In the name of love, we shall overcome

I remember it clearly: the President of the United States was giving a nationwide address on television. He was arguing for passage of the first Voting Rights Act, a measure which would ensure that millions of African Americans would gain the right to cast a ballot in American elections.  In the midst of the speech, he said three words that shocked America. He said: “We shall overcome.” On that fateful night, President Lyndon Banes Johnson said “We shall overcome” and the nation changed. In a room far from Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat with his colleagues and wept. The most powerful man in America had just repeated the organizing prayer of the modern civil rights movement. It was a triumphant moment. But it not come easily or without much sacrifice.

Back in 1943, Alert J Raboteau writes. American clergyman and political activist A. J. Muste predicted that “only the nonviolent suffering and bloodshed of African Americans and their supporters would break the stranglehold of Jim Crow in the United States.”[1] He argued that “mankind must always depend on the minorities, on the downtrodden, to show the way, since the privileged are too much bound by their interest.”[2] This prediction was tested time and again as, during the years after World War II, America’s African Americans resisted the legalized segregation enabled by the South’s “Jim Crow” laws.

The modern civil rights movement did not spring full-formed at the call of Dr. King: he stood – as we stand – on the shoulders of generations who went before. Dr. King’s brought to this struggle his unique ability to formulate eloquent and enduring arguments based on Christian theology and American political philosophy to justify non-violent direct action against racial prejudice.[3] For both King and Muste, the principles of “citizen sacrifice and nonviolent protest” were intertwined as strategies for pricking the conscience of both oppressors and guilty bystanders.[4] King’s gift as to transform a debate some had written off as a debate between two radical political groups into the pressing moral issue of his day. To accomplish this, King drew upon his fluency in both the traditions of the African American Church and the philosophy of America’s founders and great thinkers. He reframed the Civil Rights movement in a context created from the biblical narrative of salvation history combined with the ideas found in America’s founding documents.[5]

As Raboteau sees it, echoing Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, King argued responding to evil required nonviolent resistance instead of passivity, “it sought to convert, not to defeat, the opponent; it was directed against evil, not persons; and it avoided internal violence, such as hatred or bitterness.”[6]

King believed “suffering was redemptive, because suffering could transform both the sufferer and the oppressor.”[7] This is an essential lesson for us to remember today. Each morning the news seems to bring some new outrage perpetrated against this country by the current Administration. Too often the evening news reports a second and new low point in American history. We think it is bad, and in some ways it is worse than we can remember. Yet we must remember that the current man in the White House is not the first American President who was a racist. Today, people of color continue to suffer and die as a result of America’s continuing commitment to racism and white supremacy. But is has been bad before and – deep in my heart, I still believe – we shall overcome. For as Dr. King so often said: “The arc of the universe bends slowly but it bends towards justice.”

Think of where we were back when the modern civil rights movement began to pick up steam, knitting together success after success. Back in 1963, on a September morning, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was preparing to celebrate Youth Sunday. At 10:22 a.m. a tremendous blast shook the building. The bomb was so large it brought the exterior brick and stone wall crashing down into the basement. Four young black American children died in this act of white supremacy terrorism. I remember riding home to church and hearing the first appalling reports of this American tragedy. I remember the shock which spread through our nation as we realized that – at least in the South – even the sanctuary of a church building could not protect a child from the violence of white bigotry.

The deaths of the four children were neither the first nor the last of the modern civil rights movement. But as the television news media held our nation’s violent ways up for all to see, and as Dr. King set the debate in the context of salvation and American political principles, people across this nation concluded the time for change had arrived.

Now, on this Sunday, we gather here to honor Dr. King’s life and work. To do that we must commit ourselves to continuing his work. Not as just a political struggle, though political action will be needed. Not as a religious program, for this is a bigger challenge than any organizational project or priority. Rather, ours is a personal call for resistance in the name of love.

In the past, we’ve talked of how so many of God’s prophets argued with God in a vain attempt to avoid this role. Dr. King did not set out to lead the modern civil rights movement. Back in 1955, his life was changed by a pivotal moment in Am3erican history: the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.[8] Faced with threats against his life and family, Dr. King wondered if this was his call: if God was calling King to become an American prophet. He recalls sitting at the kitchen table night one night, seeking for a way to avoid this role without looking like a coward. Sitting there he prayed for guidance.

“And it seemed to me at that moment I could hear an inner voice saying to me: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world.’”[9]

And so now God speaks to us:

Stand up for righteousness, for we shall overcome.

Stand up for justice, for we shall overcome.

Stan up for truth, for we shall overcome.

Make no peace with oppression, for we shall overcome.

Walk in love, for we shall overcome. Maybe not today or tomorrow or after the mid-term elections later this year or the next presidential election. But deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.

Let us pray, using a prayer by Dr; King:

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn.[10]

May the people of God say: Amen.


[1] American Prophets, by Alert J Raboteau, p. 142

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Op cit. 145

[5] Op cit. 145

[6] Op cit. 146

[7] Ibid.

[8] Op Cit. 155

[9] Op cit 153-4

[10] accessed at 1/13/2018 11:20 PM


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