MLK: “Now Is the Time”

Before reading this blog, watch/listen or read the historic “I Have a Dream” speech, in its entirety, from August 28, 1963 at the March for Freedom and Jobs in Washington DC.

I almost named the blog “We Can Never Be Satisfied” – it’s one of the four anaphoras in this speech. An anaphora is a rhetorical device that emphasizes the speaker’s point by repeating a phrase at the beginning of a series of clauses.

“One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free . . . Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy . . . We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

And, well, you know what the fourth one is.

Experts agree that this speech was not his best nor most powerful, and yet it’s his most famous. King’s greatness as a speaker, James Baldwin said, lay “in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things that hurt or baffle them.”*

It’s incredible how many good parts of the “I Have a Dream Speech” have been forgotten by the eclipse of its famous ending. I heartily recommend the short book, “The Speech,” by Gary Younge, a Black British journalist who analyzes the story and context of the famous 17 minute speech, only 302 words of which are most recognized and remembered.   Upon hearing it again in its entirety, one cannot deny its timeliness at the dawn of 2017, when we bid farewell to our first Black president.

In President Obama’s Farewell speech he delivered in Chicago last week, he sought to speak to the whole of America as much as Dr. King did that hot August afternoon in Washington DC, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Like MLK, Obama gave us some specific instructions on how to move forward after his progressive presidency. No doubt that he is one of the figures who inspired Obama to become a Community Organizer in the first place.

What many have forgotten on the left is that the line between activism and governance is thin, the truth of which Obama has faithfully modeled.

He told us last Tuesday,

Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.  All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.  When voting rates are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should make it easier, not harder, to vote.  When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service.  When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.

 And all of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift.  But it’s really just a piece of parchment.  It has no power on its own.  We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make.  Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms.  Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law.  America is no fragile thing.  But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

 In his own farewell address, [Obama continued] George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but ‘from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;’ that we should preserve it with ‘jealous anxiety;’ that we should reject ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.’

The world is hungry for a new prophet – a living prophet. And like all prophets before him, Obama is not a perfect human being. Regardless, I’m definitely interested in what he’ll be doing after he sleeps for two weeks and goes on vacation with Michelle. He talks about his future goals in the interview he gave in Rolling Stone the day after Trump won the election.

He is, in fact, going to lead the redrawing of districts, which will be an unsexy and tenacious fight, but who better to lead it than a man of Obama’s credentials. I’m going to be receiving a marvelous organizing training by the standard-setters of such training, The Midwest Academy, based in Chicago, in March in Sierra Madre, so I can be confident in my organizing knowledge, and be of service to President Obama’s new vision.

While President Obama and Dr. King in some ways have little in common, in other ways they are quite similar. They speak eloquently of an idealism that still calls to us, one that might redeem the founders of our democracy as well as its living inheritors.

I was on my colleague and pal Chuck Freeman’s radio program, Soul Talk Radio, last Thursday and we were doing a bit of debate around Obama’s legacy, a little “good Rev./bad Rev.” Chuck contends that Obama is a sentimental propagandist, and I conceded that perhaps he is at times, sugar-coating our deeply violent and discriminatory American legacy, and not adequately identifying the suffering of the current age.

But we need that idealism articulated, I posit, so that we know what we’re fighting for. We are reminded in this way that, for millions of Americans, the status quo is not enough and never has been. We are reminded that half the country takes our democracy SO for granted, that they didn’t even bother to vote in November.

It was not such in 1963, when MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And that is in part why, with toil, struggle and imprisonment, some key Civil Rights legislation was passed in that era. But because, since then, we’ve been happy to imagine the best and turn our attention to our personal prosperity and time-consuming consumer habits, much has come undone. In some ways, having a black president caused us to live in a pretend post-racial la-la land. We have started to wake up since 2014, with the resurgence of organizing like Black Lives Matter, as well as many cities across the country winning higher minimum wage initiatives.

“Now is the time,” as battle cry, is simple and apt today. Obama borrowed a similar phrase directly from MLK’s speech as he was campaigning for president in 2007. He said, “I am running in this race because of what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ Because I believe there is such a thing as being too late, and that hour is almost upon us.” No, Obama may not have picked the urgent battles we wanted him to once in office, but he picked them himself. He had little choice but to focus on the economy which he retrieved to a stable condition, and healthcare for the uncovered was something he picked and succeeded at in significant measure.

Like Dr. King, President Obama will not enjoy widespread support in the decades to come – he will have to continue to fight for it, even among his progressive cohorts, just as MLK did throughout the 1960’s. It may be that we don’t truly listen to Obama’s words until he is dead, but I think we will see a different Obama post-presidency. One who is more like the man who ran in 2007, calling on “the fierce urgency of now.”

