Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Equality, Quakers, and MLK


"Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for justice; for they shall have their fill." -Jesus (Matthew 5:6)

The day before Martin Luther King was assassinated, he gave a speech to a group of sanitation workers in Memphis. He stood in solidarity with the workers who were fighting for a living wage, for worker safety and the right to unionize. His final speech to this group, I've been to the Mountaintop, is incredibly powerful and more than a little eerie. Last Sunday, at Camas Friends Church, we listened to the full 40 minute speech and it seemed to me and others to be just as relevant today. His allusions to his imminent death were many and undeniable. He says:
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't really matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
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One of the things that struck me about King's speech was that he was calling people to go beyond fighting and arguing. He says that this is how the message should be communicated:
God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you...

King has a sense that argument, violence, fighting, quarreling only gives more power to those who already have the power. There are so many ways for those who are unmotivated to change to delay, to philosophize, to hear only what they want to hear. The question for King wasn't, can we win this debate. He was calling people to begin living into a different reality. We are God's children. We have dignity. The sanitation workers are famous for wearing signs that simply said, "I am a man." "We don't have to argue with anybody," King repeats over and over. Some truths are beyond debate. Some truths are cheapened by debate. Is this what Jesus meant when he talked about not casting pearls before swine because they will trample you under their feet? We don't have to argue. King's ministry was a proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the Justice of God coming. He had, after all, been to the mountaintop.

This month, Northwest Yearly Meeting Friends celebrate Peace Month. We are talking about the Quaker distinctives of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality (SPICE). King embodied these qualities so well that is seems really fitting to celebration his life, work and teachings this month alongside the Quaker values. Early Quakers, like King were revolutionaries who fought for radical, systemic change in their system. Like King they were motivated out of a sense that all men and women were equal. In America, we throw around this phrase around so much that it becomes a platitude with very little transformative power. But in the time of George Fox and early Quakers, their opponents used this George Fox quote as evidence that they were hell bent on destroying the fabric of society: “No man should be above another." This philosophy led the Friends to do some really simple but apparently provocative things. They didn't don their hats to those of a higher class. They avoided titles and called everyone thee and thou. And they used plain language and plain dress as a way to fight inequality. But oh the beatings and persecution they suffered for such simple acts. King seemed almost to take a page out of the Quaker playbook with his simple, organized, nonviolent protests. Boycotts, sit-ins, marches, or wearing signs that just say, I am a man. I sometimes wonder if it would be better to live in George Fox's time, when believing in the equality of all was publicly scorned rather than to live in King's time or our time when the idea of equality is publicly applauded and then privately, or practically discarded. At least then it would be an honest discussion.

I have been thinking this week about how easy it is to look back on history and say who was right and who was wrong. Who was good and who was bad. And to just move on. But I'm sure that people on both sides thought of themselves as in the right. Thought of themselves as the good guys. And I was thinking about how easy it is for us to justify ourselves. maybe that was the genius of MLK's approach. He made it really difficult for those fighting integration and equality to continue to justify themselves. He knew something that I think scripture teaches, that Jesus teaches:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

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