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.

Moses and the Underground Railroad

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 34 in its entirety:

“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

“Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”


The second reading is from an article written by William L. Van Deburg, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The article is titled, “Frederick Douglass: Maryland Slave to Religious Liberal”:

“It would be a mistake to portray [Frederick] Douglass as a piously conservative Christian. His biographers have correctly noted that he was not orthodox in his doctrine. His belief that religion should be used as an instrument for social reconstruction led him to despise the passive attitude shown by many Negro ministers.

“As he progressed in his abolitionist career, Douglass was influenced by those champions of Reason, Transcendentalism, and Unitarianism whose doctrines he had condemned. In and 1848 essay, he noted that the destiny of the Negro race was committed to human hands. God was not wholly responsible for freeing those in bondage. By 1853, he was willing to criticize Henry Ward Beecher’s reliance on God to end slavery. If Beecher had been a slave, Douglass noted, he would have been ‘whipped … out of his willingness’ to wait for the power of Christian faith to break his chains.

“Increasingly, enlightenment terminology crept into Douglass’s writings and speeches. Negroes were adjudged to be ‘free by the laws of nature.’

“The slaves’ claim to freedom was ‘backed up by all the ties of nature, and nature’s God.’ Man’s [sic] right to liberty was self-evident since ‘the voices of nature, of conscience, of reason, and of revelation, proclaim it as the right of all rights.’…

“Douglass was also affected by the words of transcendentalist preacher Theodore Parker. The [Unitarian] minister’s ideas on the perfectibility of man [sic] and the sufficiency of natural religion were eventually incorporated in the abolitionist’s epistemology. In 1854, Douglass noted, ‘I heard Theodore Parker last Sabbath. No man preaches more truth than this eloquent man, this astute philosopher’.”

[in By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, ed. Anthony Pinn (New York: NYU Press, 2001), pp. 89-90.]


The great old story of Moses — the story of how Moses led the Hebrew people up out of Egypt, up out of slavery, and on to the promised land, a land of milk and honey — is one of the most inspiring stories in the Bible. It is a story that has inspired oppressed peoples everywhere. And it is a story that has troubled the oppressors mightily, to the point where some American slave owners made special Bibles for their slaves by literally cutting out the book of Exodus, so as not to give their slaves any ideas that the Christian religion promoted freedom. The story of Exodus has been central to the African American church tradition; it is a story that inspired people like Martin Luther King. Exodus is a story that today continues to inspire freedom-loving people around the world:– from the radical Christians in Latin America who engage in liberation theology, to the members of the oppressed Dalit caste in India.

What a powerful story Exodus is! The Hebrews went down to Egypt; and over time Pharaoh, the king of the Egyptians, enslaved them. Then a powerful Hebrew leader rose up, a man named Moses — of course, we now realize that Moses’s sister Miriam was just as important as Moses in leading the Hebrews to freedom, it’s just that she mostly got written out of the Bible, but I digress — anyway, a powerful Hebrew leader rose up, a man named Moses. After a series of personal trials and tribulations, the slave Moses rose to a position of power and influence within the Pharaoh’s court. And then a day came when Moses’s God, the God of Israel, appeared to him and said it was time for the Hebrew people to go free. Naturally, Pharaoah didn’t want the Hebrew people to go free; he wanted to keep his slaves; but with the help of the God of Israel, Moses unleashed a series of disasters on Pharoah and on Egypt. After suffering ten increasingly horrible disasters, Pharoah at last said that the Hebrews could go free.

And so the Hebrew people packed up and left Egypt. Almost before they were out of sight, Pharaoh regretted his rashness, freeing his slaves!, and he sent his army out to bring them back. The Egyptian army pursued the Hebrew people to the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and his people were trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea, and just when it appeared that all was lost, the God of Israel opened a path for them across the sea — and then drowned the pursuing Egyptian army.

So far, the God of Israel comes across as pretty remarkable:– a God who inflicts disasters on your enemies, up to and including drowning pursuing armies. If you were one of the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans in the United States in the early 19th century, the God of Israel might be your kind of god, a god you would want to have on your side:– a god who could lead you out of the horrors of the life you were in; a god who could get you across the Ohio River while drowning your pursuers behind you; a god who was unequivocally on the side of the oppressed peoples of this world.

You will notice that I said, the God of Israel might be the kind of God you want to have on your side. If you read the story of Exodus carefully, you might begin to question certain episodes in that story. Above all, you might have question what happens after God leads Moses and the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Above all, you might question those forty years God has them wandering about in the wilderness.

