A Reflection on a Sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Refuting Atheistic Materialism

World Telegram & Sun photo by D. DeMarsico

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we commemorate on Monday, is best known as a civil rights leader who worked to end racial injustice, but he had other things to say as he preached each Sunday, first in his own assembly and later as he spoke around the country.

Among his recorded sermons is one in which Dr. King addressed the problem of unbelief, of materialism and atheism. His reflections are well worth pondering today because the problem is even more widespread now than it was when he made these remarks in 1957. A complete transcript of the sermon is available here: The Man Who Was a Fool.

In this sermon, Dr. King commented on Jesus’ parable of the wealthy man who had a huge harvest and, instead of sharing it, just built bigger barns to hold the excess. The Lord called him a fool for thinking that his material wealth could provide security.

Following are excerpts from this sermon, with Dr. King’s words shown in bold, black italics and my comments displayed in plain red text. After discussing several reason why the man was a fool, Dr. King said,

Jesus [also] called the rich man a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God. He talked as though he unfolded the seasons and provided the fertility of the soil, controlled the rising and the setting of the sun, and regulated the natural processes that produce the rain and the dew. He had an unconscious feeling that he was the Creator, not a creature.

Having discovered the inner realities of many processes, the materialistic atheist fails to ask more fundamental questions such as “Where does the cosmos ultimately come from?” and “What is the ultimate destiny of all things?” Having found some answers, he mistakes them for the ultimate answers; they are not.

There is no problem with a scientist saying that these sorts of questions lie beyond science, that science is only focused on material and efficient causality. Each discipline does have its area of focus. The error of scientism is in its claims that science alone explains all reality; it does not.

The usual response of those who ascribe to scientism (not all scientists do) to questions that science cannot answer is to dismiss them or to say that one day science will find an answer. When we, who are obviously creatures and contingent beings, dismiss our Creator, we are displaying either hardness of heart or a form of madness. Such a dismissal is neither rational nor reasonable.

This man-centered foolishness has had a long and oftentimes disastrous reign in the history of mankind. Sometimes it is theoretically expressed in the doctrine of materialism, which contends that reality may be explained in terms of matter in motion, that life is “a physiological process with a physiological meaning,” that man is a transient accident of protons and electrons traveling blind, that thought is a temporary product of gray matter, and that the events of history are an interaction of matter and motion operating by the principle of necessity.

Dr. King describes here the problem of reductionism, in which things are reduced to matter alone and attributed entirely to material causes. This view holds that even concepts such as justice, meaning, and beauty must somehow be explained materially in terms of their cause. The human soul that knows immaterial things does mediate its thoughts through the brain and the central nervous system, but it does not follow that the medium is the cause. It does not pertain to matter to be the cause of what is spiritual.

Having no place for God or for eternal ideas, materialism is opposed to both theism and idealism. This materialistic philosophy leads inevitably into a dead-end street in an intellectually senseless world. To believe that human personality is the result of the fortuitous interplay of atoms and electrons is as absurd as to believe that a monkey by hitting typewriter keys at random will eventually produce a Shakespearean play. Sheer magic!

Many atheists think they have solved this conundrum, but I think that they “solve” it with a set of assumptions so outlandish and unproven that it requires far more “faith” to accept them than to believe in an intelligent designer and creator.

The statistical possibility that things could come together “by chance” to form complex life—let alone intelligent life—and not just once but at least twice (for reproduction’s sake) is minuscule! (As Dr. King says, “Sheer magic!”) Those who demand we accept this explanation are far more credulous than are believers, who observe the intricate design of creation and conclude (reasonably) that there is an intelligent creator.

It is much more sensible to say with Sir James Jeans, the physicist, that “the universe seems to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine,” or with Arthur Balfour, the philosopher, that “we now know too much about matter to be materialists.” Materialism is a weak flame that is blown out by the breath of mature thinking. Exactly! The universe shouts its design and intelligence.

Another attempt to make God irrelevant is found in non-theistic humanism, a philosophy that deifies man by affirming that humanity is God. Man is the measure of all things. Many modern men who have embraced this philosophy contend, as did Rousseau, that human nature is essentially good. Evil is to be found only in institutions, and if poverty and ignorance were to be removed everything would be all right. The twentieth century opened with such a glowing optimism. Men believed that civilization was evolving toward an earthly paradise.

