I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.
On April 3rd, 1968, the night before he was killed, Dr. King delivered a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support the sanitation workers’ strike. There had been threats against King related to this trip to Memphis; he mentioned the threats in his speech. He mentioned earlier dangers, too, including the time he was stabbed by a deranged woman in New York City. But he talks more about his gladness. He speaks about his gratitude for being alive to witness the sit-ins, and the bus boycott, and all the other ways that black people had aroused the conscience of the nation and stood up for freedom. He encourages the striking workers not to be afraid, and talks about all the practical necessities of their current struggle.
He ended his speech in words that his listeners would have known were an echo of the story of Moses. As the Hebrew people were close to entering the promised land, God brought Moses up on a mountain, where he could see the promised land, even though he would not be allowed to enter it with them. It was on that mountain that Moses died.
Here is what Dr. King said:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
There is power in a story. For Dr. King, the story of Moses was a doorway into the power of God to lift up the lowly. King said that preachers should draw on the prophet Amos to say, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He said that preachers should say with Jesus, who himself was quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.” Dr. King took the stories of the prophets and wove them into new words of hope and liberation, words that gave people the power to make a change.
There are still many people who try to argue against this justice-loving God of the Bible. Four years ago, just a few weeks before the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Fox News commentator and radio personality Glenn Beck attacked churches that preach a gospel of social and economic justice. Glenn Beck said if your church preaches that, you should “run as fast as you can.” According to Beck, social and economic justice are code words for communism and Nazism.
Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, responded to Beck on his own videoblog. He said,
When I was in seminary, we did a study of the Bible and we found 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concerns for the left out, the left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice. One of my classmates took an old Bible, and cut out every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice, and when we were done, the Bible was just in shreds. If I were ever to talk to Glenn Beck, I would like to hand him that old Bible from seminary and say, Glenn, this would have to be your Bible. …The God of the Bible is the God of justice.