Sources of Our Hope

PCG Executive Director Rev. Al Sharp offered this sermon on Martin Luther King Sunday, January 15, 2012, at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Evanston.

I’m glad to be here this morning. For me, this moment is poignant. My father was a Presbyterian minister. In the late 50’s and early 60’s he worked for the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church, located in New York City. Part of his job was to visit schools, missions, and churches throughout the country. This is a distinguished church. I expect that he preached here.

So thank you Mike, for sharing your pulpit with me this morning. I am especially honored that you have chosen to do so on Martin Luther King Sunday.

The organization I head, Protestants for the Common Good, has offered educational programs here in years past. We’ll be doing this after the service today, and I hope you will join us.

It’s been 44 years since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. What would he think about our life together today? Yet I expect he would agonize over the fact that we in this country are more divided by wealth and income than at any time since the Gilded Age of the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. He would not be surprised that African Americans, along with Hispanics, are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden. King saw an inextricable link between race and economic segregation. He came to Chicago in 1965 to make this point. At the time of his death, he was defending the sanitation workers of Memphis and planning a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington.

In broadest terms, it is the absence of any sense of seeking the common good today that would sadden Martin Luther King most profoundly. More than any voice in the 20th century, he called for a Beloved Community in which we recognize that we are all sisters and brothers equally loved by God and therefore called upon to love each other. Even he might have been surprised by a national government in which neither party can talk to the other and by politicians who view Ayn Rand, the author of a book remarkably titled The Virtue of Selfishness, as their spiritual mentor.

Yes, Martin Luther King would be deeply troubled by many of our problems today. But no more than he was by those in his own day. Listen to these words from a sermon with the grim title “Shattered Dreams”:

One of the most agonizing problems within our human experience is that few, if any, of us live to see our fondest hopes fulfilled. In a famous painting… George Frederic Watts portrays Hope as a tranquil figure who, seated atop our planet, her head sadly bowed, plucks a single unbroken harpstring. Is there any one of us who has not faced the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams? (Strength to Love p. 87)

Martin Luther King received constant phone calls threatening his life; his house was bombed twice; he was stabbed once; jailed 12 times. He turned to God in his darkest hour, during the initial Montgomery boycott, and said that after that, he was able to face similar danger without being afraid. Few of us will ever know such numbing fear. But we all know discouragement, sometimes even despair, in our battles of life, including the struggle for social change.

How did King come to terms with constant struggle, lack of progress, dreams delayed? Most fundamentally, he believed in an ultimate reality that makes defeat temporary and redeems our failures. He trusted what Jesus has told us about God as love.

“What is the summum bonum of life?” he asked in a sermon titled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” He continued,

I think I have discovered the answer, America. I have discovered that the highest good is love. This principle is at the center of the cosmos. It is the greatest unifying force of life. God is love. He who loves has discovered the clue to the meaning of reality; he who hates stands in immediate candidacy for nonbeing. (152)

This is the spiritual platform on which he stood. Quoting again, he said “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship” (163).

I believe this. This is the essential message of our Christian faith. God is love, and God loves creation. This is what Jesus told us most fundamentally. I have argued with skeptics over the years who point out that even when we make gains, each step forward carries the seeds of a new problem. Of course it does. “New roads, new ruts,” as they say. But what, then, is the source of our hope in a world where terrible things seem to hold sway over the good? It is this: it matters whether evil is being challenged in this world by truth, or whether truth is being threatened by evil. Goodness or love, on the one hand, is not the same as evil or darkness on the other. The devil, remember, was a fallen angel. Love is the center of reality. Evil is temporary, not goodness. Love endures. In the words of the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1: 4-5).

Love at the center of reality, as it was for King, carries with it something very important. It means that God is personal… inescapably so. We can seek guidance from God. We can turn to God for strength. We can try to align ourselves with God. We cannot get away from God. In the words of our Old Testament text:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Ps. 139 7-10)

About this passage, Dr. King wrote, “The testimony of the psalmist is that we need never walk in darkness.”

King’s sense of God as personal meant something more. It is not just that light prevails over darkness in some metaphorical sense, or in our personal and spiritual lives. The God of love and justice is a God active in history. About the battle against segregation, he said, in his last Sunday morning sermon,

We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right – no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right – truth crushed to earth will rise again. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right…’Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the deep unknown, stands a God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’ (Testament of Hope p. 277)

I repeat these familiar words so that we can ask ourselves whether we really believe them. Is there an upward movement, an arc of progress, in the twists and turns and turmoil of human history that might suggest a moral trajectory toward something better, maybe justice itself?

