Inside, in church, today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Outside across America, this is a weekend for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inside, we listen to Isaiah: For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn. (Isaiah 62:1) Outside, we listen to King, who for his people's sake would not keep silent, and for his country's sake was restless to the end. Inside, we reckon with Israel, the ancient people who struggled with their high call. Outside, it's our turn to do the same.
Tolstoy said happy families are alike and unhappy ones are different. That is probably about half-right. Though ancient Israel and modern America are worlds apart, our pain in one respect is similar to theirs. It is the anxiety of having fallen short of a high call, of disappointing something, someone, that we hold dear.
America's call rings out from the sacred text of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence says why the new country would be exceptional among nations: race, language, and geography don't define us, nor unite us. Love of freedom, with acceptance of the truth that all are equal, does.
That was Abraham Lincoln's take on American uniqueness. The Constitution was the how of the American experiment, the Declaration gives the why. Immigrants from anywhere, and emancipated slaves, could hear in the Declaration principles that rise above ancestry and nationality. As Lincoln put it in 1858:
When they look back through that old Declaration of Independence... They find that those old men say 'we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men... and they have a right to claim it as though they were... flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.[i]
That quote was from Allen Guelzo's book Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. It was "the promissory note to which every American was to fall heir," Dr. King unforgettably declared underneath the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. "We have come to our nation's capital to cash a check," he said, holding America's feet to the heat of its founding flame.
When I think about what makes King's prophetic message so importantly distinctive, two qualities stand out. First, was his devoted belief in the inherent value of what he called human "personality," by which he meant what Thomas Aquinas meant by "soul." People add up to something more than the sum of our separate parts. Second, was King's conviction that black and white folks need each other to rise to our potential.
For some strange reason [he said five days before his death] 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. This is the way God's universe is made.[ii]
From our founding, America's problem has been that we have only partially believed our creed. Like tares sown among wheat, a competing creed took root. Other people give it other definitions, but that's what racism was to Dr. King: a creed - a dogma. Citing Ruth Benedict, King defined racism as "the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to hereditary inferiority and another is destined to hereditary superiority."
As to its origins, King's theory is that the dogma sprung from crude self-interest.
In its beginnings it was a justificatory device [he said] ... an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery.[iii]
If there is a better explanation, I haven't heard it. In any event, the dogma spread like kudzu. That is how America became unhappy in our own peculiar way.
Like Israel, America fell short in answering its call. Like Isaiah, King demanded attention to that fact. However, King and Isaiah both saw the fact of the call itself as more important than the fact of having fallen short. The call favors the good in every struggle and like a magnet draws the people toward redemption. Racism had seemed invincible, but in America it was opposed by a spirit more rare and therefore more notable. He said:
The racism of today is real, but the democratic spirit that has always faced it is equally real. The value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed.[iv]
As President Clinton would say speaking to the same point: "There is nothing wrong with America that what is right with America cannot fix." Dr. King used the Prodigal Son for illustration. The son's failure is a sad old story only too familiar. The more salient fact was the truth of what awaited him at home.
Here is the inside story:
The prodigal son [King writes] was not himself when he left his father's house or when he dreamed that pleasure was the end of life. Only when he made up his mind to go home and be a son again did he come to himself. The boy returned home to find a loving father waiting with outstretched arms.[v]
Here is the story's outside application:
America has strayed [King continues] to the far country of racism. The home that America left was solidly structured idealistically. Its pillars were soundly grounded in the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage: all men are made in the image of God; all men are brothers; all men are created equal; every man is heir to a legacy of dignity and worth; every man has rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state, they are God-given. What a marvelous foundation for anyone![vi]
It is not too late [he promises] to return home. If America would come to herself and return to her true home, 'one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,' she would give the democratic creed a new and authentic ring, enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men.[vii]
Thus, King preached the promise of America as the beacon for a peaceful revolution. How many nations have there been that have aspired to enkindle the imagination and fire the souls of humankind? King pushed, prodded, and provoked, as though to say: "I will not keep silent ... until the nations see your vindication and all the kings your glory."
When that happens, we call it an Epiphany. Here is a secular, dictionary definition of epiphany: "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something." Aha, we say, as a change of heart or mind occurs, like water turning into wine. To create epiphanies, Jesus used both parables and miracles.
Parables are reflections of larger truths that might otherwise go unnoticed. Karl Barth, the theologian, sometimes spoke of "secular parables of the Gospel." Some things happen in this world that are gospel-like in their essential meaning. Allen Guelzo's book title, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, is a case in point. President Lincoln was shot on Good Friday. After his death, far away in Russia Leo Tolstoy told the crowd that Lincoln's life was "Christ in miniature."
King and Lincoln use biblical material to illustrate the American experiment: sacred stories told for secular epiphanies. When Lincoln says, "a house divided against itself cannot stand," he is quoting Jesus to make a point about the United States, and with his prodigal son analogy King is doing the same thing. This is more than rhetoric, because Lincoln and King both believe the secular world has sacred meaning. "This is a moral universe," King declares early in his ministry. "Some things are right, and some things are wrong. Eternally so. Absolutely so." For example, he says it is wrong to hate, and not just inside church: "It is wrong in America," he said. "It is wrong in Germany, it is wrong in Russia, it is wrong in China!"[viii] Moral laws are sacred, and as real as laws of chemistry and physics.
Lincoln is firm on the same point. In the debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln agues from a stand that slavery's being wrong is much more than a matter of secular opinion - it is an embedded moral fact. Some say, "might makes right," but Lincoln turns that thought around. "Let us have faith that right makes might," he preaches.
King's faith inspires us. It also instructs. Conscientiously, King breaks laws from time to time across the south - for example, laws segregating restaurants. He recognizes a paradox: while breaking certain laws he is insisting that others be enforced - for example, the court's decision in Brown versus Board of Education. There are two types of law, just and unjust, and "unjust laws are no laws at all," King explains, quoting St. Augustine. We often hear St. Augustine invoked by advocates of civil disobedience. Unlike many, King believes he owes the world a finished explanation. We wonder: How can we know which laws are just? King answers that a just law is one that accords with eternal purposes of God. Then how can we know which laws do that? King points to the value of the soul: a law that recognizes, lifts, a person toward fulfillment of that God-given personality is just. A law that depreciates, degrades the soul, is not. Such had been laws enforcing slavery, and that now sanctioned racial discrimination.
In Christ we see how right King and Lincoln were. This is a moral universe. In Christ that sacred truth was made outwardly explicit. He taught and lived the law that perfectly aligns with the just purposes of God. In that alignment miracles occurred. Along with crowds, even chemical and physical particulates took notice. At someone's wedding in the town of Cana, molecules in vats of water practiced civil disobedience, breaking nature's laws in recognition of a higher justice. Water bows its head and in praise of its creator turns to wine.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.
[i] Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Kindle edition, loc. 2664)
[ii] Martin Luther Ling, Jr. "Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution," Washington National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.
[iii] King, Where Do We Go, page 73.
[iv] King, Where Do We Go, page 87.
[v] King, Where Do We Go, page 87.
[vi] King, Where Do We Go, page 89.
[vii] King, Where Do We Go, page 89.
[viii] Martin Luther King, "Rediscovering Lost Values," February 28, 1954, Detroit, Michigan.