January 17, 2016
Martin Luther King
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.
–Martin Luther King
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
That powerful statement of hope has been attributed to Martin Luther King. But when King said it he was quoting someone else. That someone else was Rev. Theodore Parker.
Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister. He was a Transcendentalist in the school of thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, he embraced higher criticism of the Bible. He dismissed orthodox Christianity including the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. He rejected the miracles, realized the Bible was filled with errors, and he thought that religion should be located in personal experience.
He believed in the immortality of the soul. He was a theist. He believed that God was known through personal experience and intuition. He was also a universalist. He believed that God would lose no one. He said that Calvinist Theology was “cruel and unreasonable.” Most pulpits in Boston would not let him preach. They didn’t consider him a Christian and his views lost him many friends.
Nevertheless he found his voice and a place to share it. In 1845 his supporters formed the Congregational Society of Boston and installed Parker as minister. His congregation included such notables as Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It grew to 7000. He died at the age of fifty from Tuberculosis just before the beginning of the Civil War.
Parker was involved in almost every reform movement you could name. An early biographer of Parker’s provided a list: “peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, [and] the physical destitution of the poor.” He denounced the Mexican War and urged his fellow Bostonians to protest the war.
No reform issue was more pressing for him than the abolition of slavery. He urged people to violate the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 that required the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Many fugitive slaves were part of his congregation. He hid slaves in his own home. He walked the talk. He supported abolitionist John Brown who many had considered a terrorist. He supplied money for munitions to the free states in the battle for Kansas.
By the time he died in 1860 the abolition of slavery was in no way assured. Yet he held on to hope and wrote:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
That is the original quote. Over one hundred years later when our nation seethed with inequality and hatred, when African-Americans faced daily humiliation and injustice in a violent, segregated society, 100 years after a Civil War that was fought over slavery, another preacher, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reframed Rev. Theodore Parker’s hope in one simple sentence:
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Martin Luther King never thought the civil rights movement was about him. He never pretended to have started it or to have birthed the theology that instructed it, or created the rhetoric that inspired it. King knew and stated that he stood on the shoulders of those before him. His speeches and sermons are filled with the wisdom of the ages. Much of that wisdom came from the Bible. Much of it came from thinkers and activists from a wide variety of traditions, including Theodore Parker.
I think King would be ambivalent about a national holiday that bears his name. He would be in favor of a day, one day better than none, that calls our focus and attention to the struggle, the ongoing struggle for dignity, for racial equality, for nonviolent resistance to all forms of oppression, for the demolition of the military industrial complex, and for the reorienting of priorities toward the poorest of our citizens as opposed to the welfare of the wealthiest corporate elite.
That is a lot to do in one day.
King might be in favor of at least one day of the 365 devoted to the incarnation of love. This is not a sentimental love or an ivory tower theological love. This is a feet on the street love, a pen to paper or finger to keyboard love, a chained to a bulldozer love, a fingerprinted and mugshot-framed love. This is a standing up to bullets and bullies love. This is a love that won’t take “sorry, this is just the way it is” for an answer.
This is a love that knows the mocking and derision by those in power. Love knows that arrogant smirk. Love knows and feels the rage of injustice and Love knows the desire to lash out, to return evil with evil. Love knows it. Love feels it. Love feels the pain of rejection and humiliation. Love hears the name-calling. Love understands that hopeless, small feeling. Love knows that self-doubt. Love feels the burn of shame.
Love knows something else. Love knows something far more powerful than the so-called powerful. Love knows that it will last at the end of things. Love knows as Martin Luther King put it that the choice is not between violence and non-violence. The choice is between non-violence and non-existence. Love knows that if the human species, this evolutionary experiment, is to survive for even another century it will only be because of Love. Love is the energy of gut-wrenching rage at injustice transformed into actions of justice and reconciliation. It is not Love unless and until it includes the enemy. Love is a miracle. Love is the miracle of the desire, in fact, even the justice for revenge, melted down and reshaped into a new creation.
Martin Luther King didn’t invent this love. He did bear witness to it. But he wasn’t the only one by any means. Of course. He would be ambivalent to have his face, his name, and his birthday be the focus of something that is so much larger than him. Yes, we need to know the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. We need to know the events, and the dates, and people and places and to teach them to our children. But this history is much more than what happened from 1954 to 1968. We need to know that we are not today recollecting a series of past events. This history is an ongoing story. It is the ongoing witness and practice of scarred Love.
