There is tragic irony in the Christian Right’s Justice Sunday extravaganza occurring the week before the national celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Justice was a theme King returned to time and time again.
In April of 1968, the day before he was assassinated, King spoke at a rally in support of striking sanitation workers at a black evangelical church in Memphis, Tennessee that had been the center of civil rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s. The speech became known by King’s declaration that he had “Been to the Mountaintop”. King was delighted to see so many other preachers present at the rally. “It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’”.
The cite to Amos is from the Bible’s Old Testament, Amos 5:24, a text sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims-the “people of the book”. Now Amos was a prophet, as was King, and we know from another reliable source in the New Testament that prophets are often honored except in their own country and community.
In the year before his assassination, King published a prophetic book: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The theme was justice for all, but there was a warning that unless we all worked together to ensure justice for all, then we beckon chaos rather than building community. King often spoke of the beloved community. He sought to unite rather than to divide.
Division, discord, and demonization are the themes from the Christian Right, which has tried to drive a wedge between black people and gay people, and to stigmatize women who favor reproductive rights. A government role in crafting economic justice is decried by Christian Right ideologues as coddling the poor who they suggest just need a broom and a Bible. Peace and tolerance are denounced as giving succor to evil enemies. Justice primarily consists of handing out stiff jail terms.
King read the same Bible as the ideologues of the Christian right, but drew different lessons from the text. Another human rights advocate, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, wrote of this dilemma in his book Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. Spong notes that there are many different ways to read sacred text. Peter J. Gomes, a preacher at Harvard University, agrees with Spong. Gomes wrote: The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.
It was this theme of open-hearted forgiveness and genuine love of humanity that nourished the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. for a non-violent solution to the struggle for civil rights in the face of oppression and bigotry against black people.
King expanded his vision of justice to include working people, union members, and even striking sanitation workers. King saw economic justice and world peace as part of the same struggle. He spoke out in support of women rights and reproductive rights. In 1966 King won the Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger Award, and he wrote that “there is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.”
There is no record of King speaking publicly about gay rights – though homophobia and sexism are listed as “evils” by the King Center – but for many years he worked closely with an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin, a radical organizer who pulled together the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. King considered Rustin a friend as well as a colleague, and when some urged King to distance himself from Rustin, King brushed aside the suggestion saying he was not going to conduct a witchhunt. At least one aide to the King family has said that in private conversations King spoke of supporting gay rights.
Chaos or community? Demonization or acceptance? Division or unity?
There are those who preach about their narrow definition of justice on Sunday; and those who teach about liberty and justice for all, not just on Sunday, but every day of the week.
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Originally published at
http://defconblog.org/2006/01/justice-everyday/ where there are links to the text and audio excerpts from the speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates near Boston, and has been challenging the Christian Right for over 25 years. He is co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.