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The American Prophet Shabbat Bo, 5773. Martin Luther King's 84th Birthday

02/06/2015 08:38:36 AM


Rabbi Feinstein

The American Prophet
Shabbat Bo, 5773. Martin Luther King’s 84th Birthday

On August 28, 1963, almost fifty years ago, a young preacher named Martin Luther King, ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, looked out on the crowd of a quarter million, and began a talk that changed America:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

The speech always brings tears. Tears of inspiration and transcendent hope. Tears of pride in an America devoted to equality and justice. Tears of gratitude that I was alive, though very young, to witnessed King's struggle and his triumph. And then looking at my own children, tears of the bereft. For the America they have grown into has never known a leader like Martin Luther King. And I doubt it ever will.

His leadership was unique. He held no political office, commanded no great industrial corporation or labor union, chaired no official organization outside of the loose association of pastors and activists known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His leadership was rooted solely in the clarity of his moral vision. In the words of the preacher Philips Brooks, he "proclaimed truth through the power of personality." But he moved us, he changed us, he led us to a higher place, a higher vision.

Great leaders invite us to join a heroic journey. A journey that's not easy. A journey replete with obstacles, opposition, barriers and pitfalls to be overcome. Great leaders, unlike politicians, don't promise us what we want. They don't promise to fulfill our smallest needs. On the contrary, great leaders demands sacrifice, sometimes great sacrifice. But we don't feel as if we're losing anything. In exchange for all we devote and dedicate and surrender in the name of this journey, we gain a sense of the heroic. Our sacrifices are ennobling, elevating us. And in the end, the leader makes us believe that, some way or another, we will reach the Promised Land.

Dr King invited us all to share black America's battle for freedom and equality. It became our sacred journey from slavery to freedom, our heroic struggle against injustice. In his mighty vision, all are included on the journey ­ black people and white people, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. What fills our eyes with tears is his vision of the America that all of us aspire to: An America glorious in its commitment to justice, noble in the depth of its compassion, exalted in its devotion to human dignity. We will enter the frey, engage the adversary, but without violence, without rage, without hostility -- meeting hatred with love, and persecution with compassion. Dr King persuaded us to believe, that against all odds and contrary to all prognostication, despite all the hatred and racism, that we shall overcome one day. One day, we will reach that Promised Land.

August 28, 1963:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Dr. King was a minister of the Gospel, and his story is deeply influenced by Christianity and by the Christian story. He was, as well, a student and proponent of Ghandi's philosophy of non-violent resistance to injustice. But it was the Hebrew Prophets who shaped King's vision. To listen to King is to hear an echo of the ancient prophets.

The prophets of the Bible were a unique class of strange and passionate men who declared war on idolatry. Idolatry isn't the worship of rocks and trees and statues. Idolatry is the belief that there are centers and sources of power, dispersed through the phenomenal world, which are locked in unending conflict. Light and darkness, rain and sun, earth and sky, ocean and land, life and death, are forever at war with one another. Idolatry imagines the human being as but a helpless bystander. To survive, the human being must skillfully play a game of divine politics -- propitiating this god, allying with that one, changing sides at the right moment, soliciting, manipulating, scheming to gain a moment's favor.

Idolatry is a theology of fear. Idolatry presents a world out of control, where justice means nothing and power means everything. Idolatry depicts a world of chaos where dreams are futile, and aspirations are absurd because anything we dream, anything we plan, anything we create, will attract the jealous ire of some god or his rival.

Idolatry is ultimately a philosophy of passivity, of resignation and surrender.

Idolatry is the theology of moral cynicism. Injustice, cruelty, brutality are part of the structure of reality. They cannot be challenged. They cannot be changed. And therefore, one is wise to seek whatever power one can amass simply to protect one's own. Privatism ­ protecting the interests of me and mine alone, is the ethic of idolatry.

The prophets knew all about the viciousness and violence that fills the world. But they refused to accept this turmoil as the last word, as the ultimate condition of things. Breshit bara elohim et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz. In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. This is the most radical statement of prophetic religion. Beneath the chaos, is order and unity. Behind the darkness, is light and wisdom. Latent within the brokenness of the world is the pattern of its wholeness and the possibility ­ the ever-present responsibility -- of its repair. The world is not inevitably and eternally a battleground of opposing forces:va'yar eloheem kee tov, and God saw that it was good.

We are not helpless. We are not trivial. Human beings created in the image of God have the power and the responsibility to remake the world ­ make it whole and healed ­ in the image of God. The meaning of human existence, the glory of human life, lies in that struggle to make the world whole. We can be more than petty, more than self-interested, more than “just human.”

