Today we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of that famous and inspirational speech by Martin Luther King Jnr by putting together a service of secular and sacred song, video and read out extracts of MLK’s speeches, liturgy and prayers that challenged us to re-vision a world of hope and peace in our time.
Here is the Homily I used for the day:
The central element to Martin Luther King Jnr’s philosophy was his belief in a divine loving presence that bound all life together. This belief was behind all of his quests to eliminate social evil, and what he referred to when he preached of “the interrelated structure of reality” in one of his sermons.
He said: “all [of us] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one [person] directly, affects all indirectly.
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
His wife wrote in 1981, “Even the most intractable evils of our world – the triple evils of poverty, racism and war … – can only be eliminated by non-violent means. And the wellspring for the eradication of even these most economically, politically and socially entrenched evils is the moral imperative to love.”
She goes on in her forward to “Strength to Love”, a collection of Martin’s sermons, to quote Martin in explanation of this:
“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen in the unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.”
The world we live in today is just as much in need of this dream, this vision of mutuality and commonwealth, as the world into which Martin Luther King Jnr spoke 50 years ago.
This is not to say that nothing has been achieved for the better in those years. Certainly not. Much has been achieved, even to the extent of the American people electing a black man to be President not just once, but twice.
But there is still an enormous amount of social disadvantage based on racial grounds both in the USA and our own country, Australia. As Coretta Scott King observed “the triple evils of poverty, racism and war [things which are at the heart of social disadvantage] … [are so] economically, politically and socially entrenched” that they will only be eradicated when we take seriously this radical imperative to love.
We are very much aware of the effect of pressure on housing stocks of our mining boom years that has made affordable housing something meaningless to the poor. Homelessness is an epidemic of our time for far too many.
We are very much aware of the structural inequality that keeps the marginalised – our indigenous and refugee people – in the lowest paid jobs if they are able to get work at all.
We are very much aware of the life-expectancy and health outcomes gap that exists between most of us and our indigenous brothers and sisters.
When we say these things we are talking about the lives of real people – people who for the most part are invisible to the policy makers and politicians of our day.
They will only become visible as we are able to mobilise a view in our society that our well-being is inextricably linked to their well-being. We are unable to be the best that we can be if we have failed to enable these to be the best that they can be.
This is at the heart of the dream, but where are the dreamers and idealists of our day?
Where are the protest singers of our time, challenging the new frontiers of disadvantage that asylum-seekers will be condemned to, as well as the entrenched frontiers of poverty and disadvantage and lower life-expectancy of our indigenous people?
There is still much to be done.
Martin Luther King III speaking at the World Council of Churches’ International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica in May 2011 was asked to address the topic of “affirming the dignity and rights of all and nurturing values of mutuality and interdependence.”
He said, “Today, as we strive to affirm the dignity and rights of all people, many tenacious forms of discrimination continue to undermine human rights.
“There is still racial discrimination. There is still discrimination based on religion, nationality, age, gender and sexual orientation.”
He sees the beginnings of our ability to dismantle this entrenched discrimination and disadvantage in affirming the importance of cooperation and connectedness. We have lost sight of these over these past 50 years as we have glorified competition and individualism.
On our political stage we rarely hear the term “commonwealth” – I sometimes hear the phrase “common good” in the prayers of the people in my Anglican church – and most public policy is framed in terms of how much the average punter will think is in it for them.
Another term we have lost, perhaps because of its gender bias, is “brotherhood”. This term speaks of more than our common humanity – our brothers and sisters are those who are most closely related to us biologically, and perhaps we have been very good at looking after “our own”, as some might say. In reality, though, we need to begin thinking of all other human beings – and some might even say all of creation – as our kin, our relatives, our biological family and to love one another accordingly.
I am not underestimating how hard this will be – for ourselves individually as well as as a nation. That is perhaps why we need good protest songs to sum it all up for us. That is why we will need some good moral leadership that can challenge the systems of power. That is why we all need a dream of what could be.