The Catholic faith defines this error as utopianism and pseudo-messianism.

Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism (Catechism of the Catholic Church #675-676).

We all know what a bloodbath the 20th century became—so much for man being his own measure!

Herbert Spencer skillfully molded the Darwinian theory of evolution into the heady idea of automatic progress. Men became convinced that there is a sociological law of progress which is as valid as the physical law of gravitation. Possessed of this spirit of optimism, modern man broke into the storehouse of nature and emerged with many scientific insights and technological developments that completely revolutionized the earth. The achievements of science have been marvelous, tangible and concrete. …

[But] Man’s aspirations no longer turned Godward and heavenward. Rather, man’s thoughts were confined to man and earth. And man offered a strange parody on the Lord’s Prayer:

“Our brethren which art upon the earth, Hallowed be our name. Our kingdom come. Our will be done on earth, for there is no heaven.”

Those who formerly turned to God to find solutions for their problems turned to science and technology, convinced that they now possessed the instruments needed to usher in the new society.

Scripture says, Claiming to be wise they became fools and their senseless minds were darkened (Rom 1:22).

Then came the explosion of this myth. It climaxed in the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and in the fierce fury of fifty-megaton bombs. Now we have come to see that science can give us only physical power, which, if not controlled by spiritual power, will lead inevitably to cosmic doom.

Atheists are forever pointing out how many lives were lost in the name of religion. However, those numbers are not even close to those claimed in the bloodbath ushered in by atheistic materialists.

The words of Alfred the Great are still true: “Power is never a good unless he be good that has it.” We need something more spiritually sustaining and morally controlling than science. It is an instrument that, under the power of God’s spirit, may lead man to greater heights of physical security, but apart from God’s spirit, science is a deadly weapon that will lead only to deeper chaos. Make it plain, Dr. King!

Why fool ourselves about automatic progress and the ability of man to save himself? We must lift up our minds and eyes unto the hills from whence comes our true help. Then, and only then, will the advances of modern science be a blessing rather than a curse. Without dependence on God our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. Unless his spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G.K. Chesterton called “cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

Notice that Dr. King called upon two Catholic intellectuals (St. Alfred the Great and G.K. Chesterton) to be his witnesses.

Unfortunately, the rich man [in the parable] did not realize this. He, like many men of the twentieth century, became so involved in big affairs and small trivialities that he forgot God. He gave the finite infinite significance and elevated a preliminary concern to ultimate standing. After the rich man had accumulated his vast resources of wealth—at the moment when his stocks were accruing the greatest interest and his palatial home was the talk of the town—he came to that experience which is the irreducible common denominator of all men, death.

At every funeral I say to the mourners, “You are going to die.” Then I tell them that we must get ready, not with more things but with more God.

The fact that he died at this particular time adds verve and drama to the story, but the essential truth of the parable would have remained the same had he lived to be as old as Methuselah. Even if he had not died physically, he was already dead spiritually. The cessation of breathing was a belated announcement of an earlier death. He died when he failed to keep a line of distinction between the means by which he lived and the ends for which he lived and when he failed to recognize his dependence on others and on God.

May it not be that the “certain rich man” is Western civilization? Rich in goods and material resources, our standards of success are almost inextricably bound to the lust for acquisition.

The means by which we live are marvelous indeed. And yet something is missing. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.

An Oriental writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms:

“You call your thousand material devices ‘labor-saving machinery,’ yet you are forever ‘busy.’ With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more; and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else. You have a machine to dig the raw material for you, a machine to manufacture [it], a machine to transport [it], a machine to sweep and dust, one to carry messages, one to write, one to talk, one to sing, one to play at the theater, one to vote, one to sew, and a hundred others to do a hundred other things for you, and still you are the most nervously busy man in the world. Your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.” So true!

…The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided man. Like the rich man of old, we have foolishly minimized the internal of our lives and maximized the external. We have absorbed life in livelihood.

Yes, we have maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.

We will not find peace in our generation until we learn anew that “a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses,” but in those inner treasuries of the spirit which “no thief approaches, neither moth corrupts.” Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to re-establish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments. Our generation cannot escape the question of our Lord: What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul? Amen!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Reflection on a Sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Refuting Atheistic Materialism

Love Your Enemies, says the Lord; I am Coming Soon!

