Some Principles for Prophets Based on the Life and Teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the official title of this reflection is “Principles for Prophets” the unofficial title is My Feet is Tired, but my Soul is at Rest. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., used these words, quoting an elderly Black woman who said this during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She, though well into her 70s, had been walking to work for the better part of a year, to protest the law requiring Blacks to ride in the back of buses, and give up their seats to white passengers. It was a great sacrifice for an elderly woman, but she was willing to make the sacrifice to see justice done. And as Dr. King asked of her well being she said in her own way: My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.

And herein lies a great principle of all God’s prophets, that they were willing to suffer for the sake of God’s Kingdom, and for the sake of his Truth and Justice.

This weekend in America we celebrate the Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and recall the astonishing legacy he left, of what it means to be committed to God’s justice and truth. And we cannot fail to note how different things are in this country because of the struggle that he, and so many others undertook, to end the horrifying, embarrassing, and painful legacy of racism, and Jim Crow segregation. Such dramatic change came at great cost, as Dr. King and others suffered arrest, death threats, hatred, disrespect and endless other hideous outrages.

I am only 50 years old, but do still remember, living in the deep south from 1969-1971, that some of the “Colored” and “Whites” signs were still hanging, rusting away at the back of buildings. I attended my 3rd grade year, (in 1969), in what had been the “Colored” school just a few years before. It was a poor excuse for a school building: run down, little plumbing, sulphur water, leaky roof, dim lights, and poorly maintained. It had been, up until a few years prior, a separate but “equal” school facility. I couldn’t wait to get out of that school and go to the 4th grade,  and move over to the former “white” school. The outrageous difference between the facilities was obvious, even to my untrained, 9 year old eyes.

Thank God that some folks, like Dr. King, and that 70-some year old woman got angry enough and committed enough to end this hideous part of our history. And we ought not fail to honor the sacrifices they made to do it.

In what follows, I would like to articulate some principles for prophets, articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. For indeed, prophets are still needed today to speak out and work to end abortion, to address the lack of affordable housing, increasing threats to religious liberty, and to assist immigrants in the the legal morass that many of them face. Prophets too are needed to reach out to women in crisis pregnancy, to help secure the rights and dignity of the disabled, and to assist those returning from prison to reconnect with the community. Frankly there are endless opportunities where God needs to send his people to work for justice. In the principles that follow, lengthy though they are, Dr. King enunciates some basic understandings that all who would be prophets must grasp. Unless otherwise noted, all the quotes are from the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Principle 1: Non violence. One of the most fundamental principles for any prophet is that he loves God’s people; yes, even his enemies. A true prophet in this land, loves America, loves this land and what she stands for. A true prophet loves God and his kingdom and wants to effect a marriage between the God he loves and the people he loves.

Hence, no true prophet will advocate violence or destruction. He will advocate a non-violent resistance of what is evil and unjust. He does have an anger, but this anger is born in love and does not seek to do violence, even to the enemy.

This love of one’s enemy of course is difficult and irksome, but God can do this for us. Many in the Civil Rights movement often remarked that Dr. King taught, it was not enough simply not to retaliate, we were actually to love those who hated and feared us.

Dr. King writes:

So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” and “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?”

And elsewhere he wrote:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction….The chain reaction of evil –hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars –must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. (Strength to Love, 1963)

Principle 2: No Tension No Change – Generally people like to avoid tension. But as the prophets well knew, sometimes the role of a prophet is to introduce tension, and to be willing to hold it. Prophets are often called to ask uncomfortable questions, to “call the question” and point to inconsistency and hypocrisy. This usually makes people uncomfortable. But prophets must learn that the role of a true evangelizer is to comfort the afflicted AND afflict the comfortable. There are just some things that need to be confronted in a loving but clear way. And tension is part of the picture.

Dr. King writes:

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth….we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation….My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. And thus We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Principle 3: Now is the Time – (Holy Impatience). There is the tendency for a human being, so easily overwhelmed, to postpone what they know must happen. Many of the Founding Fathers of this country knew Slavery was a terrible blight on the vision they had articulated, and yet, for many reasons, facing the slavery issue was postponed. Then too even after slavery, a mitigated form of the same institution (Jim Crow) descend on the South, especially. African Americans were often counseled to “wait” and that justice would “inevitably” come. But there comes a moment when a holy impatience wells up in a people and God delivers a grace to transform that impatience into action. For those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, “wait” is not a legitimate instruction and it serves only to deepen injustice.