Accepting the 1964 Nobel peace prize, Dr King declared: "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."

The prophet speaks in the name of God. The prophet speaks the word of God. But the prophet isn't merely a mouthpiece for God, a microphone for God's voice. The key to prophecy is not the prophet's mouth but his eyes and his ears.

We share the same world with the prophet. We walk the same avenues, shop in the same markets, drive the same freeways, read the same morning paper. Our eyes and ears have grown accustomed to a certain level of dissonance and ugliness. Like the constant roar of the nearby freeway, always present but never heard, like the polluted air we get used to breathing, we adjust and endure and soon we ignore the anguished cry of the mother whose child is murdered in the drive-by, the frustrated sigh of the emergency room nurse who hasn't a bed for the next broken body, the whimper of the child born addicted to crack cocaine, the swallowed indignity of the immigrant crowded into a ghetto tenement. It fills the air, it's all around, but we don't hear it and we don't see it.

The prophet hears and the prophet sees. It haunts his every moment. The prophet sees the world through God's eyes. The prophet has no tolerance for this evil, and no patience for its gradual amelioration. He's shocked. He's outraged. He's relentless in his condemnation. What is simply normal to the rest of us, is unbearably repulsive to the prophet. What's a normal part of the social structure, a normal feature of economic development, a normal bi-product of social progress, is an offense to the prophet's sensibility. For he feels in his guts the pain of every evil, every cruelty, every abuse. And he feels the bitterness of moral callousness, of neglect and abandonment.

The Lincoln Memorial, 1963:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream.

Dr. King was only 34 years old when this speech was delivered. He was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis. Had he lived, he would have been 84 years old today.

Had he lived, would he still have the dream?

During the last five years of his life, King's attention turned from the barriers of legal racism and social discrimination to the problem of poverty in America. It was a much more complex problem. His challenge was not so clearly defined as desegregating city busses, opening lunch counters and unblocking voting booths. His adversary not so easily personified as Sheriff Bull Conners and his dogs. No longer could Northerners smugly castigate a backward, uncivilized South. The problem of poverty indicts all America. King encountered new opposition and new frustration. Had he lived to see these past forty years, to continue this effort, would he still have the dream?

Between then and now were the assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, the Me-Generation, genocide in Cambodia, Biafra, Ethiopia, Ruwanda, and the Sudan, 9/11, the rise of world terror, wars in Iraq and Afghanisan. Poverty is still a plague upon America, especially black America. But we have also witnessed the fall of communism and the end of the cold war, the end of apartheid in South Africa. And of course, the inauguration of our first African-American President. Would the dream have survived?

King’s dream was not rooted in empirical facts. Had it depended upon facts alone, it would have been stillborn. In would have died in the Birmingham jail where King sat, condemned not only by the white power structure, but by his colleagues in the black clergy. It would have died with the little girls blown to bits in the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church. It would have died with every beating, every attack dog, every fire hose sent against those who marched for civil rights and human decency in the South. King's dream wasn't in the facts of history, but in his deep faith: His faith in the power of non-violent protest; his faith that America would someday live up to its principles; his faith in a God who has purposes in human history.

In his Nobel address he declared: "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. 'And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."

King learned this faith from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, from our ancestors. But sadly, you'd be hard pressed to find such a faith articulated in synagogues today. King learned this from the Hebrew Bible, but Jews don't talk like this any more.

Why not? Is it that we are still so scarred from the horror and trauma of the Holocaust; so depressed by the endless pain and struggle of our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel; so defeated by the unsolvable social dilemmas of America, that we have put aside this prophetic heritage of hope and vision out of frustration? Or is it that we have grown so comfortable, so secure, so affluent, so attached to our possessions and our privileges, that we no long feel called by the prophet's plea to heal the world in God's image?

How did the idols of cynicism and self-absorption find their way into our homes and our hearts? Listening to Dr King's speech is a painful reminder of a precious heritage misplaced, a sacred legacy forgotten. But without this faith, what are we? Without the heroic journey, what chance have we to reclaim the hearts of our children? Without this hope, why bother? And if not now, when?

The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a friend of Dr King, once declared that Martin Luther King was the evidence that God had not yet given up on the United States of America. On his birthday, I suggest you gather those close to you are read his words aloud. Read them as a prayer and a vision for an America future.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

We dream that one day our children will again find the faith of the prophets to liberate themselves from the cynicism that enslaves their moral imagination, from the idolatry of self-absorption that shackles their compassion, from all that binds and limits their moral courage, and bond them together in a holy community so that they may sing in the words of the old spiritual,

Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780