Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend: Once to Every one and nation


Pat O, Marsha and I working in a budget. But in looking at expenses, there are too many unknowns. We need to have a conversation with Nan, and our new bookkeeper, Monica.

While we are meeting, a contingent of young Koreans are walking through the building, checking it out. They’re congregants of Pastor An.

AT 2 o’clock, I join my Presbyterian Health Education and Welfare Association friends from around the country in a goto meeting. Always amazes me to see all of our faces on the screen together when we can be as far away as Hawaii. PHEWA, despite all its work among networks in areas like Domestic violence and Disabilities and Mental Illness, Criminal Justice, Health, AIDS, is always right on the edge. Like almost every group I’m involved with. I swear it’s not me!

It takes me hours to work through Martin Luther King, Jr’s Selma to Montgomery How long? Not long…speech. Not nearly as well known as I have a dream or the mountaintop speech. I’m impressed with the word usage, the art of the speech. How it uses the Bible, well known hymns and spirituals. Courageous challenge to the status quo. Comfortable for some, unbearable for most.                                                                

 Not easy, but I manage to turn it into a liturgy. With music. It’s late when I leave.


Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. Two visitors from the Korean congregation are with us today. We begin with the old movement song, Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around…then read 1 Samuel 3: 1-10 where  Samuel hear the word of God calling him to be a prophet and doesn’t understand it at first. God calls him three times before Eli is able to convince him that it is indeed God calling. And recall that Martin didn’t want to be a prophet. That he wanted to be an intellectual, a scholar, an academic. Saw his tradition as something he need to rise above until in his loneliest hour he found its deep spiritual strength to sustain him.

And them we read the entirety of the How long, not long.. speech.( And wherever Dr. King quotes from a hymn or song, we sing it.

We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around

Lift every voice and sing
We have come over a way
That with tears hath been watered.
We have come treading our paths
Through the blood of the slaughtered.
Out of the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam
Of our bright star is cast.
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,
Up to the walls of Jericho they marched, spear in hand.
Go blow them ramhorns, Joshua cried,
‘Cause the battle am in my hand.

Once to every man  and nation
Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

And finally, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which gives the speech it’s other name. Our God is marching on. …
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; (Speak, sir)
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
The power of those words still ring achingly present and true today.  We feel them as we enter into our prayers. At the end of the service, we sing Ain’t gonna let nobody….one more time,a and then, before a final Amen, We Shall Overcome.
Of everything we sang today, only Lift every voice…and We shall overcome have made it into the new Presbyterian Hymnal.  We shall overcome is a new addition, Lift every voice ….had made it into the 1990 hymnal.
What I’m especially taken by is the absence of  Once to Every Man and Nation and the Battle Hymn, which both had been historic mainstays in the older hymnals. Reflecting on this. Regarding Once…, James Russell Lowell wrote these words in 1854 (the same year one of West Park’s predecessors, Park Church, built its chapel on 84th street).  The tune we use was written in 1890, one year after the new sanctuary was built. Lowell wrote his passionate, apocalyptic words in protest to the US war against Mexico. And I remember both my college minister Ray Swartzbach and my Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr. using the hymn in anti-Vietnam war sermons. This is a kairos moment. You, we, have to decide.
The Battle Hymn, with its words lifted from the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 19, was written by abolitionist and suffragette  Julia Ward Howe in 1861. Once again, Howe viewed the moment as a decisive one with justice and truth hanging in the balance. She set it to an old camp song (also a tribute to radical abolitionist John Brown, who her husband Samuel secretly supported financially). It was intended to bolster the union troops.
O why were these powerful paens to justice banished? I suspect it happened as a misplaced understanding of  what  peacemaking in the church means. That is, militancy was confused  for militarism. Both songs have a martial air and a dramatic, apocalyptic, non-compromising use of language. The modern institutional church peace peacemaking project has often seen confrontation itself as problematic.
It is  hard to remember that the Presbyterian Church once filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of fundamentalist John Brown University. (No relation. At all.) and religious freedom and also provided defense funds for Angela Davis, an open communist. I can’t imagine that happening today. The only echo in a blunted time was last summer’s close vote to divest from 3 companies for their support of Israeli occupation of the West Bank. (Not insignificant.)
The taming of the hymnbook parallels the efforts to tame Dr.King, turn him into, in the word of Russ, a teddy bear. The Selma story shows just the opposite. King’s non-violence was a tactic to heighten tension, not reduce  it, not reduce it; until the basic demands were met. Active non-violence of the  movement drew violent response  to it, part of the tactic, to expose the brutality of those who  administer control and force a nation to face a cognitive dissonance between their stated values and their lived reality. And King’s action forced that dissonance to be resolved in favor of extending greater justice.  His use of non-violence was not only moral but strategic.
Thus we can not allow King’s memorialization to be used to avoid strong, even divisive action in this kairos moment. The young leaders of this movement  call for reclaiming Dr. King.
We people of faith need to play a supportive role. We will not be leaders this time. Our time has  passed. But we can be responsible. And responsive. And  advice when asked and when  it will be taken. We like Dr. King, can be militant without being militaristic. And perhaps sing and exegete some old songs while we’re at it. In this, another kairos moment.
Once to everyone an nation comes a moment to decide…..

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