Thank God Obama was not assassinated – remember how worried we were about that? The truth remains that Dr. King’s speech was only lifted out of obscurity after he was killed.

The phrase “Now is the time” in MLK’s speech captured a reality that was very pertinent in 1963, when much of the civil rights leadership had been slow to acknowledge the impatience of its base – much like Democratic leadership did not adequately acknowledge the discontent of its historical base, which lost Democrats the presidency. Younge writes that it was the lesson King had tried to convey in his letter from the Birmingham jail, and that one of the organizers of the March for Freedom and Jobs relayed to Kennedy, when he told the president (who was reluctant about the march taking place) that, “The Negroes are already in the streets; it is very likely impossible to get them off.” Younge says, “[’Now is the time],’ is, in a sense, the lesson of every liberation campaign: a successful movement needs to recognize its most propitious moment to strike and seize it.”

Yes sir, and my Lord, “now is the time.”

Now, with just days to go before the inauguration of Donald Trump, the erosion of democratic safeguards has never been on such a brink of devastation.

We must counter these trends non-violently, with dignity, and with power.

There are many things I’m going to miss about Barack Obama being our president, but there is one I want to especially highlight, that MLK modeled in spades and for which he set the standard, and that is the honorable manner with which civic discourse was presented.

In the very same ways, MLK and Obama have been criticized as being “too weak,” for not hitting back, for insisting on a philosophy not only of non-violence, but of dignity, which includes choices of words and manner of dress. Dr. King said in his speech, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high place of dignity and discipline.”

I believe that. Part of that dignity and discipline is a leadership style that honors promises and agreements. Obama had no scandals because his conduct matched the honor of his high office. Obama followed one of my favorite creeds of Mark Twain, when he said, “stick to the truth because it’s easiest to remember.” No, many of us wanted him to be more boldly progressive, but it’s true that he was in office who he said he was going to be, a moderate centrist. It was poignant to hear Vice-President Biden affirm this key quality, that throughout the 8 years, the president upheld his promises to him, when he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week.

There is spiritual significance in decency in that it demands of us that we align our conduct with our moral character. Such conduct is not born of a vacuum, but of the thoughtful consideration that is the agency of high moral conscience.

This thoughtful consideration honors the sacred ties that hold this fragile, on-going experiment of democracy together. We are all in this together, as Obama has always contended, and as MLK stands before him, we seek the leaders who shall stand in front of both men, in the generation to come. Leaders who lead without more bloodshed and violence than is surely necessary. Leaders who will guide us with dignified efficacy, be they black, or brown, yellow, red, or white.

If idealism and optimism is an ideology, then sign me up. Sign me up as one of the dreamers. Dear Lord, help give us who would answer the call the strength to articulate beyond the attainable, for that vision of God MLK evoked, in the utterance of the most famous amphora of our time “I Have a Dream!”

In those shimmering cadences, his wife Coretta Scott King recalled, “it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.”

Now is the time to revive such a moment. I conclude with the last paragraphs of Gary Younge’s book, “The Speech”:

King could have limited his address to what was immediately achievable. He might have spelled out a ten-point plan and laid out his case for tougher legislation or made the case for fresh campaigns of civil disobedience in the North. He could have reduced himself to an appeal for what was possible in a time when what was possible and pragmatic was neither satisfactory nor sustainable.

Instead he swung for the bleachers. Not knowing whether the task of building the world he was describing was Sisyphean or merely Herculean, he called out in the political wilderness, hoping his voice would someday be heard by those with power to act upon it. In so doing he showed that it is not naïve to believe that what is not possible in the foreseeable future may nonetheless by necessary, worth fighting for, and worth articulating. The idealism that underpins his dream is the rock on which our modern rights are built and the flesh on which pragmatic parasites feed. If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?

Wake up and hustle!

– Rev. Hannah Hustlin’ the Hope Petrie

* P. 99 in book “The Speech” by Gary Younge, published 2013.

Prophets: Real and Fake, or For Chrissake, There’s Too Much at Stake!

Jesus is purported by the Book of Luke to have said, “No prophet is welcome in his hometown.” It’s one of my favorite sayings of Jesus.

It’s another way of saying that prophets are known for saying deeply unpopular things, or things that are hard to hear, even for the people who nurtured the prophet – for this they garner notoriety that makes such voices powerful and threatening to the establishment. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was such a prophet – toward the end of his life, MLK said a lot of things about the Vietnam War that drew all kinds of rebuke.

This is one of the more interesting attributes that can make someone a prophet: speaking truth to power so effectively that it makes power twitch, and get nervous.

