Our Challenge Todayó
Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 20, 2002
The second of the five sources from which our living tradition draws upon calls us to heed the "words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love." Few would hesitate to include the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among such prophets. Tomorrow, our nation celebrates his life with a national holiday. Such a day has great value, and a great trap. The great value is that it almost passively forces us to stop at least once a year and reflect on the man and the meaning of his life and to take at least that one day to assess how we as individuals and as a nation have responded to his challenges. The great trap is that we will then give ourselves permission to ignore those reflections and assessments the 364 days of the year. So, todayís sermon includes the obligatory reflections and assessments, but it comes with a commitment on my part. As long as I have the opportunity to be a guest in this pulpit, it will not be the only Sunday this year that you will hear the prophetic words of Dr. King or be called to respond to his challenge.
I am going to spend a little less than half my time this morning talking about MLK. The best way to honor the man, in my view, is not to talk about him, but about us and the social justice challenges we face today, and that is what I will devote the second half of this sermon to.
It would be easy for me to debunk MLK. Like every other human being, Dr. King had his gifts and he misused them at times. I remember how disappointed I was in Robert Kennedy when I read that, as Attorney General, he had authorized wiretapping Dr. Kingís phones. I was disappointed even further when I read what he heard on those wiretaps. I lost two heroes at once. That was when I was much younger of course. In my college years, I still thought I knew it all, and I had yet to make many of the mistakes that I would make as I grew older. Back then, I still had the luxury of moral indignation. Today, I truly try to judge others as I would have others judge me, not because itís the right thing to do, but because I have a vested interest in doing so. What I think it means to affirm each personís worth and dignity, in part, is to know that most of us are better than our worst mistakes. That goes for me, and you, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
MLK was an incredibly bright man and well-educated. I learned the hard way that those two things arenít the same. He came from the Black middle class. His father was the minister at one of the leading Baptist congregations in Atlanta, which of course, was segregated during his childhood. Yet, as long as he stayed within the
African-American community, which he did for the most part, he was able to live a fairly comfortable life free from poverty and racism, or at least some of the more egregious effects of racism. He went to Moorehouse College at the age of 15, a leading historically black university that produced what became something of an elite corps of AA leadership. He graduated with his class and then went north to Crozer Theological Seminary and earned a Ph.D.óand this was no honorary degree. He did the work. He struggled with his calling. He could have been an academic and devoted his life to learning and teaching. He choose instead to answer the call of the pulpit. His first congregation was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he arrived in 1955. It was only several months after he arrived that Rosa Parks refused the most famous bus seat in civil rights history. MLK already had become a well-known within the faith-based civil rights community in Montgomery, and it was the old guard in the movement that tapped his intelligence and energy to coordinate what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was 26 years old. Like many of the great prophets before him, he resisted the call. Of course, we know he did answer that call and the rest, as they say, is history.
Several years ago, I received as a gift a collection of 11 of MLKís sermons, both in printed form and on tape. It was the first time I ever had heard more than a documentary soundbite from him. My guess is that most of you have not had the opportunity to hear an entire address from MLK, how he introduces his topic, his organization, and the development of his theme. Itís incredible. What gets forgotten in all of those civil-rights excerpts is what a deeply devoted man of faith he was---notwithstanding his human failings. He never hid his Christianity. Although he embraced a number of Christian doctrines to which I donít affirm, most of the time, I found myself thinking he could be a UU. He was a religious liberal. He drew on all the worldís faith traditions for inspiration. He was particularly fond of quoting Theodore Parker and Henry David Throeau.
What I like most about his theology is his firm conviction on the necessity on living first and foremost a spiritual life, and his warning, repeated often, that we Americans in particular are creating a society for ourselves that is separating us from, what I would say, is our spiritual source or ground of being.
Hereís a quotation that sums that up, taken from a sermon entitled, "Rediscovering Lost Values," which he delivered in 1954, which was before the bus boycott:
"The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live . . .The real problem is that through our scientific genius weíve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius weíve failed to make a brotherhood."
Had I been reminded of that quotation earlier, Iím sure I would have used it in the service dedicated to the Pearl of Great Price. A constant theme in both his more traditional religious sermons and his great civil rights speeches is that all progress and all renewal starts from within. What a lot of white people like about MLK is that he didnít hold back on his demands on the African American community. He talked over and over again how important it was for Blacks to be worthy of the freedom they were seeking, and long before it was popular to do so, he was talking about things like drugs and unintended pregnancies as barriers to progress in the civil rights struggle. Unfortunately, a lot of white people think his message applied only to black people. But, thatís another story.
As I noted, todayís theme is not personal growth or spirituality, but social justice. MLK didnít invent social justice, and, I would dare say, neither did Jesus. Yet, the same spirit that moved them to call us to action called to many of the great prophets in the faith tradition we claim in this congregation.
As you will see, the issues have only changed in form, not substance. This morning, Iím going to pick three areas to talk about: mental health (and in particular, mental health in prisons), the death penalty and womenís rights. It is a somewhat arbitrary list for either of two reasons. Iíll tell you one now, and save the other for later. Any sermon titled "Our Challenge Today" also could include environmental concerns, income inequality, fair housing, and even foreign policy. I do not mean to diminish the importance of those and many other social issues. I needed somehow to constrain this talk within the allotted time and I wanted to pick issues that have been particularly important in the Universalist social justice tradition.
