On this day when many of us seek to honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the image of the corkscrew willow in our side yard haunts me. Fragile, frozen, fractured, fallen are its limbs, not unlike the limbs of the body of this nation, not unlike the soul of this creature we dare to call homo sapiens. How imbued with wisdom are we? How committed are we to making a moral dent in the immoral practices of this time that is ours to share—a mere nanosecond in time itself, a mere wonderment that we occupy even this nanosecond?
This morning I had planned to attend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./Alfred Owens Scholarship Breakfast in Meriden, the venue of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden, where I am amid the seventh and final year of my professional ministry. Mama Nature had other plans. While I don’t believe she micro-manages, the doors to my means of getting there were frozen shut. Ergo, I seek to connect with you through my reflections from home.
No, I’m not old enough to have been alive on January 15, 1929—90 years ago—when Dr. King joined this world in Atlanta, Georgia. I do remember well April 4, 1968, hearing the heart-wrenching news that Dr. King was assassinated that morning while taking a breath of air on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had offered up that now iconic speech the night before on behalf of striking sanitation workers. It was just two months after my first husband was killed in the War in Viet Nam, a war that I strongly protested. I was in my apartment on East 3rd Street in New York City, sewing a dress—mundane, yes?—and finishing my final studies at Union Theological Seminary.
What in God’s name did the plight of sanitation workers have to do with Dr. King as the more or less leader of the mid-20th century civil rights movement? Intersectionality is the new term for linked oppressions. There is nothing new about it. Dr. King understood this well. In his speech at Riverside Church a year to the day before his death, he called out this nation’s leaders on their policies and practices in Viet Nam, the venue of my pilgrimage for truth, reconciliation, and healing this past November. But he went further:
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.”
Dr. King called for a revolution of values in this nation and in our world, a prophetic precursor to the proclamation of Rev. Dr. William Barber, who frames the current betrayal of love in this nation as a moral crisis, “a heart problem”. Like Dr. King, Dr. Barber addresses the woven nature of oppressions. Across time, the bulging receptacle of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, economic greed, and national hubris holds transgressions that are woven.
When Dr. King went back to Memphis (for he had been there before, countering the powers that be in that city), he knew in the bones of his soul the peril held in the promise of this journey.
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. …And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”Dr. Michelle Alexander is one of my great heroes and a Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary, my alma matter that holds much of my own history. In yesterday’s New York Times, (January 20, 2019), Dr. Alexander, like Dr. King before her, directed her fierce and fearless voice to the intersectionality of the moral challenge of this nation, from the War in Viet Nam (the American War, as aptly termed by the Vietnamese), to the moral challenge of this nation’s unquestioning support for the policies and practices of Israel vis-a-vis the human rights of Palestinians. Like Dr. King’s challenge to the immoral economics of this nation in 1968, Dr. Alexander’s challenge to the immoral collusion with a nation that has become “our ally”, no matter how oppressive their tactics against those whose land they have mapped out as theirs, carries a high risk. Might we see through the charges of anti-Semitism that immediately greet any questioning of Israeli policy and call to task injustice wherever and by whomever wields it, most especially our own nation in this slice of history through which we are moving.
Above all today, I wonder how we deem spirituality. There are folks who have left the congregation that I serve as minister because they deem my ministry “too political”, “not sufficiently spiritual”. “Oh my God,” I say prayerfully and otherwise. How might we affirm that morality and compassion are as much the language of spirit as they are of how we structure ourselves in society—i.e. politics? Politics isn’t partisanship. Recognizing the evil in the oval and adjoining offices isn’t partisanship. On this day of presuming to hold up the life and legacy of Dr. King, might we recognize and bear witness that the “love beyond belief”, which some of us claim as our theological ground, calls us to act on the reality that if all life is connected, all oppressions are woven. Our calling, my calling, is to speak from the bones of our souls in language that walks and marches and sometimes screams to the powers that be, “Enough! It is time to be and do into the fullness of love’s promise and peril. It is time for a resurrection and revolution of values that go beyond Viet Nam, beyond Memphis, beyond the Middle East, beyond knee jerk responses to what is and isn’t acceptable for individuals and communities of faith to be and do.
Under those fragile, frozen, fractured, and fallen branches of that corkscrew willow, resolute roots are twining and intertwining, moving in a dance so subtle and promising, that with enough encouragement and faith above ground, flora and fauna now unimaginable will spring forth. Might we join this dance as co-creators of “a world made new and all her people one.”
With love and hope for deep and lasting Hoa Binh (peace) on earth and good will toward all.