What Would Martin Say Now?

Prophets are hard.

Prophets don't come to us to make us feel better about ourselves, to tell us to affirm our inner goodness, or to grant us wishes like a Santa-Clause.

No, prophets come to hold up a mirror to our society and our hearts, and let us see how we have fallen away from God, how we are living unjustly. They tell us that unless we repent now, the judgment of the Lord is upon us.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was an American prophet in the old Biblical sense, a prophet from the black church tradition of love and justice who held a mirror to a society that was betraying its own lofty ideals. Today we hold up Dr. King in honor, yet we forget about the challenges that he faced in his time, challenges from the political establishment, challenges from the white church, and even challenges from the black church that questioned his engagement with the peace movement and the Vietnam War. It is no easy task to be a prophet, and you have to listen to Martin's voice to hear the hardship he endured:

And I don't mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work's in vain. But then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

We have an uneasy time with prophets, with prophetic figures who challenge us spiritually, morally, religiously and politically. Martin, as great as he was, kept moving, kept growing, kept absorbing insights, and kept expanding the scope of his vision. Firmly rooted in the tradition of the black church, Martin expanded his struggle from the cause of racial justice to a broader struggle against what he came to call in the Riverside Church speech the "giant triplet" of evil: racism, materialism and militarism. So if Martin were with us today, what would he have to say to us?

We pause once a year to honor Martin, and there is a street in every town named after him. Yet as to the struggle that Martin was engaged in at the end of his life, much of what we as Americans are doing today and everyday is to betray Martin's vision, to kill the dream and to kill the prophet.

On the racism issue, we have made some important strives, and it's good to acknowledge those. Yet in addition to struggles faced by African-Americans, we now see a wider gap between the have-lots and the have-almost-nothings, with tens of millions of Americans with no healthcare, millions either already evicted out of homes or in danger of being evicted, and almost 10 percent who are unemployed. The demon of racism today has expanded towards a public level of prejudice against Hispanics, Muslims and gays and lesbians among others. In doing so, we are to recall the prophetic mission of Jeremiah 22:16: "'He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?' declares the LORD."

Because so many have remarked on it, let us reflect once and for all that while Tupac's painful prognosis ("We ain't ready to see a black president") has been passed by, the election of our first black president has not healed our racial wounds. As Brother West has said, Barack Obama is "a" fulfillment of Martin's dream, not "the" fulfillment of that dream. Let me say in the tradition of Martin that there can be no disappointment where there is not great love. As one who loves and prays for Brother Obama and yet is severely disappointed in him and many of his decisions, let us speak truth to power by noting that he has surrounded himself with many advisors of the status quo who have neglected the mission to stand up for the poor. All of this and the politics based on consensus with the lowest common denominator rather than molding conscience through appeal to a higher conscience has resulted in confusing the "is-ness" of life with the "ought-ness" of life, as Martin said.

And on the materialism issue, Martin was a man of faith, and ultimately believed that human lives have dignity, an "inescapable network of mutuality," because everyone is a child of God. If in the 1960s he was already preaching about the need to turn from a "thing-oriented society" to a "person-oriented society," how much more so would that apply today, in this world of fleeting fame, instant celebrities and "reality TV" that has everything except reality? We crave things to fill that place in our spirits that no thing can ever fill.

On the militarism issue, let us not deceive ourselves. Martin had a very specific idea about where our resources as a society should be spent, and it was not for the military-industrial complex. It was to put food in the wrinkled stomachs of God's children. Yet since his time we see every American president, Democrat and Republican, go down to put a wreath down on Martin's tomb, and then move right back to engaging in warfare. Our society is more militarized than it was in Martin's age, and we now spend more in our military spending than the next 12 countries combined. If in the 1960s Martin called the United States the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," what would he say about us today, after the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis?

Martin had said that a nation that spends more on the military than on programs of social uplift is already approaching "spiritual death." By that reckoning, how is the soul of America doing today?

Martin was no hater, and in fact believed that there was something noble and beautiful in the unfinished American experiment. Part of his mission, and the mission of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was in fact to "redeem the soul of America." Yet it was not America as an Empire that he wanted to redeem, but rather America as a responsible member of the world community. Martin boldly -- prophetically -- said to us:

"And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world.

God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You're too arrogant! And if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I'll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name."

This American exceptionalism is now so endemic to our sense of our place in this world that to confront it is almost like having to point out air. It is successful precisely in the sense of having become invisible. Martin's message, and part of the prophetic mission, was to point out that injustice which we had grown accustomed to. As Martin said, part of his mission was to link up power -- even political power -- with love, for power without love was "reckless and abusive" but love without power "was anemic and sentimental."

Yes, that is the Martin that we ignore, and I would say ignore willingly. That Martin poses a challenge to us everyday, a moral challenge, a political challenge, and a religious challenge. He challenges those religious voices that somehow have collapsed Christianity into the American Empire, and he would challenge the secular voices that see religion as its best as doing no evil, rather than being a cosmic force for good, a force for love and justice in public places. Martin would urge us to be "on the right side of a worldwide revolution of values."

Bob Marley asked: "How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?"

It is time to stop and ponder not who killed Martin, but who kills the Dream now. A bullet killed Martin on April 4, 1968. We kill Martin every day, we kill the Dream now, when we stand aside and look, when we ignore the prophetic challenge that this beautiful liberated man of God posed to us.

We as Americans have the most powerful military in the world, a dominant and pervasive culture, some of the best universities, and still one of the most creative economies. As Spiderman once said, "with great power comes great responsibility." This day, every day, if we want to honor Martin, let us realize that: "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."

That is the way to honor a prophet, by heeding their prophetic call, and standing up for God's children by removing all that blocks love for all. And as Martin said, this mission would have to cultivate "allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy."

This day, every day, if you want to honor Martin, pick up the mantle of Martin, and continue the struggle for peace and justice based on a commitment to love for all, a commitment to nonviolence, and a commitment to "let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." [Amos 5:24]

The prophets, and the Dream, lives -- or dies -- inside each and everyone of us. May we have the courage and determination to live out this lofty dream by dismantling all that blocks our hearts from pursuing this path of love and justice.