From Our Archive
Debie Thomas, “But I Say to You” (2020); Edwina Gately, “My Night on the Mountain” (2017); Dan Clendenin, “Say Yes, Choose Life” (2014).
For Sunday February 12, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or Sirach 15:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
This Week’s Essay
Michael Fitzpatrick is a lay teacher and preacher in The Episcopal Church. After growing up in the rural northwest, he served over five years in the U. S. Army as a Chaplain's Assistant, including two deployments to Iraq. After completing his military service, Michael has done graduate work in literature and philosophy. He is now finishing his PhD at Stanford University.
This time last year, I wrote an essay for the 8th Day column on the theological legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. As I alluded in that essay, the annual holiday in remembrance of King sits somewhat uneasily with me. I readily welcome any opportunity for us to reckon afresh with King’s pronouncements and judgments upon American society, so as to interrogate how far we still have to go to approximate the visions King set forth. Yet too often we sanitize King’s message down into a feel-good story about justice and harmony that no longer shakes us to our foundations. King has been pared down to the pithiest lines on BrainyQuote, protecting our national conversation from his more trenchant commentary.
Esau McCaulley, author of the book Reading While Black, recently echoed my concern in much more stark terms on the Holy Post podcast, confessing that in his caustic moods MLKJ Day feels like the “annual re-assassination of Martin Luther King” — not assassinating his person but his message. King is reduced to a few choice sound bites that stir our patriotic sentiments while silencing the historical reality that for much of King’s life, especially in his final years, King’s words and ideas were deeply unpopular for the way they challenged the status quo.
You might be thinking, “Maybe so, but wasn’t King’s holiday last month? Why bring this up now?” Well, it’s Black History month, and I believe we need to intentionally remember and engage with King’s ideas beyond the federal holiday. It’s too easy to pay our annual respects and then forget about him. We must bring his work to the forefront of our minds throughout the year, not just when it is compulsory. Furthermore, I believe we must contend with the substance of King’s message, not simply his pithiest lines from beloved speeches. King spoke and wrote a lot, including things that weren’t exactly radio friendly.
McCaulley points out, for instance, that we enjoy recalling the heart-warming lines from King’s “I have a dream” speech about his children not being judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character. These lines come from the latter half of the speech, reaching their zenith as King comes to the full grandeur of his vision: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
The transcendent power of these beautiful cadences reflects a master orator, but McCaulley believes that we have abstracted these portions of the speech away from the opening salvo with which King begins: that black folk had come to the nation’s capitol to cash a check. They had come to declare that despite the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence promising that all people — “yes, black men as well as white men” — would have inalienable and equal rights, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note.” King did not hold back words of judgment: “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
In other words, as a nation we did not let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no”. Instead our “yes” meant “no.” Jesus teaches in our Gospel reading that it’s not simply a matter of swearing falsely, whether by heaven or by the earth. For the solemnity of the vow matters not one penny if the vow is broken. Jesus also does not hold back words of judgment, insisting that we must not swear oaths at all, but simply do what we say, for anything else “comes from the evil one.” Harsh!
Yet that is the thrust of King’s speech. King points us to the prelude of our most cherished national document, which reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And he says that we, as a country, defaulted on these promises. We gave black folk a bad check. It doesn’t matter how flowery the language sounds, how sacred the document, or how cherished these words are in our national identity. We invoked the Creator — or as Jesus puts it, we swore by heaven, the throne of God — yet our “yes” was not “yes,” and so it comes from the evil one.
We have a tendency in our preaching and teaching to gloss over the harsh bits of scripture, the portions that make us uncomfortable. We’re little better when we encounter prophetic voices like King’s — we want to keep the preaching that give us feelings of pride, but not those words that cast the harsh light of truth on our responsibility. We must hide no more. Esau McCaulley says that if Martin Luther King never disagrees with our beliefs, that means we’re not really listening to him. We’ve selected the parts of his message that we agree with, and ignored the rest, what Cornel West calls “the Santa Clausification of MLK.”
McCaulley insists that we each ask ourselves the following question: Which black Christians do I listen to that I trust who disagree with my beliefs? We can all find black Christian voices to whom we shout “Amen!” as we hear our own convictions and frustrations spoken back to us. But do we permit ourselves to trust black voices that are not part of our echo chamber? Can we name them? If not, perhaps that is where our repentance and listening needs to start.
Likewise with scripture. Jesus tells us that swearing by heaven and earth instead of simply doing what we say we’ll do is the work of Satan. Will we let ourselves really hear this? For this is precisely what Moses means when he tells the Israelite community, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” Heaven and earth are not witnesses for us, but against — the throne and footstool of our Creator will testify whether we have let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no”, whether we have chosen life or death. What I want to hear in a homily is why the stern parts of the lectionary readings matter.
We cannot honor King’s legacy or remember Black history unless we are willing to make the hard choices that come with them. As McCaulley says, fighting racism is not just about ideas or speech, but about economics and culture. It’s about becoming a different kind of people, a different kind of nation. It means our neighborhoods look different, our schools look different, our presidents look different, our ways of doing business look different.
This was central to King’s message. I want to end with an excerpt from one of King’s least read sermons, entitled, “Can a Christian be a Communist?” It’s a scalding comparison of communist commitment to the anemia of American Christian belief. At one point in the sermon he discusses what it means to be a witness for Christ. He says,
[The word “witness” also] means living a triumphant life. It’s not enough to talk about it, you’ve got to live about it. Too many people have religion on Sunday, but it doesn’t apply to Monday. If they’ll do it every Sunday, they’ll be all right on Monday, just a little song they’ve acquired. But if one is to be a witness for Jesus Christ, he must live this thing. He must not only preach a sermon with words, but he must preach it with his life so that his very walking down the street is the embodiment of the principles of Jesus Christ.
[The word “witness” also] means being willing to die for the cause of Jesus Christ. This morning, my friends, we must believe that there is something so dear, something so precious, something so eternal, that we’ll die for it. And if you haven’t discovered something that you will die for, you aren’t fit to live.
King is unabashed that his civil rights advocacy was grounded in his willingness to die for the cause of Christ. That was the source of his hope and laboring. To choose life in Christ for him was to choose racial reconciliation for all people. Esau McCaulley echoes this, “I don’t give up on the fight against white supremacy because I believe Jesus is risen from the dead.”
These words are not meant to invigorate our Christian pride; rather, they stand with heaven and earth as witnesses in judgment when we play the Christian part on Sunday and then break our vows on Monday. They stand in judgment when we vote “on the right side of history” on election day but we won’t change zoning laws, we won’t live near the projects, we won’t send our kids to schools made up predominantly of children of color, we won’t give up our six-figure salaries for reparations so that the checks of our nation stop coming back marked “insufficient funds.”
Heaven and earth have been called as witnesses against us. Life and death, blessing and cursing have been set before us. The unfiltered words of scripture and Dr. King will not bring comfort, but they will help transform us into a people who preach what we believe with our life, so that our “yes” might simply mean “yes” and nothing more.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet, novelist, and short story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War, Dunbar began writing stories and verse when he was a child. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper. Dunbar became one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. In addition to his poems, short stories, and novels, he also wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy In Dahomey (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway in New York. The musical later toured in the United States and the United Kingdom. Suffering from tuberculosis, which then had no cure, Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio, at the age of 33. --Adapted from Wikipedia
Michael Fitzpatrick cherishes comments and questions via email@example.com.
Image credits: (1) ILikeToWasteMyTime.com; (2) Civil Rights Movement Archive; and (3) PhotoShelter.com.