On Martin Luther King Day, remember the message, not the monument

January 11, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a sermon that was read at the eighth annual MLK Shabbat service, hosted by Sixth & I Synagogue in conjunction with Turner Memorial AME Church on Friday, January 13, 2012.

I am ambivalent about Martin Luther King Jr. being frozen in stone not far from where we are sitting tonight.  Although a resident of Prince George’s County, I have not visited the memorial complex.  Like the Laodiceans in the book of Revelation, I am not hot about the monument nor am I cold.  I have driven past it on numerous occasions rubbernecking to sip its serene beauty.  But I have not been close to the soaring statue.  My eyes have not beheld it up close.  My hands have not touched it.  I have yet to drink deeply from the monument designed to remind humanity that it is possible to hew a stone of hope from the mountain of despair.

As a child I was given a bust of Dr. King.  When I got a little older I was given Stephen B. Oates’ magisterial biography of Dr. King.  Even now I am reading Clayborne Carson’s edited volume entitled “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.” and Taylor Branch’s elegant trilogy on America during the King years. I wanted to go to Morehouse College because that is where King earned his undergraduate degree.  I considered attending Boston University’s School of Theology because that is where King earned his doctorate.  I guess I assumed that I would be endowed with his unswerving commitment to God’s just reign and towering intellect by osmosis if I walked the hallowed halls that he once walked. 

The first church trip that I was privileged to lead as a pastor was a pilgrimage to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.  And I can say that I am a pastor today largely because of King’s ministry.  A ministry that proved that preachers don’t have to check their brains at the door of the sanctuary nor abandon the ministry of justice while serving the flock of Christ. I have been challenged by the legacy of King, soaked in his words, and baffled by his unswerving commitment to justice.  Some people are bibliophiles. Some are anglophiles.  I am a Kingphile. 

But I remain lukewarm about King in stone. Why?  Americans are people stricken with amnesia.  We forget history, especially when it is convenient to do so.  We banish suffering and strife and violence from our collective memory without realizing that our struggles become more intractable when wed to silence.  Why am I lukewarm?  Because Americans would rather glaciate our Martin Kings in monuments surrounded by flora and fauna than deal with the harsh, prophetic realities that made them both attractive and repulsive to the body politic.  I am afraid that if I cling too closely to the monument, King’s heart of flesh that often offended us will become a heart of stone that comfortable middle-class blacks like me and Democrats and Republicans and others can manipulate and smash into pebbles of convenience.

Cornel West talks about the santaclausification of Martin Luther King.  According to Dr. West with our vapid celebrations of King, “He just becomes a nice little old man with a smile with toys in his bag, not a threat to anybody, as if his fundamental commitment to unconditional love and unarmed truth does not bring to bear certain kinds of pressure to a status quo. So the status quo feels so comfortable as though it's a convenient thing to do rather than acknowledge him as to what he was, what the FBI said, "The most dangerous man in America." Why? Because of his fundamental commitment to love and to justice and trying to keep track of the humanity of each and every one of us.”  West also says, “[I]n the market-driven world in which celebrity status operates in such a way that it tries to diffuse all of the threat and to sugarcoat and deodorize what actually is rather funky.”

Indeed we have sugarcoated and deodorized King. Every year this time I grow weary of hearing about his dream. Those on the right use this dream language as a pretext to talk about colorblindness without talking about justice and the enduring legacy of American apartheid and structural racism. Those on the left go to marches or sponsor a day of mercy while eschewing the hard work of justice.

It is hard to say what King would be doing and saying if he were alive.  But preachers traffic in imagination.  So let me imagine based on my study of the man’s life and legacy. He would not be very popular among the educated black middle class because he would remind us of our entanglement in the trappings of success and material excess while neglecting the dire educational and economic straits faced by millions upon millions of our people.  He would not be popular among the corporatocracy (the powerful oligarchy of corporations, banks, and governments that control finance and economics and therefore politics) because he would call out their unchecked greed, astronomical salaries, and their erosion of the protection and prosperity of workers.  He would not be popular in the White House because American muscular militarism has not yielded to peaceful ways to resolve conflict and the era of government by and for the haves to the exclusion of the have-nots seems uninterrupted.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans utter the word poverty and the middle class they fetishizes with rhetoric and neglect with policy shrinks every second. He would not be popular with the self-centered, culturally accommodated American church.  He would remind us that we exist to serve, not to be served.

A frozen Martin Luther King is not what we need. A sweet, saccharine a historical Martin Luther King is not what we need. We need the King who died unpopular among blacks and whites because he was more concerned with truth and justice than popularity and access.  The King who said no to Vietnam.  No to American empire.  No to a silent, lethargic church. We need the King who said yes to the dignity and humanity of the poor. Yes to the personhood of people of every race, gender, and socioeconomic status.  We need the King who knew that the parched land of America needed the waters of justice in order to bloom into what the founders envisioned even in their brokenness.

I may get to the monument.  But I won’t stay long.  Can’t stay long.  The living, breathing King will be beckoning me away from the mountain and into the valley where there is work to do.

Rev. William Lamar is senior pastor at Turner Memorial AME Church in Hyattsville.

Read more stories from area faith leaders at On Faith/Local.

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