Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Martin Luther King Jr as Modern Prophet: Some Similarities with the Ancient Prophets of Israel.

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Delivered at the Martin Luther King Jr Celebration at Temple Israel, January 16, 2009

“Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land-against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you an will rescue you, declares the Lord. ” Jeremiah 1:17-19

I am honored to be with you this evening to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr one of America’s greatest prophets and freedom fighters.

I am honored to be here this evening also because I am one who believes strongly that we hold much in common as faith communities and that we should all diligently work to magnify, celebrate and promulgate those common elements of our faith heritages, and celebrate and build on them for the future.

I am thankful to Rabbi Bennett and the members of Temple Israel for the time we have spent together. It has been rich and deeply rewarding for me personally and hope that we will continue our fellowship. Rabbi Bennett we will be with us on this Sunday as we continue our celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. I admire him as a teacher, leader and a person interested in sharing his faith and story with the larger community. Christians and Jews and members of other faith communities must find ways of sharing our story with one another.

I must say that it is regrettable that certain aspects of Christian history have been tainted with anti-Jewish sentiment and that we have failed to recognize and forge our true common ground. I concur with Professor Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina who rightfully observes that any serious exploration of Judaism and Christianity must distinguish between the religion that Jesus preached as a Jew and the religion that preaches Jesus in the community called the Way which later became known as Christianity.

All too frequently, even in our reading of New Covenant (Br’t Hadashah) texts, those distinctions are not clarified which adds confusion and ignorance about the vital role of Judaism has played in the foundations of our faith.

There are those in the Christian community, including myself, who have come to appreciate those distinctions and are very careful in our theological observations to call attention to them. We are mindful of the need for integrity and the need to build unity and understanding by respecting the nuances and values of our various faith traditions.

I am grateful to professors at the University of Chicago and Chicago Theological Seminary such as Andre Lacoque and others who taught me the value of steering away from those traditional biases by encouraging me to be hermeneutically sound in my interpretations and to recognize the value of Judaism as a parental source of Christianity.

We do ourselves disservice by not doing our homework and by failing to understand how sacred texts can be interpolated and redacted with modern prejudices which skew the original meaning of the texts and contexts of sacred literature and color wrongfully our impressions of our respective faith communities.  Perhaps that’s why I was so disappointed in the Mel Gibson movie which evoked so much media brouhaha several years ago, because it was simply a continuation of the same anti-Jewish sentiment so characteristic of some Christian discourse. I say “some” because all Christians are not at fault. I say “some” because we must be careful in not oversimplifying and over generalizing assumptions that lead to categorical condemnations of groups of people as is so often done in our society.

Moreover, African Americans have had always a spiritual connection with the Jewish faith and people, for the history of the African American church and its struggle for freedom in America draws heavily from the stories and imagery of the Old Covenant. The prophets in our history readily drew parallels in their struggle as a means of inspiring their people to freedom, as a way of remembering their ancient spiritual heritage and as a way of biblically and grounding their causes. The themes of liberation and freedom that have prominently undergirded and permeated our struggles for freedom in America draw intimately from the rich traditions of the Torah and the early and later Prophets. Thus the African American church has always proudly and unapologetically celebrated those traditions as part of its spiritual history.

Having said this, I am proud to be here tonight and grateful that we are celebrating the life of a person who also understood those nuances of tradition and had come to appreciate them in his lifetime. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was his view that faith communities should lead the way in unifying people beyond race, class, religious and ethnic lines. He solidly believed that the practice of faith should invariably compel us to model the kind of unity we expect from the world.

Martin Luther King as Modern Prophet

In celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,. we must understand him as a modern prophet in American society. I wish to speak briefly tonight on the subject of the “Martin Luther King Jr. as Modern Prophet; Similarities and Parallels with some Prophets of Ancient Israel.

This portrait does not exhaust discussion on this subject but is designed to again give some insight in the ground we have held in common as communities of faith.

Numerous assessments of Martin Luther King, Jr have claimed him as one of America’s greatest modern prophets who stood in the tradition of ancient Israelite prophets who spoke truth to power at a critical time in our nation’s history.

