values, which we then try to make into law so everybody has to abide by them. Immigration, education and health care are, I believe, moral and religious issues; they are also ones that stand to benefit other people and for their own sake – the most vulnerable people in our society. And seeking their welfare may actually cost us, financially and politically. It is still the just and humane thing to do. I think that Dr. King, who sought racial justice, and then with it the end of poverty and the end of militarism, would be on the front lines of these issues today.

 There may be broad disagreement in this gathering tonight about those issues. That’s not a bad thing. I spoke earlier about lobbing homiletical softballs; these issues are the tip of the iceberg. What if we were to consider abortion and gay marriage! I hope we will consider these issues together – we the interreligious community both locally and nationally. We probably won’t reach consensus. But I think that religion in the public sphere has become so tamed, so pedestrian. Dr. King was right to put it front and center, with real meat on its bones, bold and unapologetic in its proclamations. He was right to hold his fellow clergy accountable. I think we honor him today and every day by being just as bold and just as respectful and dialogical – just listen to the tone of his letter to his white clergy brothers in Birmingham. He told them what he thought the Lord required while he took great issue with their compromising stance.

 On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we affirm the dream, of course, but we honor the man better by daring to talk (or argue) substantively and practically about how to further the great American project. We get down to brass tacks, and we make a plan. We speak boldly from our religious beliefs. We remain warmly in dialogue with fellow dreamers of good will and of conscience who disagree on important details but whose very integrity we mutually affirm. In this way we, like Psalmist, and I think like Martin Luther King, may come to the end our days and say, “O Lord, . . . I have walked in my integrity.”


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