Martin Luther King Jr. in 2023

Homily copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The homily text may contain typographical errors.


This morning’s reading is from the book Race and Secularism in American by Jonathan S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd.

“Thirty feet high, arms folded, with a steady, piercing gaze, Martin Luther King Jr. now stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Completed in 2011, the King memorial seals the embrace of the once-controversial leader by those across the political spectrum….. Ornamenting King’s tall figure are fourteen engraved quotations from his sermons, speeches, and writings. Justice, Love, and peace are recurring themes. ‘We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ ‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.’ … Amazingly, nowhere among these quotations is there mention of God, sin, Jesus, heaven, or hell. King the Christian preacher is absent. Even more astounding, there is no mention of the African American community for which King so vehemently fought. … King’s mainstream success, it seems, has come at the cost of his own religious and racial identity. Or, put another way, the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure….

“[But] Martin Luther King Jr. did not speak in a secular, race-neutral language. He preached, and he preached from his position as a black American. … In his final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, King imagines a conversation with God, … cites [the Biblical book of] Amos, describes his miraculous survival from an assassination attempt, prophesies his own death, and concludes, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’ King speaks in the first-person plural about black Americans: ‘We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world….’ In short, King’s critical voice was not just a moral voice. It was a theological voice, a black theological voice. This is the voice that is muted and managed by the secular and postracial regime of America in 2011.”

Homily — “Martin Luther King Jr. in 2023”

This morning’s reading raises a challenging question: Is our culture trying to take the religion out of the Christian minister named Martin Luther King? Is our culture trying to take the blackness out of the African American activist named Martin Luther King? Based on the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., the answer appears to be yes.

Honestly, a lot of people would find it easier to believe that we’ve entered a post-racial world where we no longer have to worry about racial conflict. But by any objective measure — wage disparities, health outcomes, average family wealthy — racial inequality still persists in the Unites States today. As much as we might wish we’re in a post-racial world, the reality is that we’re not.

And honestly, a lot of us Unitarian Universalists would find it easier if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had not been a Christian minister. These days, Christians are stereotyped as being racist, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic. Of course we know that Dr. King was a different kind of Christian, someone who fought for racial and economic justice as a central part of his religion. But it would be easier if he were something else.

But let’s think for a moment about why it is so important that martin Luther King was a liberal Christian. Many of us, when we think of Christianity, focus our attention on Christian beliefs — belief in God, belief in an afterlife, belief in Jesus as a spiritual leader. But the Christian stories, the Christian myths and narratives, were perhaps more important in Dr. King’s preaching and public speaking. He was a master storyteller. He retold ancient stories that helped us to understand ourselves, that energized us to fight injustice and change the world.

One of King’s favorites stories, a story he returned to again and again, was the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom. This turns out to be a particularly powerful story, because it comes from the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and so it is also considered a sacred story by Jews and Muslims. Not only that, but the story of Moses is such an integral part of Western culture, it can be shared by people of other religions or of no religion at all. And Dr. King was particularly good at working with people of other religious traditions. Lewis W. Baldwin, a scholar who studies King, recently said, “Dr. King came up with a new and creative approach to interreligious dialogue, rooted in a Christian-Jewish-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic solidarity … [He connected] people of different religions in his struggle for civil and human rights.” With that in mind, let’s look at the story of Moses and thin about how Dr. King used this story to unite people of religions.

Moses, you will remember, belonged to the Israelite people. But he was born in Egypt, at a time when Egypt was ruled by the Pharaohs. The Israelites were slaves of the Egyptians. Moses’s mother, worried about what the future held for her infant son, came up with a novel strategy: she left him where the Pharaoh’s daughter would find him. The Pharaoh’s daughter decided to raise the baby boy, and so Moses became a trusted part of the Pharoah’s royal family.

But Moses had a strong sense of right and wrong. When he was grown up, he saw one of the Egyptian slave masters beating one of the Israelite slaves. Moses could not stand the injustice of this, and killed the wicked slave master. But then he had to flee from Egypt. He fled to Mount Horeb where the god of the Israelites appeared and told Moses that he must return to Egypt to help his people escape from slavery.

So Moses went back to Egypt, and went to Pharaoh, and said to him, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refused, of course. But Moses had the god of the Israelites on his side, and with the help of his god, Moses forced all-powerful Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery.