Prophets are those who point to the truth of things, and in the words of theologian Walter Brueggemann, “They reframe what is at stake in chaotic times.” The Refuse Fascism movement did so last Wednesday, when they published a full-page ad in the New York Times of their petition: “In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!” It is just such an uncomfortable statement that falls squarely in the category of prophetic dialogue. Thousands of people have signed it so far, including some prominent voices of our time.

As bold as we religious (and otherwise) liberals may purport ourselves to be, the temptation to stick our heads in the sand is great at this time. This new presidency is going to be far worse than we imagine, if current events are any indication. I signed that statement on-line as I personally believe we are at grave risk of supplanting democracy with fascism.

If we are unable or willing “to speak with bravest fire,” then I invite us to listen to those who are, for prophecy is in bloom this 2017. Not everyone who signed that statement in the NY Times is a zealot activist like Cornel West or a famous writer like Alice Walker. One of them is scientist Milton Saier, of the University of CA in San Diego. I highly recommend listening to his interview on the Michael Slate show on KPFK – it was this past Friday. Here are some main points I want to highlight that he raised.

As a scientist, he is extremely anxious by the degradation of scientific work that is one of the hallmarks of fascist regimes. Federal funding for scientific work is public funding in service of the truth – that, Saier says, is what scientists do: they have an extremely systematic process for arriving at the truth that allows us as a society to proceed with intelligence and caution in an increasingly imperiled world, especially when it comes to climate science. Rather than fund science, Trump will fund the military, another hallmark of fascism.

I urge you to listen to the interview because Saier was especially eloquent in his defense of the scientific acquisition of truth that arrives at facts and knowledge. It spoke to me as a liberal religious leader, because we have always been defenders of the free search for truth. It’s something we have in common with science.

And so we must call out the fake prophets who would have us believe they offer salvation, when they only offer a degradation of our lives and liberty. Look, I’m just going to say it: I do think of Trump as the anti-Christ, and most of his cabinet selections as his demented disciples.

At this critical juncture, it behooves us to know the proper criteria for telling the real prophets from the fake. It reminds me of the new imperative we have of teaching our young people how to know real news from fake news, for language is the medium of prophets, both real and fake.

The whole concept of prophecy most historically equates with the Judeo-Christian tradition, which includes Islam. Prophets are those who are anointed by God to deliver a message, and therefore, belong to God. My liberal religious translation: finding the courage to use skills such as writing and public speaking, I use my prophetic voice in service of the God who prefers the poor and marginalized, per the exemplars of Jesus and MLK. I say this by virtue of being clear on which god I’m serving. Are you clear on which god you serve? As religious liberals, it behooves us to get clear on our own religious beliefs concerning God, if we wish to use our talents and treasure in prophetic service of a more just and peaceful world.

This is especially important in light of the religious right’s penchant for utterly misinterpreting the teachings of Jesus to suit their homo/xenophobic agenda.

But let me back up and share more of my own personal reasoning here. Currently, I’m grateful to say, my family has everything we need, and yet – the election of Trump has reminded me that the horror of the great unknown is omnipresent, and I have to live with that. In fact, no matter who we coronate, the terror of the great unknown remains, for we live in a time of looming uncertainty.

Overwhelming as it is, I have come face to face with my greatest vulnerability: I love my family so much, and yet, I know I cannot protect my children from all that may befall them in their lifetimes.

What kind of vulnerabilities do you have to live with?

Perhaps they are similar to mine, and can be summed up as the risks of love. There is a type of suffering in that vulnerability when we love, and suffering can lead to great leaps of faith.   For many Christians, it is Jesus’ suffering that is of most comfort – to imagine Christ’s suffering allows people to live with their own.

These kinds of reflections cause me to consider the substance of my faith. Do you have faith? I ask again, do you believe in God? Let me explain how I won’t take no for an answer, with the help of JLA. Liberal theologian James Luther Adams insisted it’s not possible to believe in nothing – we serve gods whether we are aware of it or not, so it’s worth examining which gods we want to serve. He says,

“The question concerning faith is not, Shall I be a person of faith? The proper question is, rather, Which faith is mine? Or better, Which faith should be mine? For whether a person craves prestige, wealth, security, or amusement, whether a person lives for country, for science, for God, or for plunder, that person is demonstrating a faith, is showing that she or he puts confidence in something.”

That quotation is, for me, my Hail Mary prayer. It centers me, it asks me unequivocally to define my gods. When was the last time you defined yours? Now may be the time to do it, and whether we call it God is not as important as being able to bring it forth in our lives.

Here’s one way of thinking about God that really works for me – it’s from modern literature, from a best-selling novel, called Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It involves two nuns of great faith and explores themes of commitment, both to family and to medicine.

One of the nuns’ faith is described like this, that “her job was to make her life beautiful for God.” Whether my beliefs mention God or not, I can still get on board with this notion, that my job is to make my life beautiful for God. It is the function of believing in God that I have faith in. If it means that I have to carefully consider what makes my life beautiful, then I am hot to trot for this faith.

