As a human being, King David was far from perfect. Yet, he embodied the principle that in Israel the king was to be a servant of the Lord and to rule in obedience to the Covenant that God made with Moses, which alone would bring peace and justice to the people. Beginning with his son Solomon, those who reigned after David’s death, more often than not came to embody the corrosive doctrine that the king was no longer under the rule of God, but above it. The age of the great Hebrew Prophets arose alongside the development of the institution of the Monarchy as a necessary antidote to the susceptibility of the monarch to rule as if he were above the Law and not subject to it. God anointed prophets as those called to speak truth to power; a message sometimes received and heeded but most times refused and ignored with disastrous results for the people. The 15th of January is the national commemoration of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King occupies a status of a modern day prophet in the lineage of the great Hebrew prophets. Like them he was one called to speak truth to power, one called to lead those in bondage into freedom. Like them, a man not universally accepted in his own time.
Both Christian and Jewish theology recognize that the age of Prophecy with a capital P is over. For Jews, the return of the exiles from Babylon signaled a seismic shift from prophet to scribe as the central conduit for God’s communication. Before the Exile, the prophet was a direct conduit for God to address the people, and particularly those in authority. Post-exilic Judaism became increasingly a text-based religion and the role of the scribe, embodied in the great figure of Ezra, indicates that it is now through the study and interpretation of the Law that God continues to address God’s people. For Christians, John the Baptist is the last of the Hebrew Prophets and with the coming of Jesus prophecy ceases. Although more than a prophet in the strict sense, nevertheless through Jesus the priorities of the great Hebrew Prophetic tradition continues to flow.
Martin Luther King is undoubtedly a prophet of our own time. The hallmark of this lies in the fact that his message brings hope to some yet in its speaking of truth to power, is hotly contended by others for no prophet is universally accepted in his own time and place. The prophet standing outside the center of power and influence calls for a response that often will be a response of violence – for the prophet speaks the words that the powerful refuse to hear. The prophetic message is always unsettling. If it is not, then it is not prophesy.
Martin Luther King became the catalyst for the movement we now call Civil Rights. On Thursday of last week, I and others from St Martin’s attended an interfaith celebration of Dr. King’s life during which his Six Principles of Nonviolence were addressed by six young men and women. Each spoke about one of Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence with the personal authority wrought from painful life experience. Students from the Rhode Island Philharmonic School and musicians from Grace Episcopal Church interspersed these reflections with beautiful and poignant musical offerings.
I believe we are once again entering a period of history when these Principles of Nonviolence will be seen to offer a universal message of hope and courage. Although there is but a confused picture of what will emerge with the Trump Presidency, what is clear is that liberal and progressive democracy’s championing of the ideals of inclusion, truth telling, and the connection between personal integrity and public policy is now being treated with open contempt. Therefore, many of us must now emerge from a period of shock and grief into a new civil rights struggle. We will need to atone for our conceit in thinking that virtue is our automatic right, something that should come to us without cost. Ideals naively assumed, must now be tenaciously defended. The arc of the moral universe, whatever the inevitability of its long-term trajectory towards justice, at particular times in history has required from human beings the loud voice of protest and the courage to resist in the face of forces that seek to impede its progress.
In Isaiah 41:1-16, we hear the voice of the Second Isaiah proclaim that God has roused a victor from the east (Nebuchadnezzar) to trample kings under foot. This is a message intended for the ears of Zedekiah King of Judah, whose foreign policy meddling has caused the crisis that would lead to the destruction of the nation. Yet, into the face of impending crisis Isaiah’s prophecy is one of hope and trust in God’s continued faithfulness to the covenant with his people.
Amidst the prediction of travail the prophet offers words that keep the dream alive amidst the uncertainties and regressions of the present time. However, prophets do more than predict doom and gloom, even if the doom and gloom is a necessary prerequisite for the renewal of vision and hopeful purpose. Prophets also offer practical words of advice about how to survive in such times. In chapter 29, the prophet Jeremiah offers this advice to those going into exile:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
In Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence, we have the practical advice from a prophet about the nature of protest and resistance in a time of struggle. In the face of forces that seek to dominate through fear, to rule through the creation of competitive division, nonviolence becomes a way of life for courageous people. It cultivates friendship and understanding, seeks to defeat injustice not people, sees suffering as educative and transformational, chooses love instead of giving in to hate and believes that the universe is on the side of justice.
The first line uttered by Jesus in John’s Gospel – the portion of which we read on the second Sunday after the Epiphany being with the words: What are you looking for? Andrew and John answer Jesus with another question: Where are you staying? Jesus simply says: Come and see.
Jesus asks us in this moment, this time, and in this place: what is it you seek- what is it you are looking for? What is our answer to be? Do we have the courage to ask: Lord show us where you are staying. For this will mean not only: Lord show us where we can endure and find stability in the face of uncertainty and disconcerting change, but: show us how we are to survive and pay the cost of keeping protest alive? As with Andrew and John, the first two whose curiosity led them to heed Jesus’ call to discipleship, where will our response to Lord’s inevitable invitation to: Come and see,- lead us?
We know where it led Andrew and John and the others who joined them in the band of disciples. Wherever Jesus’ words of invitation lead us, we will need to travel with Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence as lanterns for our feet. We will need the Six Principles of Nonviolence as lights to guide our way, ensuring that our resistance must become more than answering evil with more evil, violence with more violence, contempt with a double dose of contempt in return. We will need to remember that despite trying times, justice is never served through unworthy means. Dr. King reminds us that:
The ultimate measure of a man (sic) is not where he (sic) stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.