As the son of a prominent minister, Martin King grew up in a priestly class, but always retained a prophetic concern for social justice. He experienced first hand racism and knew personally the awful history of lynching and terror against African Americans in the South. He always had a prophetic passion, a fiery urge to right wrong and effect justice and was inspired by the examples of prophetic leadership in the bible and in his community.

Martin King was conscripted into public service as a young man in Montgomery Alabama and took up the prophetic mantle of leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was there that he received a higher calling from God to lead his people from the dregs of social segregation to the Promised Land of Freedom. It was there that God called him as an outsider, and newcomer to Montgomery, to lead a movement that would dramatically change America and eventually change the world.

I want to highlight ten basic points and promise not to take all night.

1) We say that his ministry was prophetic because his leadership was transformational, rooted in an ancient and modern vision of the kingdom of God. It was leadership that directed itself into the positive transformation of society and its individuals. The twin tiers of this transformational leadership are love and justice. Dr. King believed ala Reinhold Niebhur, that love actualized on the personal level should have its moral equivalent in the actualization of justice on the social level. It is not enough to love persons personally. That love must be transformed socially into justice for all persons.

This transformational model of leadership was grounded in the idea of a God of love and justice who is concerned for the poor and oppressed. It is a belief that called the nation back to God, called attention to a higher covenant between God and his people and challenged the nation to live up to its promises of freedom and justice.

The prophet is called by God to boldly voice truth to existing powers notwithstanding the vox populi (Popular voices) or the real politik of the times.

2) Furthermore, we say that Dr. King’s ministry was prophetic because he stood in the Mosaic tradition of leadership and the Exodus liberation tradition. Thus his leadership was not only transformational but transvaluational. King believed that the universal precepts of religious faith and its values could be transmitted to other faiths, cultures and societies. The universal values of his faith beliefs would have affinity with other systems of belief.

3) A third characteristic Dr. King’s prophetic leadership was evidenced in a type of rhetoric reminiscent of some forms of prophetic speech. The content, cadences and rhythms of his public utterances were visionary and at times ecstatic. His use of allegory and alliteration were rhetorical devises filled with exigency and urgency and compelled his hearers to action. Walter Bruggeman tells us that prophetic language is inherently poetic language. Dr. King was certainly poetic in his proclamations and the success of his appeal had to do with the power of his spoken word.

When he stood in Memphis, Tennessee and preached his own eulogy and told the audience that he would not get to the Promised Land with them, he was invoking the image of Moses standing before his people who also lamented not getting to the Promised Land with his beloved people. He freely used the stories and images of the Old and New covenants and was often called the Moses of his people. He revered the role of the prophets in ancient societies and understood their parallels to modern times.

4) We say then that Martin Luther King Jr was a prophet not only because he boldly spoke truth to power by announcing, “Thus saith the Lord, ” and by “living by the transforming power of the coming kingdom of God, but also because he “interceded on behalf of the poor and oppressed for distributive and retributive justice in the social arena and suffered hardship and death for the cause of freedom.

As a modern prophet, he stood in the best of those ancient prophetic traditions where passion, vision, moral courage and personal sacrifice were hallmarks of the prophetic mission as he undauntedly challenged the power establishments in both church and government in the name of God to be positively transformed.

5) According to the typology of the various types of prophets proffered by David Aune in his book, “Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, ” Martin Luther King was not a shamanistic prophet who was a combination of sage, soothsayer and holy man.

He was not a court prophet whose oracles on the future helped circumvent catastrophes of reigning monarchs.

He was instead a free prophet ala the prophets of Ancient Israel, who is defined by Aune as the following:

“One who stood on the institutional periphery of Israelite society, where they attempted to provoke social and religious change…. Acting independently of existing authority structures, they claimed divine authority to call Israel back to the ancient covenant traditions as they understood and interpreted them.

Acting independently of existing structures and authorities, Martin King as modern prophet called America back into covenant both with its Constitution and with God.

