Vocation of Agony: A Personal Meditation on Dr. King’s Legacy
by Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
[Ed. Note: The following article will appear in the Spring 2008 issue of Fellowship magazine, and is offered here online in the context of this week’s observance of the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Click here to subscribe to Fellowship.]
Sitting in our favorite coffeehouse, Tyler Jared, my eldest son, and I are having our “man time.” I am sipping a cappuccino and he is drinking some orange concoction. We stare into one another’s eyes, with an occasional “What?” breaking our silence. We are excited to see each other and saddened by the time we have spent apart. I hold a deep sense of calling that has taken me around the world, but away from him and his siblings. He has grown so much. He is now taller than me, his 13-year-old face starting to break out with pimples, voice cracking, but he is still my baby. I hold his hand and run my fingers through his golden locks. It embarrasses him, but he does not stop me, because I am Dad.
He interrupts the silence. “Dad, everyone knows you want to be like Martin Luther King.”
Blushing and flattered, I respond with a flat attempt at humility. “No, no, son, I am just trying to stand in tradition that keeps track of human. . .”
Annoyed, Tyler cuts me off. “No, Dad, everyone knows.” He raises an eyebrow. “You risk arrest,” he states. (He is reminding me of the scolding he gave me for being arrested at the White House, when, to his chagrin, his teenage cohorts saw me being handcuffed on television. I was not practicing what I preached, since I always told him to stay out trouble, and then went and got myself arrested!)
“You organize other preachers. You talk about world peace.” After a pregnant pause, he announces, “But you are not that good at it!” Before I can defend myself – and the entire project of freedom – he notes: “You know that they started another war in Lebanon. Did you know that?”
To my surprise, Tyler had been paying attention to world affairs, including Israel’s bombing in Lebanon in the summer of 2005. He was clear that if I had been “good at it” there would not be yet another war in the Middle East.
With the wisdom of a teenager, Tyler concludes, “Look, you should give speeches about it and write a book about it. But you are not that good at making it happen.” And I am left speechless.
Another generation of Clergy and Laity Concerned
On April 4, 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King issued to America yet another stirring warning, responding to her terrible engagement against the people of Vietnam:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. … We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
At the Riverside Church in New York City on March 21, 2005 – the same venue where Dr. King had delivered his hallmark “A Time to Break the Silence” speech almost 40 years earlier – I became the founding national coordinator of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq. Representing over 300 faith-based institutions working to end the war in Iraq, CALC-I filled a void of silence by religious leaders that had been evident in the first two years of the war. Less than six months after our founding, CALC-I and our parent organization, United for Peace and Justice, the nation’s largest peace coalition, organized the largest civil disobedience at the White House since the start of the war. Over 370 people were arrested, including 60 clergy. Among the arrestees were Cornel West and distinguished theologian Walter Wink. Yet, we now are entering in the sixth year of the war in Iraq, and due to my poor leadership and to under-funding, CALC-I, like King, is dead. Perhaps Tyler was right.
Dr. King proclaimed in one of his final sermons, “Somewhere we must come to see 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.” The goal of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was “to redeem the soul of the nation.” The soul of a nation is its social structures, political discourse, and quality of life – democracy.
In what is considered his most “dangerous” speech – “A Time to Break the Silence” – King employed the tortured phrase “vocation of agony.” King named the challenge of calling upon god in the struggle for social justice. He gave this speech in the midst of death threats, repudiation from SCLC’s board, and merciless attacks in the mainstream and African-American media. A major task of King’s public speech was to rebel against the monopoly on religious discourse shaped by conservative religious individuals and institutions, thereby creating space for the revelation of the prophetic god:
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate for our limited vision, but we must speak..
King carved out a place where the task of religion is to challenge the role of government. His notion of “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” highlighted the role of the United States in both the manipulation of foreign governments and its treatment of the poor (at home and abroad) that has led to a crisis in American democracy.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
This speech was not simply about American foreign policy gone awry but about the very nature of religion and democracy. The role of government in the lives of the poor throughout the world was addressed by his courageous oration. It is centered on a belief that religion and democracy are in dialogue with one another. This dialogue has led to the production of the religious precedent for democratic expansion.
With his chariot waiting in the “hither lands,” King, in his last sermon – delivered on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee – linked religion, democracy, and social protest. After a synoptic survey of human social protest and intellectual ingenuity, thereby situating his public ministry and democracy in an intimate conversation with the plight of the Memphis sanitation workers and their strike, King responded to the injunction placed on their march:
We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.
