Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself. . .
Easter Sunday this year coincides with a somber anniversary. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. The Sunday before his death–Palm Sunday–Dean Francis Sayre and Canon Missioner John T. Walker had invited King to preach at Washington National Cathedral. His sermon’s themes are strikingly resonant with all we are grappling today. Here is a video recording of his sermon, worthy of your time as we enter Holy Week. The look in his eyes will stay with you.
While King’s memory is now universally revered, it’s helpful to remember that by1968, many were questioning his influence and approach to social justice. Among black leaders, there was growing disillusion with non-violent resistance as an effective strategy to address entrenched racism, while some of King’s former political allies, including President Johnson, were furious at him for speaking out against the Vietnam War.
In that fateful week, those closest to King were concerned for his physical safety and emotional well-being. They urged him to rest. Yet he was determined to honor the commitments he had made; first, to make a case from the Cathedral pulpit for the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign, in which King planned to bring a large multi-racial crowd to Washington; and second, to march with black sanitation workers in Memphis for safe working conditions and a living wage.
He titled his sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” to underscore the importance of paying attention to what’s happening in our country. “One of the great liabilities of life,” he said, “is that all too many people find themselves living amid a period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitude, the new mental responses that the situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Surely we are still living through the revolution King described 53 years ago, and we are still struggling, as a people and a species, to rise to what God longs for us to become and to do.
King saw more clearly than most how we are bound to one another, that salvation is not personal, but a collective reality:
We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason 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, this is the way it is structured.1
You can hear in King’s voice and see in his eyes how the persistence of racial injustice, racist attitudes, and resistance to change among white Americans was a source of deep disappointment for him. From the Cathedral pulpit he lamented:
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle–the disease of racism permeates and poisons the body politic. . . The roots of racism are very deep in this country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to rid the effects of racism and the tragedies of racial injustice.2
King knew then what is still true today, that there is nothing passive or inevitable about the work for racial justice. “Somewhere we must come to see,” he said, “that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
King’s vision of the Beloved Community–what Jesus called the Kingdom of God realized on earth–extended beyond race to include the suffering of all people, and in particular, the poor. By 1968, he had dedicated himself to the eradication of poverty for all people, no matter their race or nationality: “Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. . . and in our own nation. I have seen it in the ghettos in the North, in the rural areas of the South, and in Appalachia. I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying.”
King was clear that something dramatic needed to be done to stir the conscience of this country. “It is our experience that this nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine inequality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively and dramatically.” In those last days, he poured all that he had into the effort to awaken us.
Reading and listening to King’s words, it is not hard to draw parallels to the ways we are being confronted now–massively and dramatically–by events and movements that are challenging us to stay awake and respond. Given the magnitude of what we’re facing, it would be easy for us to fall into despair, cynicism or apathy. King certainly had every reason to do that, but he refused. “I will not yield to a politic of despair,” he declared. “I am going on with the determination to make America the truly great America it is called to be.” If King could maintain hope in us and in our future, surely we can do our part now.
Yet as in all ways we are called to be brave, we do not do this work alone. In fact, it is not our work, but God’s in and through us. King knew that. He concluded his Palm Sunday with a word about his deep, abiding faith in God, and he called us to that same faith. He prayed that we might join God in order to bring about a new day of justice, beloved community, and peace. “On that day,” he said, “the morning stars will sing together and the children of God will shout for joy.”3