Robert B. Wilson’s article, “Early Israelite Prophesy” tells us that prophets had numerous social and religious functions, which can be broadly divided into two basic categories.

“First, prophets may appear on the periphery of a society and direct their activities toward social and religious change. Peripheral prophets may appear in groups which lack political, social or religious power within the society and which use the authority of the prophetic message to attempt to rectify their powerless state.”

“Second, prophets may appear within the established power structure of the society. In this case, they usually have the function of maintaining social order, although this maintenance does not preclude criticism of the society. Prophets of this sort are not usually opposed to social and religious change but are interested in insuring that change takes place in an orderly way so that the social structure as a whole is preserved. (Wilson p. 7)

According to Wilson’s typology, we might say that Dr. King stood between these two realities. In the eyes of the power establishment particularly in the South, King was essentially a rabble-rouser and an agitator and as a Negro was basically on the fringes of that society, never a full person with the rights of a citizen, but an outsider to the white power establishment, as were most blacks even more so those who were highly educated.

However, in the eyes of the African American community Dr. King was an integral part of their power establishment, having come from a class of honored priests and having studied at Morehouse, Crozier Theological Seminary and Boston University. King had establishment credentials. His family was part of the black power elite of Atlanta Georgia. The social change he advocated was not designed to uproot and destroy all of America, but to effect non-violent change in ways that would still preserve its more nobler aspects while eradicating its oppressive evils.

In the eyes of the white power establishment, he was a prophet on the periphery. In the eyes of the black power establishment, he was a prophet who stood at the center of their values and concerns and personified the best of what they were and what they hoped to become.

King’s leadership transcended the contradictions that would ordinarily result from being in both traditions. Usually it is one or the other. The fact that he was part of the black establishment gave him credibility and power in eyes of the black masses and added strength to his prophetic platform.

6) An additional description of prophet is offered by Abraham Joshua Heschel who tells us that the prophet is homo sympathetikos, one moved by the pathos of God and has sympathy for humankind. Heschel writes,

“This pathos moves him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings and wishes and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind giving him the courage to act against the world. ” Heschel p. 88

Reading the Autobiography of King, one is immediately struck by his possession and prepossession with his calling as prophet. We sense in him a deep brooding and foreboding as he wrestles with his role in human history and as he summons all of his earthly powers under God’s command to speak truth to the power when it was unpopular to do so.

7) Villen A. Van Gemeren says The true prophet affirmed the whole counsel of God. He writes

“At The heart of the prophetic heritage lies the concern for the true freedom of God. Prophetic proclamation thus shatters and transforms tradition in order to announce the approach of the living one.” P. 64

As the freedom of God compelled a sovereign God to freely chose and call forth his spokespersons to speak truth to power in ancient times, the same would be for modern prophets such as M. L.King. Questions emerged as to under whose influence and authority did he speak. It was God, very God who prepared and called him for that work. That God would call someone from a priestly class to take a such a dynamic prophet role in society shattered some forms of tradition in the thinking of those who discredited him.

Moved with sympathy and concern for the plight of his fellow African Americans, and, having grown up in the segregated and racist south, Martin Luther King Jr. as a called servant of God emerged in the tradition of the prophets by emphasizing the transformative and redemptive power of God in human history. The transformation of America into a land where all people could be free would mean the ultimate redemption of America as a free nation under God.

This vision of a free America was rooted not only in the three documents of freedom: the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and the Constitution but rooted also in the Torah itself. Modernists tend to give credit to John Locke, Jean Jacque Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes and others as being the intellectual architects of modern movements for freedom and social justice, but Dr. King and others realized that those principles harkened back to the Bible itself. The great traditions of human freedom do not begin with modern thinkers. They go back to ancient times.

For rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but the hand of God. Freedom is not a gift ultimately arbitrated by the state, although America had made provisions for it in the three sacred documents, but is a freedom that is God given as revealed in the Exodus, in the prophets and in the liberating ministry of Jesus.

