Vision on the Brink of Death: MLK and the Birthing of Prophetic Communities


Author’s Note: This post is adapted from material in a forthcoming book, copyright 2018, Christopher Pramuk. Please do not reproduce without permission or acknowledgement.

If you visit the website of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), you will be greeted by the above photograph, from the year 1928, and the following historical explanation behind the phrase “canary in the coal mine”:

Carbon monoxide, a potentially deadly gas devoid of color, taste or smell, can form underground during a mine [excavation] or after a mine explosion. Today’s coal miners must rely on carbon monoxide detectors and monitors to recognize its presence underground. However, before the availability of modern detection devices, miners turned to Mother Nature for assistance. Canaries—and sometimes mice—were used to alert miners to the presence of the poisonous gas. . . . Any sign of distress from the canary was a clear signal that the conditions underground were unsafe, prompting a hasty return to the surface.

Why did the mining industry use canaries?

[Canaries] were preferred over mice . . . because canaries more visibly demonstrated signs of distress in the presence of small quantities of the noxious gas. For instance, when consumed by the effects of carbon monoxide, a canary would sway noticeably on his perch before falling, a much better indicator of danger than the limited struggle and squatting, extended posture a mouse might assume.[i]

Canaries, it seems, had the dubious fortune of being more overtly sensitive than mice to carbon monoxide poisoning. Their sensitivity made them “a much better indicator of danger.”

The Pathos of the Prophet 

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. While the literal meaning of “canary in the coal mine” may no longer apply, the image of the struggling creature trapped in its unyielding cage retains its metaphorical power. The late great poet Maya Angelou titled her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a book she wrote from the deepest urge “to tell the human truth” of her life growing up as a young black girl in a deeply segregated and racist America. So much of Maya Angelou’s witness is about telling the human truth of our family history as a nation, beautiful but also hard truths that we might rather not hear.

Consider the photograph again. Who is the caged bird in our times? Trayvon Martin? Michael Brown? Sandra Bland? Tamir Rice? Alton Sterling? Philando Castile? Laquan McDonald? Sam DuBose? Amadou Diallo? Eric Garner?, whose dying words—“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”—echoes the cry of too many citizens for whom the American experiment has become a kind of slow-motion nightmare.

Imagine the caged bird represents yet another generation of kids, families, teachers, health care workers, policemen and policewomen, first responders, their lives spiraling into slow-motion despondency, or increasing militancy, from the protracted trauma of gun violence, dysfunctional public schools, toxic air and drinking water, hyper-incarceration, and chronic underemployment. “The air is toxic,” they cry out, “It threatens us all, can’t you feel it? Why can’t you feel it?”

Stretch your imagination further: let us say the caged bird is the Earth itself, and all her creatures: birds, honeybees, polar bears, coral reefs, fracked prairies, choking streams, and so on. “The planet is warming. It threatens us all, can’t you feel it? Why can’t you feel it?”

Now shift again: to what extent am I –or the nation to which I belong– effectively like the miner in the picture, a bit too complacent or resigned about the fate of the suffering bird? After all, we reason, the canary is expendable, right? (Ex/pend/a/ble: of little significance when compared to an overall purpose, and therefore able to be abandoned.) The sensitivity of a few vulnerable populations to an increasingly toxic environment is an acceptable price so long as it preserves the greater good, does not interrupt my good, my way of life, the flourishing of “good hard-working tax-paying citizens” like me. What is the loss of another generation of children, another species of bird, another continental shelf of coral reef, so long as we keep the general peace and prosperity? Open up the national parks and coastlines. “Drill, baby, drill, baby, drill.”

To be clear: I don’t think most people at the top of the food chain –and here, I certainly include myself– really think this way, not consciously, in any case. The image, however, leads to an unsettling insight: if not by direct intention, then by sustained silence and inertia, are we any less complicit than the miner in the photograph? In truth, and here is the final great irony, the fate of the miner and the bird are one. If the air is bad, it will eventually kill them both.

Vision on the Brink of Death

On the night of April 3, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his final public speech in a crowded church in Memphis, Tennessee, he spoke of the injustices being felt by the city’s sanitation workers. But King, as we all know, went well beyond that subject to speak about the prospect of his own death, his own mortality. We might say he could sense the bad air.

The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles was there on that night, a young pastor listening to King just a few feet away. In an interview last year, Kyles recalls that “There had been so many death threats against his life, especially since he had come out against the war in Vietnam. But he talked about death more that night than we’d heard him talk about it in a long while.”

Kyles says that King literally “preached himself through the fear of death [that night]. He just got it out of him. He just … dealt with it. And we were just standing there. It was like, what did he know that we didn’t know?”[ii] Indeed what did Rev. King know that we still don’t know? What could he see that we still cannot see?

King.US.flagIt was as if, at the precise moment of death, King had broken free of the cage not only to issue a warning about our present situation, about what is in America, but also to urge us yet again, against much empirical evidence to the contrary, of what is possible. “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know, I’ve seen the promised land, and I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

The great Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel —a friend of King, who marched with him from Selma— insists that the role of the prophet is not to predict the future so much as helps us to name and to feel the urgency of the present moment. “There is immense silent agony in the world,” says Heschel, “and the task of human beings is to be a voice for the plundered poor.” In one of the last interviews before his death, Heschel said, with great fervor:

When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated — I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it; why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.

The prophets, says Heschel, “have taught me that I have to be involved in the affairs of suffering man. . . . I think that anyone who reads the prophets will discover, number one, that the prophets really were the most disturbing people who ever lived.”

The Birthing of Prophetic Communities

The prophets, in other words, are both disturbing and disturbed by what conventional wisdom has come to accept as normal, status quo, The Way Things Are. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King ruminated on the irony of being accused by his fellow Christians of being an “extremist.” Perhaps we need a few more “creative extremists for love,” he shot back, recalling that Jesus was similarly accused by the “keepers of the peace” in his time.

Of course the danger of being elevated as a prophet is much the same as being held aloft as a saint. In both cases you risk becoming the projection of other peoples’ blind hatreds, or little better, their blind adulation. The prophets and saints serve us well when they awaken our own capacities for love and commitment and courage, and dare us to dream together.

black lives matterAll of this is to say that now, a year into the Trump presidency, is no time to lose our nerve as a people, as churches and synagogues and mosques, as a nation. We must take care not to accommodate ourselves, or still worse, like the miner in the photograph, to become complacent about the fundamental threats to human dignity and the tenuous health of our planet now under daily and constant threat by the president and those he has put into positions of power.

We must allow God to surprise us again and again with the miracle and dignity of life, of every life, rich and poor, black, brown, and white, human and nonhuman, and respond to God’s call to fight for the dignity of all creation wherever it is being threatened.

May we take to heart the unsettling witness of the prophets and do all we can to conceive (imagine!) and midwife prophetic communities, beloved communities of encounter, inclusion, resistance, and courage. May we dare to dream a new future in which all of our children can flourish, together.

Author’s Note: This post is adapted from material in a forthcoming book, copyright 2018, Christopher Pramuk. Please do not reproduce without permission or acknowledgement.



[iii] Photo: William Royster, 21, during a protest in 2014 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., over the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. Credit Patrick Record/The Ann Arbor News, via Associated Press

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