What could you say authentically makes your life beautiful? Of course it’s many things, but in the context of these uncertain times in which we find ourselves, this knowledge of how fragile life is, how vulnerable we really are, I see that this beauty can be distilled to a few commitments.

Adams emphasized throughout his writings that our beliefs aren’t anywhere near as important as our commitments. This is good news for folks who squirm when asked to recite their religious beliefs, because you can say, “well, what’s really important to me are my commitments, and these are what they are.” It’s a way of claiming that actions speak louder than words, which is essentially what liberal religion has tried to be – to enable us to put stock in the lives we lead, rather than the dogma we profess.

Of course serving the well-being of my family is my first commitment, but if I stopped there, what would I be teaching my children? That my faith is limited to serving the God of Fear, that we are put on this earth to look after two things: me and mine. This faith should not be mine, as popular as it is these days. There’s an important distinction to make here. The knowledge of vulnerability is not meant to inspire fear. Herein lies the paradox: we embrace our vulnerability to find our courage.

You’ve heard it before and it’s true: courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s walking through our fear. It takes courage to move beyond the “me and mine” attitude. But I know God wants me to. To make my life beautiful means to see the vulnerability in everyone, in every living thing. And to understand that I have some responsibility to this world we share. I certainly want my kids to understand this responsibility when they come of age and inherit this ever-fraying world of ours.

Prophets who belong to the loving and inclusive God to whom Jesus and MLK belonged, can come from any walk of life, or occupy any station. There are prophets of state or peasantry. Real prophets point to the Kingdom of God, in word, deed, and action. The Kingdom of God defined as the beloved community, of peace, inclusion, justice, sister and brotherhood, where every child can grow up and be who they want to be, contributing their gifts to the altar of humanity.

Fake prophets and the selling of their goods are rampant – drugs are fake prophets, and sadly our huddled poor have fallen victim to this tragic epidemic. In 2016, 20% more people in America died by drug overdose, than by car accident, an unprecedented stat. But any type of addiction that cuts us off from the holy, anything we think fills the void, but never does in the long run – whatever material items we think are important but really aren’t – all such worldly and ego-driven goods are sold by fake prophets – and sadly, such prophets become our gods.

State-wise, fake prophets hawk empty promises, placating the people while enriching themselves and their friends, creating a kleptocracy. Putin is a fake prophet, exalting his narcissism while ignoring his huddled masses. He is a frightening mentor and bro-mancer of Trump.

We must call out these fake prophets.

Jesus said in the Book of Matthew, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” I can’t think of a more timely aphorism, even though it’s thousands of years old. Knowing what these fruits are, we must stop their propagation.

And so I hope many of you join the fight this New Year in response to, by all indicators, a fascist agenda.

To tie this all together, I’d like to share a portion of the Christmas letter I received this year from my beloved colleague and mentor, retired UU minister John Corrodo. Yes, I know, Christmas is over, and I’m sure many are glad for this. I, for one, can’t wait to get the mess out of my house . . . But let’s remember what African American theologian Howard Thurman says in his litany, “Now the Work of Christmas Begins.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

And so my colleague wrote me,

Things aren’t terribly different than they were 2100 years ago. They’re terribly the same.

 There were wars and rumors of wars, violent religious and secular leaders, displaced people desperately seeking safe havens, zealots preying on the fears of the populace, and over all a pervasive pall of anxiety. Bread and circuses distracted the masses.

 Grim as those times were, a wonderful, everlasting story came out of them . . . Three men, wiser than most, would not let the times define them. They sought something eternal. They sought hope and its source . . . what they came upon was a young woman holding a newborn baby. It was an aha! moment that has resounded down the ages.

 If we can be as wise as the three sages, we can see that the hope of the world is newborn again and again and again; we can realize that even in the darkest, coldest, most unlikely of places, with all kinds of beastly behavior going on, the holy can occur. We just have to be able and willing to see it.

Though I personally am confident in the gods I serve – for the most part, because I’m not perfect and no one is – as an at-heart humanist, I recognize that, when it comes down to it, I have to find my own way, choose my own commitments of what’s most important to serve at this time, and then honor those commitments with my time and treasure.

I hope you will join me, but most of all, I hope you will do the hard work of defining your gods and your commitments, then honor them, and at times, honor them in a prophetic manner. Liberal religion touts a free faith, but free has never meant easy. Sometimes we shall have to speak down to our own people.

This freedom we shall hold sacred and lift high, working hard to protect its legacy of fairness and inclusion forever, and forward through the ages.

So hustle up, O young and fearless prophets, HUSTLE UP!

– Rev. Hannah hustlin’ the Hope Petrie