Now it is true that many escaping slaves who followed the Underground Railroad to freedom had their own versions of wandering in the wilderness. Harriet Jacobs, in her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, tells how she escaped from her master, but then had to live for seven long years in a tiny attic over her grandmother’s house, which she describes as follows: “A small shed had been added to my grandmother’s house years ago. Some boards were laid across the supports at the top, and between these boards and the roof was a very small attic, never occupied by anything but rats and mice. The attic was only nine feet long and seven wide. The highest point was three feet high. There was no admission for either light or air.” Jacobs tells how stifling hot this attic became in the summer, how cold in the winter;– you could say it was her own version of the wandering in the wilderness.

Thus the story of Exodus might help provide meaning to the possible delays and the inevitable dangers that an escaping slave might encounter. And yet, you can’t get around the fact that Moses never made it to the Promised Land. As we heard in the first reading, Moses died before he ever got to freedom; God did not let him get to freedom alive. For someone seeking freedom from oppression, this could be seen as a very serious flaw in the story!

There’s another serious problem with the story of Exodus:– We know perfectly well that it just isn’t that far from Egypt to the Promised Land. The only way it could take you forty years to travel from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula to the Promised Land of Canaan is if you deliberately went around in circles; or if someone deliberately led you around in circles. Forty years to travel a couple of hundred of miles! — if we only traveled a mile a day, it wouldn’t even take a year to go that distance. Isn’t this the same old thing that oppressed peoples always hear?: “Wait a while, the time isn’t ripe yet.” When you hear that phrase, you can be pretty sure that “wait a while” means “never,” or at least, “not in your lifetime.” Moses lived to be 120 years old, but died before he reached freedom; this is a serious problem with the story of Exodus, a problem that could lead one to question whether the Bible is truly a book of liberation.

Indeed, people like Frederick Douglass began to entertain questions about the orthodox interpretations of the Bible. We heard in the second reading this morning from the distinguished historian William L. Van DeBurg, who tells us that Frederick Douglass drifted further and further from orthodox Christianity over the course of his life. When Douglass first escaped from slavery and came here to New Bedford, he seems to have been fairly close to an orthodox Christian viewpoint. Yes, he hated the blatant hypocrisy exhibited by the some of the Christian slave-owners, enough so that he wrote, “of all the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.” Yet as a slave he had joined a Methodist church in Baltimore, and when he came here to New Bedford he joined an African American Methodist church here; and he was orthodox enough that in his one documented visit to First Universalist Church of New Bedford, he argued forcefully against the heretical doctrine of universal salvation, and he would not join the Universalist church in spite of the fact that his friend and mentor Nathan Johnson was a Universalist.

That was in 1841; yet by 1870, Douglass had drifted far from orthodox Christianity. In a letter he wrote in 1870, reprinted in the anthology By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism, we discover that Frederick Douglass’s religious journey had taken him far down the path of free thought. Anthony Pinn, who edited By These Hands, points out that by 1870, Douglass had become unwilling “to acknowledge the role of God in the progress of African Americans.” In this 1870 letter, Douglass wrote:

“I have no doubt that the avowal of my liberal opinions will drive many from me who were once my friends and even exclude me from many platforms upon which I was a welcome speaker, but such is the penalty which every man must suffer who admits a new truth into his mind….

“As to my not going far enough, I have to say, that while I am free to follow my convictions wherever they may lead — I deem it wise to avow those which are perfectly formed, clearly defined, and about which I am entirely undisturbed by doubts of any sorts. I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.”

In his typically clear prose, Douglass outlines what might be the guiding mantra for many of Unitarian Universalists today: we follow our convictions wherever they may lead; we deem it wise to avow only those convictions which are well-formed; we bow neither to fundamentalist Christians nor to fundamentalist atheists; and we claim perfect freedom of thought. Douglass tells us that freedom from bondage is necessary but not enough; freedom from racism is necessary but not enough; our thoughts too must be free. We must be free in body; we must be free in society; and we must be free in the realm of thought, even if that leads us away from orthodox religion.

The received wisdom has long been that all African Americans, Frederick Douglass included, belong to the Black Church. Through careful research, the African American humanist theologian Anthony Pinn has conclusively proved that there is a strong strain of humanist religious expression in African American life, going back beyond Frederick Douglass at least into the middle 19th century.