Free prophets understood that God is first a God of freedom and that he wills the freedom of his children as part of their covenantal relationship. That freedom is not in words of Ivan Karamazov “a freedom where everything is permitted, ” but a freedom that requires discipline, accountability and responsibility. That freedom is realized in the context of human community and actualized most optimally in the practices of the faith community.

The faith community then is to epitomize what Dr. King called the beloved community. The faith community is to be the paragon of justice and freedom, truth and equality. The beloved community is the place where justice is practiced on every level and every man, woman, boy or girl notwithstanding, race, class, religion or gender can actualize his or her true god given potential. The prophet as spokesperson for God entreats and invokes that vision. To impede or obliterate the flow of this actualization of potential is injustice and goes against the very will of God himself.

This is the upshot of prophetic urgency; the goal of all prophetic striving; to announce the kingdom of God and to exhort our preparation for its coming; to bring about a world that glorifies God in its social arrangements, in its distribution of wealth and power and in the fair and just treatment of all of its citizens. This requires a transformation of all of society, in its thinking and in its action.

For Dr. King that millions of Americans were still not free was a sign of a Covenant that had been broken or not established at all. Thus for African Americans the sacred writ of human freedom known as the Constitution had been shattered and the sacred writs of divine freedom known as the Torah and the New Covenant had been summarily omitted and ignored.

This contradiction could be clearly seen in the way that slave masters reinforced Paul’s admonition in Ephesians for slaves to obey their masters while completely ignoring the Exodus tradition where Moses tells pharaoh to “let my people go. ”

It is my belief that the prophetic traditions of the African American Christian belief systems have always relied on the Old Covenant as a principal hermeneutical tool for making the case for the divine imperatives for human justice and freedom. For in the Old traditions the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of freedom, which is not yet still comes in the here and now on earth and is not simply a reality realized in the after life.

It is my belief that Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders in the prophetic tradition grasped the biblical basis of these various principles and practices. At the heart of their passion is God’s concern for the worldly use of institutional power and how that power has been used to perpetuate the misery of the oppressed.

As the prophets of old, the modern prophet is equally concerned about the misuse of worldly power and how justice can be actualized amid inequities created by the abuse of such power.

8) Furthermore, as part of his prophetic urgency and calling, Martin King challenged not only the larger society but government and the church, politics and religion to transform themselves into agencies of positive social change thus transforming the nature and trajectory of their institutional power.

He challenged government to uphold its constitutional principles for all citizens.

He challenged the church, as his letter from a Birmingham jail reveals, to shed its institutional and bureaucratic constraints to enter the struggle for human rights, civil rights, and social justice.

He challenged church leaders to repeal their theologies of gradualism and shed their priestly garments as votaries of establishment power to become prophetic oracles of dynamic social change.

In the estimation of numerous church leaders, the church should be the repository of institutional power and the caretaker of society and not the agitators of those in power. To risk the ire and indignation of those in power was a price too great to pay. It would be better to leave things as they were and suffer and not change them than to change them and pay the price with greater bloodshed and strife.

9) Reading various biographies of King, we discover that his father had perhaps the greatest difficulty with his new role as prophet and urged him to stay in his priestly place. He wanted Martin to move back to Atlanta and take over Ebenezer Church. This would be a gesture that would take him out of harms way. The two men had their share of struggles and quarrels over this issue. At one point Daddy King, it is told, left Montgomery in tears after Martin and Coretta’s house was bombed.

And while Martin eventually moved back to Atlanta and became his father’s assistant pastor, he would not shed his prophetic mantle. The father understood how his son’s role as prophet could lead to the younger King’s untimely demise and precipitate his death. He realized that true “Prophets do not live to be old men. ”

The father wanted to protect his son. Both Martin and Daddy King understood what happened to prophets of old and what happened to blacks in the South “who got out of line. ” They understood how the real politics and prophetic ramifications of Jesus ministry lead to his crucifixion by Rome. They were not naïve. To be a prophet is no small thing. They knew the importance of struggling for freedom but they also knew the price in blood the prophet and people paid for that struggle.