To those who seek justice in the question of abortion, in the selective abortion of the disabled, in the lack of affordable housing, in increasing unemployment and so forth, the question goes up: “Are you impatient enough? Angry enough? Hungry and thirsty enough? Do you have a holy impatience, or are you just going to watch the news, shake your head, say “Ain’t it awful…Someone ought to do something about that” ??

Of Holy Impatience, Dr. King writes:

For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” ….I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;…. when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

Principle 4: Persistence is the Key. It is not enough to get angry or be impatient for a moment. We have have to allow the Lord to put a deep hunger and thirst in us for what is right and be willing to stay committed to the course laid out for us in securing justice. Are you willing to go to bed tired? Are you will to say with the older woman quoted by Dr. King, “My feet is tired but my soul is at rest.” ??  It’s one thing to turn out to a pep rally and say “Yes!” But where will you be on Monday morning? Where will you be six months from now? An old spiritual laments: Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out. Will you persist in the work that needs to be done or just dabble in it?

Of Persistence, Dr. King writes:

We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

Principle 5: Silence is Unacceptable – Many years ago W.B. Yates wrote: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Too many supposed Christians remain silent in the face of injustice. Is it fear? Yes. Is it individualism that says, “Not my problem?” Yes. But in the end silence about injustice can come to equate to affirmation of that injustice.

Of the silence of the “elect” Dr. King writes:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

He wrote elsewhere:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy. (Atlanta recognition dinner -1965)

Principle 6: Creative Anger – Most of us are trained that anger is a sin. I can be. But not all anger is sinful. Jesus was often angry. There are some things worth being angry about. We have to recover a more distinguished notion anger that accepts that some anger is given by God as a creative energy, as passion to set things right. Most of the prophets exhibited anger, but it was an anger born in love for God and neighbor, for truth and justice. One of the most fundamental gifts of Dr. King was to able to tap into the legitimate anger of many who suffered and opposed segregation and racism, and to channel that energy to creative ends.

Of this creative anger, Dr. King writes:

The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out….If repressed emotions do not come out in nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, “Get rid of your discontent.” But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.

Principle 7: The Church must be lighthouse not a clubhouse – Too many parishes and churches exist more for the social purposes of the members than as true outposts of the Kingdom, where the Word of God shines forth to transform the community. The Sodality debates with the Knights over who gets to use the hall for an occasion, meanwhile the poor go uncared for and un-evangelized. Parishes exist in neighborhoods where thousands have never been called to Christ, where the poor and the downcast are uncared for, where poor and single mothers hear the call of the abortionist, not the local pastor. Meanwhile back at the parish the main even is to argue about who left the kitchen a mess and worry about paying for the new roof since our numbers are diminishing. Why are the numbers diminishing? Many reasons, but among them is that, increasingly, the Church is seen as irrelevant building in the neighborhood rather than a refuge for sinners and and a place to find solidarity and real solutions. Is your parish a clubhouse or a lighthouse?

Of this sad fact of too many churches and parishes, Dr. King writes:

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the Church. But be assured, my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the Church, how could I do otherwise. I am the son, and grandson and great grandson of preachers. . Yes, I see the Church as the Body of Christ. But Oh!, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being non-conformists. There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be intimidated. They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

Well, there you have it. I know it is a long article, but I pray, well worth reading. These are some important principles that Dr. King enunciated for those of us who are passionate for justice.

What about you? What are you passionate about? There are so many issues of justice that ought to concern us today: Unemployment, abortion, mothers in crisis pregnancy, affordable housing, dignity and help for immigrants, hunger, homelessness, the rights and dignity of the disabled and elderly, religious liberty and the list goes on.

But it’s not enough to say, ain’t it awful. The legacy of Dr. King and others like him is that on Monday morning, after the rousing Church service and call to Jesus, there must be a will to get out and do the work persistently and consistently. To say at the end of the day, “My feet is tired but my soul is at rest!”

Again, what of you? Next year in the diocese (I pray) and surely in my parish, the observance of the Birthday of Dr. King is going to have a practical aspect. Every one of our social ministries are going to be available to sign some new folks up for the Christian jubilee. And NO ONE ought to leave without committing to work in the area of justice that they are most passionate about and to which God summons them.

It is not enough to praise Dr. King. We have to imitate his example.

Hmm…My Feet Is Tired But My Soul Is At Rest