Yes, the Black Church has been a key institution in African American life. As Frederick Douglass and other African Americans over the last 150 years have known, the Black Church is one of the key institutions where African Americans could join together in voluntary association in order to have some influence in the wider world. Yet Anthony Pinn has documented how important the humanist strain of thought has been to African Americans. For example, Pinn points out that the anonymous men and women who composed blues songs felt no need to inject God into their songs; the blues are humanist songs, where human beings face life without reliance on the supernatural intervention of a divine being. In many other examples, Pinn documents humanist thought in African Americans from the slave days down through the 20th century.

Why should there be such a strong strain of humanist thought, or at least non-theistic thought, among African Americans? Simply put, for some people the existence of slavery in the United States serves as an acid test for Christian belief systems in the United States. How could a God who is supposed to be a loving God allow the atrocity of chattel slavery to exist? How could a God who is supposed to love all human beings equally allow the evils of racism to permeate every aspect of our culture, even down to this very day? You probably know all the orthodox Christian justifications: that we human beings are miserable sinners who have messed up the world so badly that things like slavery can exist, and it will only be through God that we can be rid of such evils; probably after we die and go to heaven, if indeed we are allowed to be one of the ones who gets to go to heaven. You may even know some of the arguments of black liberation theology: James Cone has famously said that Jesus is black, and other African American Christian theologians have pointed out that it is white Christianity, not God, that is to blame.

But for some people — indeed, for quite a few people of all races — these justifications sound inadequate. For these people, there is too big a gap between the stated moral ideals of orthodox Christianity and the realities of slavery, and the realities of racism. These are the people who turn away from American Christianity: some, like Malcom X, turn to non-Christian religions like Islam; but for many more, the best alternative is humanism or non-theism, that is: the best alternative is to question belief in God.

And there are many who give up on organized religion altogether; but I don’t think that’s the right approach. Giving up doesn’t accomplish anything. Only half of all United States citizens vote — they have given up on participating in the political process — but that accomplishes less than nothing, because all that means is that someone else is going to make your decisions for you. Passivity is rarely a good solution to any problem. Similarly, we see many people who have given up on organized religion; they let the fundamentalist Christians take over the churches, and they let money-grubbing exploiters take over the New Age religious movements, and they let the cults and the Scientologists take over everything else.

Thus I believe with all my heart that there is a place for a religious movement which tells people, not how they might get into heaven later, but rather how we might all get a little bit of heaven into this world right now. This, I believe, is where Moses went wrong. He put too much emphasis on the idea that he would get to go to heaven after he died; which was fine for him I suppose; but if he had paid more attention to getting his people into the Promised Land now, instead of himself into heaven later, all his people could have crossed the desert in six or seven months. I don’t believe that Moses needed to choose between heaven and the Promised Land; he could have had both. The African Americans who escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad to the Promised Land of New Bedford, or one of the other safe havens for escaped slaves: they discovered that if they could snatch an opportunity to ride on the Underground Railroad, they could get to the Promised Land of freedom in their own lifetime, and still be ready to get to heaven after they died.

William R. Jones, an African American and a Unitarian Universalist theologian, wrote an essay back in 1974 in which he showed that the biggest religious difference of opinion is not between people who believe in God, and people who disbelieve in God. The biggest religious difference of opinion is between those people who say trust in God for everything and do nothing for yourself on the one hand; and on the other hand those people who say whether or not you believe in God it is up to us human beings to create justice and righteousness here and now, in this present world.

Moses started out as the second kind of person — he did, after all, get the Hebrews out of Egypt, and that took some doing. But in that forty-year trek across the Sinai Peninsula, it seems to me that Moses wound up trusting too much in God to the point where he didn’t do enough for himself or the Hebrew people.

Frederick Douglass was always that second kind of person. He started out life with a deep and sincere belief in God; but he didn’t let that belief keep him from taking a ride on the Underground Railroad. Later in life, he came to have deep questions about the orthodox Christian God; but he continued to do his best to create justice and righteousness here and now, in his present world.

Here in our church, we don’t care whether you believe in God or not; personally, I find myself like Frederick Douglass, not willing either to avow or disavow a belief in God; like Douglass, “I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith.”

Here in this church, it is not your belief or disbelief in God which matter; what matter is whether you and I, like Frederick Douglass, will take it upon ourselves to create justice and righteousness here and now, in this present world.