There is a specific depiction of Christ known as Christ Pantocrator.  It was widespread in the ancient world and still is today. The title “Pantocrator” is most often translated as “The Almighty One” or “The Omnipotent One.” It comes from the Greek words παντός (pantos, meaning all) and κράτος (kratos, meaning strength, might, or power).

In the particular image at right, Christ is seated (as a sign of authority). In many of the specific images he holds a book, sometimes open and sometimes closed. If the book is open, there can be a few of many different texts displayed. In some of the images there is an interesting juxtaposition of texts meant to provoke thought and lead to both catechesis and repentance.

Among the more interesting and provocative juxtapositions of texts is the one commonly used in the Neocatechumenal communities (see above right). On the left-hand page of the open book is the Gospel from today’s mass (Tue. of 11th Week), in which Jesus says, “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). On the right is the one in which Jesus says, “I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:7).

Provocative, indeed—and a sober call repentance! It is hard to see how we could hope to enter Heaven with hatred or vengeful anger for our enemies in our heart. With that eating away at our heart it wouldn’t be Heaven! Therefore, we should consider our final end and beg for the grace to love our enemies by praying for them, working for their conversion, and supplying their basic human needs (cf Rom 12:20; Prov. 25:21). Our goal is to be at one with them in Heaven, and even here in this life if it be possible and rooted in the truth.

Jesus sets apart the love of one’s enemies as the “acid test” for Christians:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:44-48).

There’s nothing like a passage such as this one to get us on our knees asking for grace and mercy! Indeed, we will surely fail if we seek to love our enemies only through the power of our own flesh or from our own fallen nature.

Jesus is coming soon and He will look for this fruit in us. All the more reason, then, to ask it of Him:

Good Jesus, who alone can save me from my hard heart, grant me the grace to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me. I am too weak, self-centered, and thin-skinned to do it on my own. I consent, good and merciful Jesus, to this work of yours in me. Accomplish this, Lord, by your grace!

Love your enemies; He is coming soon!

Thoughts on Science and Faith From an Unexpected Source

Generally, when I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I presume that I will be seeking answers or insights into racial justice, and significant issues of poverty and the social Gospel. Yet recently, I came across some quotes which cast light on the relationship of science and faith, another critical issue in our time. Allow me to share three such quotes and then provide a little commentary of my own.

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
From The Measure of a Man, 1958

To place this quote in a philosophical framework, Dr. King is here referring here firstly to the fact that the created world, including each of us is contingent. As a contingent being, I do not explain myself. I owe my existence to another, first of all my parents. Something and someone distinct from me, and often out of sight, is the reason for my existence. I neither explain myself, nor do I cause myself to be.

My parents are both deceased now. Thus they are out of sight, and not to be found in this world. Yet they clearly did exist in this world at one time, for I am here.

The whole created world also has this quality. It is clearly here. But it does not explain itself. It is contingent, and could just as well be as not be.

Scientists are able to trace currently existing things back only so far, and then it hits a wall. It can look back approximately 13.7 billion years.  And the further back we go, the current stars and galaxies were but pure and very compressed energy. As we journey all the way back, all of creation was in an extremely hot and dense state of pure energy called singularity. Beyond this we cannot see.

What caused it to suddenly expand? What put it there in the first place? These are questions that lie beyond science and what Dr. King means when he says that everything we see is a shadow cast by what we do not see. And that which we do not see, beyond matter and space and time, we call God.

Dr. King’s quote also refers to something that philosophy calls efficient causality, and also, to some extent, formal causality. There are basically four kinds of causality distinguished in classical philosophy :

  1. Material Causality – Material causality refers to the physical matter, to the raw materials that cause something to be, for example the bronze of a statue.
  2. Formal Causality – Speaks to what a thing is intended to do or be based on what the intent of the maker or creator is in making it the way it is.  For example a bronze statue has its form based on what it is meant to convey, perhaps a the likeness of a person. Hence the intent of an artisan to convey a likeness, say of Dr. Martin Luther King, will give rise, (or cause) the statue’s form in terms of shape, design, and other more specific features so that the final shape actually resembles Dr. King.
  3. Efficient Causality – Refers to the external entity from which the thing or act first proceeds. That is, the primary source of the thing or action. In the case of a bronze Statue, the efficient cause is the artisan, the sculptor
  4. Final Causality – speaks to that for the sake of which a thing is done, the end reason, the purpose, or end, that something is supposed to serve. In the example of our statue, the final cause may be beauty itself, or to inculcate a memory of the person the statue recalls.

