As we celebrate the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, this is a good time to draw attention to the fact that no one in the history of reading the Bible from the streets was better at #OccupytheBible than Dr. King. The one fundamental thing Dr. King understood is that you actually had to be on the street to read the Bible from the street.
Streets, banks, parks and bridges have been occupied by the #OccupyWallStreet movement. Recently, I’ve started the Twitter tag #OccupytheBible where each day I tweet a different verse from scriptural teaching on justice for the poor and the way riches are a stumbling block to discipleship. And every day I gain more Twitter followers who want to read more of the Bible than Tim Tebow’s favorite verse, John 3:16. John 3:16 is a great verse, and Tebow’s emphasis on it has inspired a lot of Google searches for the text, but the Bible says a lot more than that one verse, and much of what it says is about economic justice.
The Bible is one of the most important places Christians who are concerned about social justice need to occupy. To Occupy the Bible simply means reading the Bible from the perspective of those who are driven to the streets to protest rising economic and social inequality in our own time, as those who listened to Jesus on the streets did in the first century.
No one has ever done this better than Dr. King. Rev. Jesse Jackson once remarked to me, “All these people getting Ph.D.’s in the work of Dr. King and not one of them could call a press conference.” It’s true. Dr. King could call the press conference, stand up on a podium, and say what really needed to be said, and the dozens, then hundreds, and then hundreds of thousands of people who stood with him on the street could say the same. When King marched, a multi-religious, multi-racial America suddenly became visible, and America was forever changed.
King was no biblical literalist. He was more concerned with how to get people not to be so preoccupied with creeds, and focus instead on deeds. In fact, he believed, the job of the church and its scriptures was “to produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience,” and to commit to action. “Jesus,” he noted, “always recognized that there is a danger of having a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.”
King was all about the deeds. This is why he was able, in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, to move so deftly between “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the words of the prophet Isaiah. “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.” And then came the deeds part: these words of the founders and of scripture, no matter how inspiring, per King, have to make a concrete change in the attitudes and laws “down in Alabama, with its vicious racists.” Otherwise, as he argued, the words are a promissory note that has been returned in default.
From the perspective of the streets where King marched, “Loving Your Enemies” was the only practical way. This is elaborated in his extraordinary sermon on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:43. It demonstrates how King interpreted the Bible from the streets in order to turn words into deeds. In this sermon, King took as his text the words of Jesus, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
King argued in this sermon that when Jesus said, “love your enemies” he was talking about the secret of the power of non-violent action. “There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, ‘This isn’t the way.’”_
From the street, in Dr. King’s words and his deeds, what works to overcome hate, as he says in this sermon, is “to organize mass non-violent resistance based on the principle of love.” This is exactly what #OccupyWallStreet has been trying to do in following the example of both Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. It’s ultimately why those who want to make a change in this country have got to get out on the streets and engage in non-violent direct action.
When police raided Zuccotti Park, the first home of #OWS, and destroyed many of the belongings of the Occupiers, one of the major areas of destruction was the People’s Library. Bibles lay in the heap alongside books by Maya Angelou, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, all marked with the People’s Library stamp.
While lots of households and even Occupy camps have Bibles, though, you actually have to read the Bible, not just own one, to get the message. But when you do read the Bible, studies have shown, it can turn you liberal. Indeed, people become more liberal in their social attitudes by actually reading the Bible, especially on their own, that is, outside church teaching.
The title of the event where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” was called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
JOBS and freedom. It was a march for economic and civil equality. The human desire for simple decency in economic and civic rights didn’t begin in 1963, and it certainly has not ended here in 2012.
It’s a biblical message through and through. You understand that when you read the whole Bible. And that’s something that Dr. King knew well.
#OccupyWallStreet is a true heir to the King vision and practice.