Thus as prophet King accepted the dangers that came with such responsibility. He went against the most powerful person in his life, his father, to do God’s will for the oppressed and disenfranchised of America.

It was with great trepidation and concern that King who had come from a long lineage as distinguished priests to take on the role of prophet. While this move is now celebrated because of what he and the movement achieved, it was not popular at the time nor was it something gladly and joyfully accepted by his family, colleagues or those in his inner circle of friends. He had to overcome his own frailties, battle the demons of melancholy and quasi depression and emerge the leader that God called him to be. That he would take on this great responsibility was something that King himself was reluctant to do, but had to do because God had called him to it. The prophet has no choice in the matter. Moved by pathos and sympathy he must respond to God. Too much was at stake to say no. God had chosen him to go. Too much had been done in history for him to refuse.

So he took on his prophetic role and responsibility not with unbridled zeal as some historians have said, but with deep anxiety and concern. He knew the awesome responsibility how it would imperil his life. He knew the toll in human blood and suffering. Martin the priest battled with Martin the prophet. Those roles would not be logical extensions of each other. For one meant water and the other meant fire. One meant peace and the other meant war. One meant conformity and the other meant heresy.

Martin King was called to be a prophet at that moment in human history and no amount prevarication or machinations would prevent his ascendancy into the cauldron of justice.

Did not Moses, Jeremiah and Elijah have similar concerns as they contemplated the magnitude of their assignments and the power it would take to achieve their goals? Did they not as men shrink in awe of the responsibility God had placed upon them? See Elijah hiding in the cave, Jeremiah shedding tears and Moses moving through the wilderness.

In fact, we might venture to affirm the life of Martin Luther King Jr. in three prophetic movements.

There was his Jeremiah period as a young man called into ministry who cried much at the realization of his calling and the demands of it but eventually matured into acceptance and responsibility of that calling.

There was his Elijah period where he was called to renounce and slay the pagan Gods of idolatry and power as he moved into ministry and emerged as the spiritual head of the Civil Rights Movement. This renunciation alienated him from many of his peers and put him on the run from the Jezebel power angered by his prophesy and determined to control and permanently silence him.

There was his Moses period where he led his people through the wilderness of racial oppression and segregation and finally after years of struggle came to terms with the realization that he would not get to the Promised Land with them.

In conclusion, As prophet, Martin Luther King had a deep and abiding concern for the suffering and pain of the oppressed and that concern and sympathy lead him to become an agent of positive transformation to eliminate that suffering and oppression.

As prophet, he stood in the best of the old covenant traditions inside but outside, but always calling the people back to God in accordance with God in their responsibility to make the world a better place.

As prophet, he was gunned down in Memphis and paid the ultimate price with his life, but his legacy lives on as the prophets of old.

The Prophetic mantra and mission did not die in Memphis. As the efficacy of Dr. King’s prophetic message and sacrifices emerged, many did eventually join in the movement. Numerous people black and white, Jews and Christians, agnostic and atheist, rich and poor, male and female took up the prophetic mantle of freedom, struggled for it and paid the ultimate price for freedom. Were it not for the efforts of these people we could not as a nation to have come to this celebrated place; a place which makes possible the emergence of our current President elect. There were many, who in the best of biblical traditions heard the call, responded faithfully to it and the rest is history.

Theirs is a legacy where fear would not overcome faith. It is the legacy of the prophets; the legacy of Jesus himself; the legacy of every man, woman and child, who believe in something higher than themselves. It is a legacy of those countless spiritual warriors who have stood for truth and justice and paid the price for freedom. Martin king was able to accept his prophetic mantle of leadership and speak for God in history because he believed that God had called him for that time, that it was God’s will and he would not allow fear to overcome his faith.

So as the prophets of old and the prophets of our times, let us the living go forth in faith and not in fear. Let us remove the barriers and impediments that prevent our true human community. Let us go forth and faith and not in fear by truly finding and celebrating our common ground and our common heritage; that which binds us together as one people whose traditions are filled with rich images of the past and the bright promises of tomorrow.

Thank you.

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