Perhaps you can see that the physical sciences are best at dealing with material causality but not well equipped at all to answer questions related to intent (formal cause), ultimate origins (efficient cause) and ultimate ends or purposes (final cause). Science is good at answering questions like “what” and “how (from a material point of view),” but poor at answering the question “why” and dealing with the issues of intent and the ultimate end of things.

Dr. King’s quote here discloses the limits of science; It can investigate the shadows, but it cannot see beyond to the one who casts the shadows.

Despite these noted limits to material sciences, there are many in our time who refuse to admit there is anything beyond what the physical sciences can measure. To use Dr. King’s analogy, while investigating the shadows, they deny, in effect, that there is anything casting the shadow. They deny there is a world beyond the material world that the physical sciences measures.

Let me be clear that not all scientists, or even most, do this, but those who do so are often loud and public. I will also grant that the physical sciences, as disciplines, must limit their study and conclusions to the physical world. But there is an error called “scientism” which claims there is no real or valid knowledge beyond what the empirical and physical sciences can prove. This is a horribly reductionist view, but it is gaining popularity today.

But let us also be clear, the universe does not explain itself. It’s existence is contingent and depends on someone or something outside itself to explain its exists. If science can investigate the “shadows” then something must be casting the shadows. That something (Someone) we call, God.

Where science cannot go, theology, faith and philosophy can, pondering the questions of what lies beyond the physical. We call this the metaphysical (meta=beyond), and it examines and ponders questions of design and intent, purpose, some of the qualities of the designer, ethical responses etc., all based on the premise that creation is intelligible and that intelligibility bespeaks intelligence. We strive to learn of the intelligent Creator who lies beyond, based on what he has created.

As such faith and theology (and to some extent philosophy) do not compete with science, they compliment it. And this leads us to Dr. King’s second quote:

Science investigates religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power, religion gives man wisdom which is control. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism, and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.” – Strength to Love

Yes, both disciplines are needed. Without science, faith can devolve away from reality into mere abstractions, generalities and ideas. But God has always insisted that we live in the very physical world he has created. We ignore physical reality to our peril. The Catholic Faith, in particular, emphasizes the incarnation, that the Word became flesh. Further we reverence creation and make extensive use of it in our worship and we speak of the “book of creation,” thereby indicating that we see creation as a revelation from God. If we can learn of this created world, we can discover more of God who created it. Hence, true faith values science an the insights it provides. And since the truth is ultimately one, true faith should not fear true science.

But science needs faith too, for science runs the risk of idolizing itself. To think that matter is all there is, is a serious and reductionist error. Even before debates of an existing God, science must admit that justice cannot be found under a microscope or weighed in a balance. Love does not tip physical scales. Mercy is not found on the table of elements. Longing cannot be measured by an electric meter; neither can loyalty, bravery, selflessness.  Though not physical, these things are very real. And even if science can claim to find a certain area of the brain which lights up when these realities are considered, science cannot explain the origin of these non-material concepts and realities or where they come from in a purely material world. There is simply more to life than matter.

Dr. King also warns of the moral nihilism that can result if science, or politics refuses to admit the existence of a higher authority beyond and above itself. And this leads to the third quote:

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. – Strength to Love 1963

Yes, science and technology are wonderful things. But if they are a closed system, unanswerable to anything higher or beyond, the “possible” becomes its own justification. Science without ethics or morals, without a higher end to which it is subject, can too easily devolve into devilish destruction. That something is possible, does not make it right or proper. But our science can fuel our pride. And while pride is not a scientific error itself, science unchecked by the notion that we are accountable to justice, and ultimately to God himself, can lead to some very dark places. The partial control that science supplies is no control at all if we cannot control our very selves.