The Israelites fled from Egypt, and headed towards the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, where they knew they would be safe. At the last moment, Pharoah sent his army out to capture the Israelites. Pharaoh’s army caught up with the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. But the god of the Israelites had a plan — he allowed the Israelites to cross the Red Sea on dry land, but when Pharoah’s army came along, the waters of the Red Sea rose up and engulfed them. (The story isn’t exactly clear how this happened. I always imagined that the Israelites crossed an arm of the Red Sea at low tide, but Pharaoh’s army was foolish enough to try to cross when the tide was rising).

The Israelites had to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. They could not return to Egypt, obviously. They were refugees, and no other land would let them enter. The wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula is a desert. There is not much to eat there. But the god of the Israelites sent down manna, a nutritious food that apparently tasted something like flatbread flavored with coriander. Eating manna day after day got pretty boring, but at least they didn’t starve to death.

Finally, after many adventures, Moses and the other leaders of the Israelites found a country where they could go and live in freedom. They called this new country the “Promised Land.” But by this time, Moses was one hundred and twenty years old. He knew he would not live long enough to enter the Promised Land himself. He turned over the leadership of the Israelites to Joshua, who was sort of like his vice president. Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo, from the summit of which he could see the Promised Land spread out before him. And there he died.

That’s the outline of the story of Moses. Let’s think about why this is such a powerful story.

First of all, the story of Moses tells us that everyone has human rights. Even thought the Israelites were a despised minority, they had human rights just like the all-powerful Pharaoh. In the story, those human rights came from the god of the Israelites. But like all stories, this story can be interpreted differently by different listeners, and when people from other religions hear this story, they can substitute something else for the god of the Israelites. Some Unitarian Universalists, for example, might feel that human rights come from the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we can still appreciate the power and the truth behind this story.

Second of all, this story gives a sort of playbook for how to fight for your human rights. The story of Moses makes it clear that it’s NOT easy to free people from slavery. The enslavers, people like the Pharaoh, do not want their slaves to go free. The Pharaoh and other enslavers may eventually agree to give their slaves freedom, and then change their minds and try to enslave people all over again. Then once the formerly enslaved people finally get free of Pharaoh, their troubles are not over, and they may have to wander in the wilderness for years eating nothing but manna. Even then, just like Moses, some of those who fight free of slavery will not get to live in the Promised Land. Like Moses, they will die just when victory is in sight.

Third, the story gives us Moses as a role model for reluctant leadership. Moses could have stayed his whole life in the comfortable entourage of the royal family of Egypt. But his strong sense of right and wrong forced him to take action. Even then, even when he took action by killing the Egyptian slavedriver, he just wanted to escape. But his god — we might equally say, his conscience — held him to a higher standard. Moses decided he had to go back and confront Pharaoh, even though he didn’t want to. Moses didn’t really want to be a leader at all, but he realized he didn’t have a choice. His conscience would not let him back down.

Probably the most powerful part of the story is the ending. Moses did not live to see ultimate success. Yet he fought for his people’s freedom anyway, because it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, we have to do the work even though we know that we’re not going to live to enjoy the final fruits of success.

You can see what a powerful story this is. You do not have to believe in Martin Luther King’s Christian god in order to feel the power of this story. You do not have to be a Christian, Jew, or Muslim to feel the power of this story. This is a universal story, a story of how to break free from enslavement.

At the same time, while it is a universal story, Dr. King used this story to point out the particular challenges faced by African Americans in the United States. Like the Israelites, after African Americans were finally freed from slavery in 1863, Pharaoh didn’t want to let them go. We could say that African Americans have been wandering in the wilderness, and still are wandering in the wilderness — they’re still wandering in the wilderness because they still don’t have wage equity, they still have less household wealth on average, and as we have seen in the COVID pandemic they still have worse health outcomes.

So it is that Martin Luther King used powerful stories from his religious tradition to get at universal truths for people of all religions, or of no religion at all. But we need to remember that Dr. King remained firmly grounded in his own liberal Christian religious tradition. To understand why this is so important, let’s return for a moment to King scholar Lewis Baldwin, what argues: “The man and his legacy are being distorted. His legacy is being hijacked, misinterpreted. For an example, on the extreme right of the political spectrum, there are those who argue that Dr. King was opposed to affirmative action, and they make that argument without any proof at all…. the people who make these claims obviously have not read Dr. King.” Baldwin goes on to add that most of us who are religious liberals DO understand Dr. King correctly. However, Baldwin goes on to add that we have not pushed back adequately on the “distortion of Dr. King’s message, his ideals.”

And one of the ways we religious liberals can push back against misinterpretations of Dr. King is that we can embrace the whole of his teaching and preaching. He was an African American man who used the challenges faced by his race to reach out to people of all races. He was a liberal Christian who used the wealth of his religious tradition to reach out to people of all religions.