Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Curtis Ramsey-Lucas)

Which faith are we defending? Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.

By Dr. Marvin A. McMickle

In his famous 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. recounts the many times he drove through the southern states and saw the tall spires sitting atop white Baptist and Methodist churches. Despite the size and beauty of those churches, King wondered:

What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? … So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is the arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.[1]

That letter was written to eight white clergymen in Birmingham, all of whom objected to King’s presence, and who sought to offer moral cover for America’s most racially segregated city. This group of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish clergy were offering excuses and demonstrating complicity in one of the most shameful chapters in American history. I echo the question of Dr. King: What kind of people worship in those churches? Who is their God?

What can be found in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is an understanding of the Christian faith that desperately needs to be heard today. With white, conservative Christians blurring the lines between the message of Jesus and the racist and nativist views of Donald Trump and the current Republican Party, the world badly needs to hear compassionate and progressive voices coming from the U.S. faith community. We need voices that are infused with the quality referred to by parrhesia, the word Socrates used just before he was forced to drink from the cup of poison hemlock. Parrhesia means “bold speech that is uttered without regard for any negative consequences to the speaker.” Socrates told the people of Athens that they objected to his bold speech — his parrhesia.[2] Parrhesia is also the Greek word used to describe the speech of Peter and John in Acts 4:13!

That is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others who risked life and limb in their pursuit of a more just society. King spoke bravely and boldly about racism, poverty and war as the greatest threats to national life. Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., none of those evils have been eliminated. We saw the ugly face of hatred, racism and bigotry in Charlottesville, Va., where self-declared Nazis and KKK members proudly marched through the streets of that city in a scene reminiscent of Nazi rallies in Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. To make matters worse, Donald Trump declared just days after that event that there “were very fine people on both sides.” What is a very fine Nazi? Racism has not been eliminated in the United States of America, and, in some ways, it has reemerged more forcefully than has been seen in many years.

Poverty has not been eliminated in the United States. Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez points out that the faces of the poor are more prominent than ever before.[3] The staggering wealth gap in the United States is almost incomprehensible. Some corporate CEOs at places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and CVS Pharmacy earn in one hour what their average employees earn in six months.[4] As King said in his speech at the March on Washington in August 1963, too many people live “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” [5]

Today, the United States spends more on weapons, research development of weapons, maintenance and procurement of weapons, and the wars that employ those weapons than the next eight nations combined. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” pledging to end poverty in his lifetime. The problem was that the Vietnam War cost the United States more than $738 billion in 1968.6 King warned Johnson that this nation could not afford to fight both the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam at the same time.

Writing in 2015, Mark Thompson of Time magazine noted that the United States had spent $685.6 billion on the war in Afghanistan and $814.6 billion on the war in Iraq. With no end to the conflict in sight, it costs $3.9 million yearly to keep a single American soldier in Afghanistan. [6]

Meanwhile, we cannot afford to provide health care to all our citizens, quality schools for all our children, or 21st-century infrastructure for our highways, tunnels, bridges, airports and power grids. Racism, poverty and the accumulated costs of war were at the heart of King’s concerns when he was assassinated in 1968. How sad that those same concerns remain as headline news in the United States today.

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y.

Notes

[1] Martin Luther King Jr. Why We Can’t Wait, New York: Signet Books, 1964, pp. 91–92.

[2] Cf. Cornel West and Christa Buschdorf, Black Prophetic Fire, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014, p. 112 and Marvin A. McMickle, Be My Witness: The Great Commission for Preachers, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2016, pp. 101–102.

[3] Daniel Harnett, “An interview with Gustavo Gutierrez,” AmericanCatholicReviewMagazine.org, February 3, 2003.

[4] Robert Ferdman, “The wage gap between CEOs and their workers is worse than you think,” Washintonpost.com, September 14, 2014.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream Speech, in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, New York: Harper & Row, 1986, p. 217.

[6] Mark Thompson, The True Cost of the Afghanistan War May Surprise You,” Time.com, January 2, 2015.