Love is not pretty. It is not a red Valentine’s Day heart with a naked Cupid shooting his arrow. Love is not a sentimental wish on a Hallmark Card. Love is not soft music and a white light of escape. Love is not a saccharine niceness that says, “Bless your heart” to your face then gossips behind your back. Love is not a big church sign that says, “Everyone is welcome.” Then when you go in you learn the unwritten rule. You are welcome unless you are Black or Gay or welcome only if you are Theologically Correct or Politically Connected or Dressed for Success or whatever else you are not. Love is none of that phony stuff.
Love is a scar. The central symbol of Love in the Christian tradition is the crucified Christ. Despite many of its misrepresentations, it is the most powerful symbol I know of scarred Love. The crucified and risen Christ symbolizes the truth of pain, injustice, hatred, violence, and humiliation, transformed into hope, dignity, new life, renewed relationships, joy, and possibility. The image of the risen Christ bearing the scars of the cross is not there to beat up on us for our sins or to be morbid. It shows us that the deepest pain and humiliation and hopelessness is not beyond hope. Love is larger than any one life.
Scarred Love is seen anytime a person is able to take their pain and allow it to be transformed into a gift. It is counter-intuitive. You can’t tell people to do it. It is not a commandment. It is only Love when it is freely entered. When a person could by all means keep and hold the pain and anger for a lifetime and by all rights never would be blamed for doing so, nevertheless, when she or he chooses and allows that pain and mistreatment to become something else, something reconciling, that is scarred Love.
Emmett Till was a fourteen year-old boy. He lived up north in Chicago and was visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi. The year was 1955. He didn’t know the ways of the South and the unwritten rules that had been in place for generations. He didn’t know that his place as an African-American was to be silent. He didn’t know about the importance of downcast eyes and moving to the side when a white person approached.
He didn’t know it was more than a joke one day in a drugstore to act on a dare and talk fresh to a white woman. “Bye Baby” he said to her on his way outside. I am sure he thought that at most he would receive a stern reprimand for speaking disrespectfully to an adult.
He had no idea that two white men would come to his uncle’s house, to the home of Mose Wright, and demand at gunpoint that he come with them for a ride. He had no idea that getting in the car with them would be the last ride he would ever take.
When they found his body at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River, scarred, beaten, and shot through the head, it was so disfigured that he was unrecognizable save for his ring. In fact, one of the lame arguments of the defense was that his body was so disfigured it couldn’t be proved that it was Emmett Till.
His mother, Mamie Till, decided to have an open casket funeral. Photos were taken of his body in the coffin and they appeared in Jet Magazine. She wanted the world to see what they had done to her boy.
At the trial an all-white jury found the defendants not guilty. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, said she hadn’t expected anything different. It was the way it was in 1955 in Mississippi. In 1956, protected by double jeopardy, in a magazine article, the two white men who had been found not guilty, admitted to killing Emmett Till.
But Mamie Till said something else on national television. She said that while nothing could be done for her baby that maybe if the world knew and if change could come, her boy wouldn’t have died in vain. The murder of Emmett Till, and the injustice of the trial was another spark for the civil rights movement. She travelled the country telling the story of her boy. The story of scarred Love.
Her pain and the scarred body of her son could have been the end of that family’s story. No one would or could blame her for that. It could have been a quiet funeral. She could have stayed away from the cameras. She could have in her grief refused talk about her son, refused the hostile questions asked by the white press. She didn’t. You couldn’t command her to do what she did. You couldn’t expect her to do what she did.
She knew that somehow through her pain, through the pain of her son that she could only imagine as a mother imagines he experienced, day after day in her grief, that she had to make his life and his death not be in vain. For her sake. For his. Her courage became a gift for our country.
Scarred love is not sentimental. Scarred love is fierce love. It is longer and larger than any one life, but it knows every life. Love requires the greatest of courage. Love is the power to tell our experience, to show our scars, and to trust that the scars are not the last word but an entrance to the eternal word.
It is a word that rings true and will ring true. In the midst of all the pain, love will endure.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.