Continuing his theology of democracy and the role of clergy, he posed a rhetorical question, “Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher?” Quoting the prophets of justice, Amos and Isaiah, he acknowledged the presence of clergy from around the country, highlighting the economic boycott work of a young Jesse Jackson. Celebrating “relevant ministry,” he challenged religious leaders to be concerned with this world’s poverty and injustice.
Today, the sermons of presidential candidate Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, have placed race and religion at the center of the public debate once again. Rev. Wright’s critique of U.S. foreign policy stands square with King’s prophetic voice. So hot were Wright’s words that the candidate had to distance himself, and so true that he could not disown the prophet.
Honoring King’s legacy
What does it mean to honor the legacy of Dr. King? Maybe, it means moving into projects of Chicago and living with gang members in their tenement slums, as he did in 1966. King lived off $6,000 a year with four children because he believed in serving the poor over personal gain. He took a $1 (one dollar!) annual salary from SCLC. It is often noted that he had three suits the last year of his life and that he washed out his dress shirt in the sink at night to have it clean for his next speaking engagement. King gave every dime he had to the movement, including the $100,000-plus award that accompanied his Nobel Peace Prize. When rebuked by his own board at SCLC, he still spoke out against the Vietnam war, only to be further rebuked by every major national newspaper. When trashed publicly by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Bull Connor, and southern city fathers, King never lashed out in anger but always responded as a loving statesman. With death threats abounding, the FBI discrediting his work through its COINTELPRO program, and SCLC funding in question, he went to march with sanitation workers in Memphis – broke, black garbagemen.
That last night of his life, he prophesied the future of America:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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!
I do not believe that there is a promised land – only exile. With an unrelenting war on the precious people of Iraq in the precocious name of democracy on the one hand, and the unfathomable neglect of the Gulf Coast citizenry on the other, our national spirit seems doomed to continue spiraling toward incomprehensible darkness. The concept of exile is central because I believe that post-Katrina New Orleans, the revival of the noose, the expansion of the prison-industrial complex, right-of-center public discourse, and general hostility toward the poor and the Other in this nation – whose identity is built upon manifest destiny, believing it is a shining city on the hill, a promised land – has shown that America has no “home” for poor black folks. We find ourselves rolling the stone of race and religion up the hill of democracy. It is a Camusian dialectic, perpetually hewing a stone of hope out of a mountain of despair; Martin Luther King Jr.‘s theology encountering Sisyphus’ tragedy.
Roberto Unger and Cornel West in The Future of American Progressivism lay before us our task: “It is not enough to rebel against the lack of justice, we must also rebel against the lack of imagination.” We must claim the words that have been so cheapened in the public discourse: democracy, freedom, and evil.
Democracy is the ability of everyday folk to have discussions and make decisions about their life chances in the context of community. Freedom must be defined as the ability of folk to make informed choices and with adequate resources. Evil is the denial of access to the existential and economic, personal and political, spiritual, and societal resources necessary to make those decisions and choices. In order to be grounded with sure political footing, we must stand on a prophetic tradition, employ historical agency, and execute moral imperative.
As we critique political structures and economic apparatus, we must never forget to love. Love is patient, kind, long-suffering, and endures all things. Love means we care for the personal, political, social, economic, and organizational needs of others more than we do our own individual and organizational desires. Love is that force that cuts across human divisions of race, religion, nation, or creed. Again, King teaches us:
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
Love will shed new light on the improvised language and build a new system of ideas and social infrastructure. As we love each other, we will create a loving society preoccupied with peace and justice.
Out of the mouth of another babe
Having heard about the conversation between his elder brother and I, Gabriel Israel DuBois, my second oldest son, was not to be outdone. Known among his family as the “sensitive one,” Gabriel is the spitting image of me when I was seven. Getting eye to eye with me, he declares, “Dad, you know they shot Martin Luther King.”
Bewildered, I can only say, “I know, son, I know.”
“You know if you keep doing what you are doing they are going to shoot you, too … but I love you and will protect you…”
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a Freeman Fellow at the Fellowship of Reconciliation and a contributing editor to the Fellowship Magazine. He serves as a Senior Community Minister at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City.
This article is part of the upcoming issue of Fellowship magazine highlighting the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Click here to subscribe to Fellowship now.