This chapel address at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia Ark., was delivered around the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday by Wendell Griffen on Jan. 20, 2003.
We gather a few days past what would have been the 74th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had he not been murdered in Memphis 35 years ago. Across the state and nation, communities will observe the federal holiday observance of the King birthday in various ways. Thank you for inviting me to share your observance of this special holiday.
It is almost expected anymore that observance of the King holiday include someone quoting portions of, if not reciting, Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech delivered during the 1963 March on Washington. I will break from that tradition because I believe we should be focusing today on the issues and imperatives of Dr. King’s timeless perspective about social justice rather than indulging ourselves in backward fixation on the 1963 speech.
After all, in 1963, Dr. King’s children could not even visit an amusement park in Atlanta. In 2003, that is not a social justice issue. In 1963, black people were confronted with overt racism aimed at keeping us from holding decent jobs, going to school with white people, exercising our political rights as voters, and living above the subsistence level. In 2003, we are not confronted with Bull Connors in Birmingham, George Wallace in Alabama, Ross Barnett in Mississippi, or Orval Faubus in Arkansas. Thanks to the grace of God and the sacrifices of Dr. King and countless other brave and noble souls, the glaring social injustices of 1963 have been addressed. In 1964, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed race and gender discrimination in public accommodations and employment. The following year, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to deal with some of the blatant race discrimination that suppressed black voting rights. After Dr. King was murdered, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to address discrimination in housing. Thanks to King’s life and efforts as our greatest prophet of social justice, many of the glaring injustices of his time are beyond your personal experiences and live only in history.
Therefore, I question whether it is fair for us to focus on the “I Have A Dream” speech when we can be asking a different question: What do Dr. King’s views regarding social justice mean for us now? I have come to ask that we turn to King’s timeless views about the meaning and imperatives of justice for our society and world. What would we be doing today if we truly shared Dr. King’s view of social justice?
If Dr. King were alive today, he would certainly question why the leadership of this nation is lusting to go to war in Iraq while almost 50 million of our own people lack health insurance, the states are facing budget shortfalls threatening their ability to provide basic services to their citizens, and with so many of our senior citizens struggling to survive? Dr. King would make us stop and question what moral right does George W. Bush have for channeling the resources needed to address these real and growing domestic problems into a war against the current regime in Iraq? If King were alive today, I think he would see something terribly wrong and would say so. If we say that we share his vision for social justice and find nothing wrong about such an outrageous misdirection of our capacity to relieve the suffering of our own citizens, we do Dr. King’s memory a tremendous disservice.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would probably ask why a man who occupies the office of President of the United States despite not receiving the most votes should be viewed by the people of Iraq as a liberator? Yes, Hussein is a military dictator. Yes, Hussein has done terrible things to his people. Yes, the Hussein regime does not comport with American notions of democracy. But, Hussein is the undisputed leader of the sovereign state of Iraq. I daresay that if Dr. King were alive today, he would ask whether Americans would be offended by the notion of Saddam Hussein openly planning to wage a “preemptive war” against the United States in order to effect “regime change” and oust Mr. Bush from power. I suspect Dr. King would be asking why the Iraqi people should view Mr. Bush as their liberator after the way he came to office by forcing black voters off the election rolls in Florida and getting the Supreme Court to halt the vote count as it appeared that his meager lead in that state was about to disappear during the 2000 presidential election.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would be asking why religious leaders remain silent in the face of these blatant developments. I suspect that he would view, with something close to incredulity, Christian ministers and congregations showing no concern about the fact that Muslims are being detained by federal officials and held without access to lawyers, family members, or even the courts. How, King would ask, can Baptists, whose religious tradition in this country is largely based on opposition to religious persecution both in England and in colonial America, be so insensitive to the open mistreatment of other religious people? How can evangelical Christians be faithful to Christ and be so willfully blind? Have we forgotten the story of the Good Samaritan? Have we forgotten about the rich man and Lazarus? Has nationalism and religious racism drugged our moral sensibilities and capacity to recognize injustice so badly that we cannot see our society indicted by the teachings of Christ who said that “inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these, ye did it unto me?”
Martin Luther King, Jr. was first, last, and always a Christian minister. Although he was a Baptist, neither white Baptists nor black Baptists really embraced him during his lifetime. If King were alive today, he would have celebrated the fact that another Georgia Baptist, former President Jimmy Carter, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. If King were alive today, he would ponder aloud why Southern Baptists have not publicly embraced and congratulated President Carter. If King were alive today, I think he would remind us that so-called evangelical Christians, including more than a few Southern Baptists, were responsible for voting Carter out of office in 1980, and have yet to embrace his efforts for peace abroad or social justice in this country.
I speak today on the campus of the largest Southern Baptist college in Arkansas. You must certainly have professors who will confirm that the Old Testament contained a strict warning from God that the Hebrew people not discriminate against aliens and immigrants. If not, then take time to read Exodus 23:9, which reads: And you shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt. (NASV) Look at Exodus 22:21, which reads: And you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Read Leviticus 19:33 and 34: When a stranger resides in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God. Now ponder how religious leaders in this country can invoke the name and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. without also calling our nation into question about the way we condone ethnic profiling of Arab and Middle Eastern people.
Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and his ministry led him to openly oppose our military involvement in Southeast Asia. His vision of social justice led him to openly stand with garbage workers in Memphis rather than ignore the injustices they suffered by political leaders acting in the name of the people of that city. I suspect Dr. King would question why General Electric, a country that earned billions in profits last year and which has committed to paying its former chairman (Jack Welch) a king’s ransom in retirement, is trying to shift the cost of health insurance onto its workers. I suspect that Dr. King would ask why Wal-Mart would allow managers to lock workers in the stores and force them to work without pay rather than pay overtime.
Rather than solicit his wisdom, the leaders of this society treated Dr. King as a threat to national security. He was threatened. Scandalous rumors were sown about him across the nation by agents of our federal government. I say this to remind you that when people began questioning some of the actions taken against Muslims in the name of “homeland security” and the so-called “war on terrorism” following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, national leaders publicly scolded the questioners and suggested that there was something unpatriotic about their views.
If King were alive to day, he would not be simply smiling about our adoration of his oratory or the sweetness of his nonviolent spirit. He would be challenging the Pharoahs of our time and place about injustice, poverty, militarism, consumerism, and a host of other ills that threaten the soul of our society. He would be asking how we can talk about spending millions of dollars to fight a “preemptive war” while funding to fight AIDS and HIV, prostate cancer, and a host of other dreaded diseases is placed on the back burner. He would not be popular, just as he was not popular in Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery, Chicago, or anywhere else he took his vision of the divine imperative for social justice.
We owe Dr. King’s legacy much more than nostalgic musing about his dream. We should be carrying King’s vision about the demands of social justice into the situations of our time and place. Now, King’s legacy demands that we become prophets who see injustice and denounce it. King’s legacy demands that we challenge the crass materialism and wicked addiction to power and profit that corrupts public ethics and compromises private morality. King’s vision of a just society challenges us to cast aside our self-centered focus on personal salvation while ignoring gross evidence of ever-increasing social injustice.
This is your challenge as students at this Christian college. This is our challenge and the potential offering that we can present to the world. May we arise from our dreaming to view the world with King’s spirit, and in doing so, let us become drum majors for justice in our time.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.