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A Frozen Moment and an America Yet To Be

“Why America may go to hell.”

Which America-hater said that? Some ISIS or Al-Qaeda leader? Some atheist Communist? What if I told you it was Martin Luther King, Jr., who was going to preach these words in his last sermon?

I had a chance to offer a talk on this theme at the Chautauqua Institution last week.

The last image of Martin Luther King that most of us remember is that of his body being shot on the balcony of Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, with his close followers pointing towards where the shot had come from. That day was Thursday, April 4, 1968.

What most of don’t know, what most of us have never heard is this: had Martin lived, that very Sunday he would have delivered a sermon called “Why America May Go to Hell.” He, of course, never did, and we may never fully know the exact text of what Dr. King would have preached that Sunday. But he had given many hints about this theme over the previous years.

All the way back in 1955, when Martin Luther King had formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the aim of SCLC was to “save the soul of America.” Dr. King and his fellow preachers believed that America had a soul, and this soul had to be redeemed. They were preachers in the redemption business. America had a sin-sick soul, and was in need of radical redemption.

The “sin” of America in the 1950s was racism, measured through segregated public accommodations, segregated transportation, segregated schools. King came to gradually expand his vision in the 1960s. This was partially done because the United States entered a futile and deadly war in Vietnam. It was also partially under unrelenting pressure from younger followers, particularly SNCC members. It was also a way for King to keep up with more radical groups and figures such as Black Panthers and Malcolm X, who were more defiant and more consistently critical of America’s colonial ambitions overseas. King had come to expand the circle of his moral concern as he came to see the connection between suffering here at home and suffering abroad.

Exactly a year to the date before he was shot and killed, on April 4th, 1967, Dr. King stood in Riverside Church in New York and spoke of Vietnam killing America’s soul. This Dr. King called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This Dr. King spoke of a triplet giant of evil: racism, materialism, and militarism.

Prophets are never all gloom and doom. Every Langston Hughes cry of “America was never America to me” is followed by a “yet I swear this oath — America will be!” Every reminder of what is killing the soul of America is followed by a way forward and upward, a reminder of how to redeem the soul of a nation, a community, and a world.

We have frozen Martin Luther King, Jr. in a moment of “I have a dream” in 1963. We have cut him off from the movement that produced him, and the movement that took off from him. We have conveniently forgotten that the same Martin Luther King spoke in 1967 about how his dream has turned, at least in part, into a nightmare.

Here is the fate of the prophetic legacy, sitting between amplifying the voice of the marginalized and dispossessed and shining a bright light on the dark places of injustice, the the one hand, and offering a message of hope, love, and redemption on the other hand.

In our age of commercialization, everyone and everything is up for sale: our artists are for sale, (most of) our politicians sold out a long time ago, and (many of) our religious voices are obedient to the new god of the marketplace. We have little room for a prophetic voice that reminds us that America may, indeed, go to hell. We are unsure what to do with a prophetic voice that isn’t selling anything but is telling us, showing us that we may have sold out, dropped out, and tuned out.

Martin Luther King didn’t wish for us to go to hell. The prophetic tradition of King, Heschel, Muhammad, and Rev. Barber takes no pleasure out of telling America that the road we are on leads to hell. Martin Luther King wasn’t telling us that America should go to hell. Martin Luther King wasn’t telling us that he wanted America to go to hell.

Martin Luther King was telling us that the hour was late, that the judgment of God was upon America. Channeling the prophets of Hebrew Bible, he was telling his own community that unless we repented, God would break the backbone of this country and give the blessing to another nation “that doesn’t even know the name” of God.

Racism. Materialism. Militarism. Martin Luther King still speaks to America. The body of Martin Luther King is in the ground, and he isn’t coming back. But the prophetic tradition continues to speak to America.

The body of Trayvon Martin is in the ground, and he isn’t coming back. It is Travyon’s body, Freddie Gray’s body, Sandra Bland’s body, Sam DuBose’s body that connect racism to militarism, and tell us that unless we repent of our evil and unjust ways, America may be going to hell.

Outside Martin Luther King Library in Washington DC. Image by Alex Barth/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

Racism. The legacy of Martin tells us that Black Lives Matter. It tells us that we cannot get to All Lives Matter until we have come to deal once and for all that black lives matter. The prophetic tradition tells us that you measure the spiritual health of any community by how the most marginalized and vulnerable people in that community are doing. In today’s America, these people overwhelmingly are black and brown folks, women, poor people, immigrants, gays/lesbians. Unless we do right by them, then we may indeed be going to hell.

Materialism. The legacy of Martin Luther King tells us that the wealth inequality among the super-haves and the have-nots is repugnant, and that the hemorrhaging of wealth at the top while 20 percent of all our children are poor and 40 percent of our black and brown children are poor is morally abhorrent. As long as we are a nation that looks at corporations as people and people as things, we may indeed be going to hell.

Militarism. The legacy of Martin Luther King tells us that as long as we are sending our money and resources into hundreds of billions of dollars to fight wars overseas that do not keep us any safer and make us hated around the world. We are approaching spiritual death. As Dr. King told us, as long as our image around the world is one of a militaristic bully dropping bombs on people (and today droning people), we may indeed be going to hell.

The hour is late, but it’s not too late. Let’s hope that we heed the voice of the prophets and turn away from the false gods of the market, the false prophets of commercialized religion who preach the gospel of feel-goodism, get-rich-ism, me-first-ism, self-help, and “prosperity.” Even if we are prisoners, let us be prisoners of hope, hoping that we rise above and beyond militarism and racism and striving towards establishing the “more perfect union” that is the true meaning of our national creed.

Somewhere we were told that if we want to establish that “more perfect union” then we the people — all of us — have to work to establish justice. It is when we establish justice that the prophetic message moves from “America was never America to me” to emphatically affirming that “America will be!” It is then that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The hour is late, but it’s not too late. Yet.

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