Just a few thoughts on Science and faith based on some Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo Credit: Creative Photography Magazine

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

MLK Day– A day for us to celebrate the ethnic diversity of our Church

I was born less than a year after Martin Luther King was assassinated. I have only the stories of my parents, aunts and uncles to feed my memory of Dr. King’s legacy. However, I am old enough to remember the effort to make his birthday a national holiday. I am old enough to remember how opponents argued that there is no way Dr. King should be honored in the same way we honor presidents or Columbus. I was even old enough to attend a rally or two. Between my parents generation, my generation and the generation of the students I teach now, America has come a long way. So, why should the Church celebrate MLK day?

We’ve come this far

Here is why the Church should celebrate this day. A few months ago, a very close friend, who happens to be a priest, was visiting my school in Baltimore. My school is a historically African-American Catholic institution. Just before lunch, I took him into the school’s chapel and pointed out that for many years, the Saint Frances Academy Chapel was one of the few places in Maryland that Black Catholics could attend Mass without sitting in the back or in the balcony. It was one of the only places where they could sit close to the Eucharist during the consecration. This priest is approximately my age and we thanked God that neither of us as African-American Catholics had to ever experience such an indignity.

Still a long way to go

Later, we went to lunch and though I was in a shirt and tie, my friend was wearing a very traditional black suit and roman collar. As we were finishing lunch, I asked him in front of the waitress, “Father, would you like some coffee?” The waitress interrupted and said, “Father? I thought only Catholic ministers were called ‘Father’.”

I have a dream!

I am blessed to serve at a very diverse parish. St. Mark the Evangelist in Hyattsville is truly an ethnic cross-section of Catholicism. It is place were the blending of cultures is a challenge. Many parishioners had to get use to me asking, “Can I get an amen?” during a homily. I had to get used to the fact that our masses are only an hour. Almost all of us have learned a little Spanish on Sunday morning. In any case, any Mass at St. Mark’s is a glimpse of Dr. King’s dream for a peaceful America. Let us pray that our Church as a whole can be a model for Dr. King’s dream.

What Was A Prophet Like?

We often like to read from and quote the prophets. But if you’ve ever met a real prophet you know that being in the presence of a real prophet can be very disturbing. Prophets were famous for goring every one’s ox. No one left the presence of a prophet untouched. So troubling were the prophets of old, including Jesus, that most of them were persecuted, jailed, stoned, exiled and killed. Most of the Biblical prophets were beyond controversial they were way over the top. Prophets denounced sin and injustice in the strongest language announcing doom to a nation that refused to repent. Many Israelites thus considered them unpatriotic and downright dangerous. They justified throwing them into prison for their lack of patriotism and for the way their words questioned and upset the status quo and the judgements of those who held power. To many,  these were dangerous men who had to be stopped.

Jesus, though essentially our savior, also adopted the role of a prophet. Listen to these words as he denounces the people of his day for their rejection of his prophetic message. In this they are just like their fore-bearers who rejected the prophets:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’ Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out! You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you avoid being sentenced to Hell?!  (Matt 23:29ff)

Many of us today like to think that, had we lived in Jesus’ time we would surely be on his side. But, truth be told, prophets can be hard to endure and Jesus had “difficult” things to say for everyone. Honestly, most of us struggle with the truth to some extent. And especially we moderns who prefer a more gentle discourse with large doses of honey and very little vinegar.  We probably would wince as we walked along with Jesus. Jesus was more “plain spoken” than we are usually comfortable with. If we are honest, when we read the prophets and Jesus we will come away with much to repent of.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Consider this video clip. It is of a modern prophet named Vernon Johns. In the early 1950s he was Pastor of the Dexter Avenue  Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. The Black Congregation that hired him was a rather sleepy congregation. In the face of rather awful racial discrimination, they preferred to remain silent and therefore safe. Vernon Johns tried to wake them from their sleep, but to no avail. They were too afraid (yet) to take a prophetic stand. Eventually Vernon Johns was arrested as a trouble maker and the Board of Deacons fired him. But Johns had laid a foundation for the next Pastor of Dexter Baptist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Within a few years Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and the Bus Boycott was on. The rest is history. This clip is of VernonJohns final sermon where in finest prophetic tradition he denounces racism. But NO ONE escapes his vivid denunciations. Watch this clip and behold what it must have been like with the prophets of old, even Jesus. Behold the prophet!  No one escapes! In the end of the  clip, his daughter who had stood against her Father’s zeal sings “Go Down Moses.” The choir director who had also opposed him likewise stands to sing. The seed is planted even as the prophet is led away by the police.