It probably comes as no surprise that Unversalists were at the forefront in movements to reform prisons and mental hospitals, and our heritage with the suffragette movement likewise is well known. The surprise on my list may be the death penalty. Yet, it was Benjamin Rush, a Universalists and a signer of the Declaration of Indpendence, who said:
A belief in Godís universal love to all his creatures, and that we will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truth on all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankindóit abolishes the punishment of death for any crimeóand converts jails into houses of repentance and reformation.
One of the first resolutions adopted at the first GA of the newly formed UUA in 1961 called for the abolition of the death penalty. It was first of several such resolutions. The struggle continues today. The focus of death penalty opponents, though, is not outright abolition. As a matter of strategy, opponents now are focusing on a moratorium on the death penalty. Even those who favor the death penalty agree that it must not only be administered fairly, but it must be perceived as being administered fairly, and few people today can credibly argue that it is. The governor of Illinois gave impetus to this movement when he declared a moratorium in his state. At the time, there had been more convicts whose death penalties had been reversed by the courts than actual executions. Of course, today, we have a President and an Attorney General who not only accept the death penalty, they embrace it with zeal. Before we judge our current President, though, we should not be so quick to let Bill Clinton off the hook. It was Bill Clinton, during the primaries in 1992, who returned to Arkansas to oversee an execution just to prove how tough he was on crime. The manís name was Ricky Lee Rector. As a result of a botched suicide attempt with a gun, he was practically lobotomized. He asked for ice cream for his last meal. The guards noticed that he hadnít finished his ice cream when the time came to take him to the death chamber. Thatís all right, he said, Iíll finish it after the execution. In fact, we are one of the only nations on earth that executes the mentally retarded and convicts who were juveniles at the time of their crimes. Thatís not right.
Another issue related to criminal justice reform is mental illness. At least as far back as 1847, when Hosea Ballou helped to form the New Englad Universalist General Reform Association, the treatment of mentally ill has been an important part of the Universalist witness for social justice. There are many issues in this area that merit our attention. One of them is them is the fact that we are using our prison system as a substitute for the lack of an adequate mental health system. In 1998, there were 283,000 people with mental illnesses in prison Ė that number is four times the number of mentally ill in state mental hospitals. That works out to about 16% of the total prison population in state prisons. Itís also estimated that about 1/3 of the estimated 600,000 homeless in America have a severe mental illness. Mental illness accounts for four in ten causes of disability in America. One of the hot-button political issues involving mental illness is so-called parity. The issue is that many insurers pay less for the same service provided to a mental health patient than they would otherwise. They may have larger deductibles, greater co-pays or smaller reimbursements for doctorís visits. The mental health advocacy community has been fighting for years to get Congress to pass legislation to mandate parity in mental health coverage by insurers. They came close this past year, but the bill died. I donít mean to be partisan Ė in fact, the bill itself is sponsored by a Republican and Democrat Ė but, it was killed in a conference committee by a party-line vote, which al of the Republicans voting against it, and all of the Democrats voting for it.
If you would like to know more about the parity bill and other mental health issues, I encourage you to contact the National Association for the Mentally Ill, which has a fairly easy website to remember, NAMI.org, thatís N-A-M-I dot org.
Finally, I want to add something about womenís rights. Over a hundred years ago, the Universalists were among the first to declare that womenís rights are human rights. In 1898, Universalists missionaries in Japan established a school to teach girls how to read because Japanese society at that time didnít allow that. As they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The Taliban has gotten so much attention lately, we think of them as being totally unique. In fact, in many parts of the world, women are not allowed to attend school. I was pleased, however, to see that this is an issue that was high on the UU Service Committeeís agenda long before the events of Sept. 11 gaqve this issue new prominence. As it happens, the girls in Kosovo arenít allowed to go to school either. The UUSC, though, raised over $400,000 to support the relief efforts over there, including scholarships to educate 54 young women there.
Iím not saying this to diminish these issues at all, but there are an awful lot of women around the world who wish their biggest challenges were equal pay and affirmative action. We should feel both proud, and challenged, to be part of a faith tradition that recognizes that fact.
So, what is our challenge today? I said earlier that there were two reasons the issues I picked were somewhat arbitrary. The first was that I wanted to choose issues that historically have been important to the Universalist tradition of social justice. The second is that none of these issues matters if they donít matter to you. Itís easy to identify over 100 or even a 1000 worthy issues and, in doing so, to become discouraged. Given how vast so many of our problems are, itís only natural to think that the only thing we can do is by proxy, that is, by sending money to the UUA or UUSC, by voting for candidates committed to our views on social justice, or signing the occasional petition.
MLKís challenge, though, wasnít directed to the church as an abstract institution. To truly claim our tradition of social justice, this congregation, every congregation, must discern its own call to justice. It may be criminal justice, mental health, poverty and income equality, human rights, or anything else. Itís quite possible that each person here feels passionately about a different issue. Yet, we are called to find common ground, something to unite this congregation not only to our faith tradition, but to each other. So, I conclude today with this: There is a lot of injustice in this world, in this country, and even in Darke County; where will this congregation stand?
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