On the night of April 3, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his final public speech in a crowded church in Memphis, he spoke of the injustices being felt by the city’s sanitation workers. But as we all know, King went well beyond that subject to speak about his own mortality. Like the canary in the coal mine, we might say, he could sense the smell of impending death, the danger surrounding the expansion of his message, his sharp rebuke of America in 1968, from racial injustice to war and the economy, and the interrelatedness of these issues.
The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles was there on that night, a young pastor listening just a few feet away from King. Reverend Kyles recalls of Dr. King, his elder role model, 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.”
As Kyles remembers, with evident wonder, Dr. 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?” We might ask ourselves the same question today. What did Dr. King know that we still don’t know? What could he see that we still cannot see?
It was as if, at the precise moment of death, King had broken free of the cage not only to issue a warning about what is in America, but also to urge us yet again of what is possible when we join together in common cause.
“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 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 to name and to feel the urgency of the present moment. “There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of human beings is to be a voice for the plundered poor.” In one of the last interviews before his own death, Heschel said, with considerable 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 prophets, in other words, are deeply disturbing to us insofar as they are deeply disturbed by what conventional wisdom has come to accept as normal, The Way Things Are, and they dare to say it out loud.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King ruminated on the irony of being accused of being an “extremist” by fellow Christians. 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, no better, their blind adulation. The prophets and saints serve the human community well when they stir our own capacities for courage and commitment and solidarity, and dare us to dream together. There are no solitary heroes that can save us from ourselves.
As I write these lines, the newly sworn-in governor of Virginia has issued an executive order “to restore excellence in education by ending the use of divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory (CRT), in public education.” Several other states have also banned the teaching of critical race theory, described as “political indoctrination” by the governor. Never mind that CRT is a graduate-level body of thought that nobody thinks to teach K-12 students. It seems that any teacher or any curriculum that dares to tell the truth about our history, laws, and institutions, truths that make white folks uncomfortable, are now fair game to be targeted, silenced, and punished as “divisive.” Exhibit 2, of far too many, is the long-running controversy surrounding the 1619 Project. Never has Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum—“History is written by the victors”—seemed so dangerously prescient in the US.
What would Heschel or King have to say? Perhaps they would urge that now is no time to lose our nerve as a people of faith, as churches and synagogues and mosques, as a nation. We must never allow to be normalized the threats to human dignity and attacks on fundamental tenets of democracy that are now sweeping the country, thanks to politicians riding the wave of Trumpism and its festival of lies. The role of the prophet and the prophetic community is not the same as the role of the politician and political movements. The former, driven by faith and the principles of human dignity that undergird the Constitution, is to hold the latter accountable, on all “sides” of the political spectrum.
We live in a moment, speaking for myself, where hope feels hard to come by. It’s easy enough to spout platitudes about hope and a “new future in which all of our children might flourish together.” It’s harder to hear and take the lead from those who have neither the social nor the political privilege of succumbing to despair. “If you want to be hopeful,” said the late Fr. Daniel Berrigan, “you have to do hopeful things.”
With Heschel, “we must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves,” to the spectacle of lies. And pray God to surprise us again and again with the beauty and dignity of life, the gift and miracle of being alive, and to fight for the dignity of all creation, of all our fellow citizens, wherever it is being threatened.
May we rededicate ourselves in this new year to the hard but ever-creative work of truth-telling, community-building, and bold imagination. May God help us to make King’s words become a reality, that “we as a people will get to the promised land.”