The view from King’s mountaintop. Deuteronomy 34:1-8 The Lord said to Moses,“I have let you see the Promised Land, but you shall not cross over there.”
Martin Luther King saw everything very clearly. He always did. He saw it all very clearly that April night in 1968 in Memphis where he went to support the striking sanitation workers. Exactly one year before, to the day, King had given a speech at Riverside Church in NYC denouncing the war in Vietnam. That speech probably sealed his fate, and he knew it—King saw everything very clearly. He always knew who he was dealing with, as Blacks in this White society all do.
That April night, with a thunder storm threatening, King assured his audience that longevity was of no concern to him. Because, he had been to the mountaintop. He had reached heights from which to see the goal, he could see the Promised Land. He could see clearly that night, that to which he had dedicated his life, even though he would not experience the hoped for fulfilment along with everybody else. On what turned out to be the last night of his life, Rev. King was referring to Moses who had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and through the travail of the wilderness to freedom. Moses only got to Mt. Nebo overlooking the Jordan River and Jericho and further. He would die before the entrance into the Promised Land, and another would lead the Israelites to the goal, which King saw very clearly was to be his fate as well. “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
King’s view from the mountaintop contained God’s purpose for him–a peaceable kingdom, the beloved community. King felt it in his bones, he knew it in his soul, very clearly could he see the goal. Having a vision colors everything around you and puts everything very clearly in perspective. His voice shook with emotion that night, he saw very clearly the danger he was in, but he never wavered from his purpose. God allowed him to reach the mountaintop. But no further. We don’t know why. Except that in King’s case, the forces against him which he had always seen, closed in. We are most familiar with King through his public addresses with the unique cadences of his oratory, as in the Memphis speech. But we are less familiar with his writing. It was always an education to listen to him, but it’s even more true when reading him. That King saw clearly what America aspired to be and what America actually was comes across even more so in his writing, revealing not only a visionary man, but a sober analyst who understood precisely the enormity of the evil against which God called him to fight. The book chosen as the theme for tomorrow’s Newton King Day observance is “Where Do We Go from Here–Chaos or Community” is a case in point.
King was an equal opportunity critic. He nailed white liberals who are never sure they want to pay the price of their convictions. In a prescient anticipation of January 6th, he nailed the white supremacist, who, he wrote, held that “democracy was not worth having if it involves equality with the Negro.” He wrote that in 1967, and today we are seeing that demonstrated in real time. Better to trash the government and the benefits of democracy if we must share this country with Blacks.
Reading Rev. King, you encounter a poetic mind, a phrase maker, using parallelism, paradox, searching analysis, and biblical clinchers. He draws extensively from philosophers and theologians, from history and historical sources. His reading of history, for instance, taught him that “the hope of the world is in dedicated minorities.” Who should take note of this insight? King was urging the churches to rediscover their (our) prophetic vocation and to “lift up their voices like a trumpet.” King cited a distinction made between the enforceable obligations of a society, laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that he fought for, on the one hand, and the unenforceable obligations of the heart and soul, on the other. Changing hearts and souls lies in the religious domain.
Expanding access to the right to vote, of course, was Martin Luther King’s great success, but fifty years later, in the wake of Citizens United and after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, with white supremacy invading the Capitol, with Christian nationalism in religious ascendancy, the fight is back on to protect free and open access to the ballot. The very integrity of our elections must be secured all over again. The landscape has changed since King wrote. Black Power of King’s day has been replaced by rap, the new Freedom song. Today, post-George Floyd police murder, whites know the score all too clearly, even if many do not admit it. A magnifying glass has been put to the absolutely appalling history whites have put Blacks through every year of the last 400 years since 1619. In the book of that title, a project of the New York Times by Prof. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the record is very clear. Only facing and owning such bitter truths will make America free. But you can be sure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King clearly saw everything recorded in this book, and knew what he was up against.
Now we are the owners of that knowledge, and white privilege is howling out about critical race theory. They know it’s true, Everybody knows, we live in the aftermath of slavery. Its effects must be reversed. The descendants of the enslaved must be acknowledged for their history, respected for their humanity, and compensated for their loss. Nobody knows what form or value this might take, but it cannot be determined without full and fair study and debate. H.R. 40, a bill to fund the study of reparations for slavery has yet to be passed in the U.S. Congress. The way things look today, it never will pass. Therefore, reparations to Blacks and Indigenous peoples may fall into the zone of those unenforceable obligations which belong to religious communities like ours. It will be our job to open people’s hearts and souls to the obligation to make right these mangled relationships. Start by getting over this “where’s-the-money-coming-from-and-who-is-going-to-be-paid” mentality. There’s a petty quid-pro-quo logic out there that just stops the conversation. Let’s replace the word “reparation” with “repair.” Repair regressive legislation. Think of strategic, structural changes like changing the way we fund public education. Repair urban communities–that’s why Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries was founded by Chuck Harper. King and James Baldwin spoke the same language, which is our language–“Blacks and whites are part of each other.” The whole challenge has now been forced back into the territory of the religious institutions.
Whoever chose the sculptor and image of Martin Luther King for his memorial in Washington, they did the right thing. It looks as though Rev. King were thinking, “Well, America, what are you going to do now? And, Eliot Church in Newton, just what do you plan to do about racism in America?” So let’s join Rev. King on the mountaintop, even if we, like him, don’t get to the Promised Land. Let your vision be clear and God’s purpose firm in your heart.