Tyrannies do not last forever. They contain the seeds of their own destruction. It might not have seemed so to the British in 1940, but fascism was not destined to rule the globe. Even without our invasion, Saddam Hussein could not have prevailed indefinitely. Martin Luther King was right in his conviction that legal segregation could not stand.

It may be that however faintly, we are on a path that will enable us as a world society to address problems with new governing structures that can address local oppression and tyranny. Activist and author Tod Gitlin says

Collectively, fitfully, the world has begun to develop sensibilities that are genuinely global. Human rights, interdependence, sustainable development – these watchwords have become clichés because the principles and claims are inescapable. The American government may reject them, but there are international courts.” (Gitlin p. 168)

I see progress – a moral arc, if you will – in the movement toward a universal inclusiveness when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Consider race: I doubt that King would have visualized an African American in the White House this soon. I can only imagine the satisfaction he might feel. If you take individuals in their 20’s and 30’s with a social conscience to a poor black neighborhood they will think first of the poverty, not the racial discrimination that helps to explain it. Consider gender: women have been great strides toward equality in this country, and surely this will worldwide. Consider sexual orientation. I remember Peter Gomes, former chaplain at Harvard and a gay African American, saying only a few years ago that 50 years from now people would wonder what all the fuss over being gay had been about. That’s already happening, faster than he guessed.

None of these changes mean that human nature has changed. Someone once commented, “Even if we magically became all one race, age, and sex, we would find something new to fight about by noon tomorrow.” That rings true. King famously said that legislation matters. We may not be able to change the human heart, but we can pass laws that will stop them from lynching me. Do such laws, over centuries, add up to something more basic? A massive study by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, titled “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” argues that over the span of recorded history we see a decline in violence: “Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism,” he writes, “we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.”

These are large, even grand topics. Let’s focus for a moment on the issues within Illinois that Protestants for the Common Good addresses. Over 13% of the state population — 20% of our children — lives in poverty. For a family of three, that’s $17,300 plus food stamps and Medicaid per year. More than765,000 adults struggle with extreme poverty. That’s $5,570 for an individual per year. Single male adults receive no form of cash assistance. In the Chicago region, 1.2 million experience what is euphemistically called “food insecurity.” (I checked – that means “limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”)

These figures are not new. They get marginally larger or smaller with the ebbs and flows of our economic health, but it seems that anything like The Great Society that Lyndon Johnson wanted to build 50 years ago is beyond our grasp. What then, keeps us going, why can we have hope, when it comes to economic justice?

After Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. King’s favorite philosopher was the German Georg Hegel, who, in King’s words, “preached a doctrine of growth through struggle (Testament of Hope p. 135)… “truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two” (Strength to Love p. 1).

There is much truth in the observation that economics are not science, only politics in disguise. Check out our current election, and the competing explanations for what’s wrong with our economy and how to fix it. But to the extent that economics is a science, people honestly disagree about central principles and theorems. In simplest terms, it’s John Maynard Keynes versus Milton Friedman. The path toward a just economic system that would reduce poverty as far as possible is not irrefutably clear.

This is why I think Martin Luther King might well invoke Hegel to give us perspective. We may not know all the economic answers, but we can and must learn from what works and what does not, and move toward the synthesis that emerges. Isn’t this what democracy is all about – to debate and learn from the free exchange of ideas, and their implementation?

We may not have eliminated hunger, but with the Food Stamp program, which actually began in 1939, we have reduced it. The Great Society did not fail. It gave us a Medicare program that singlehandedly reduced poverty among the elderly from over 40% to its current level of about 15%. Some of us may not like the Obama health plan, but in an economy in which it’s become much harder for those fresh out of college to find a job with benefits, it already allows families to cover their children to age 26, and starting in 2014, insurance companies will not be able to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, that is people most likely to need it.

What, then, can we say, finally, in a world where social and economic injustice endure? Here is how King himself put it: “Even though all progress is precarious, within limits real social progress may be made. Although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness” (Strength to Love p. 83).

Within Protestants for the Common Good, we’ve helped to curb the payday loan industry, which used to be able to charge annualized interest rates of 700% and suck people into perpetual debt by rolling over loans that could never be repaid. We have helped to provide ex-offenders in with a second chance by passing legislation permitting the sealing or expungment of records for those who have paid their debt to society and not reoffended. We have successfully worked with others to ensure that juvenile prostitutes are referred to social services rather than the criminal justice system. And, yes, we helped to increase the state income tax to 5% in the hope that we might help to preserve what little of our social services safety net still exists.

Martin Luther King was not self-deceived by illusions. The best collection of his sermons is a volume The Strength to Love, and the very first one is titled, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” “Jesus knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world…where they would…meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism” (p. 2). Let us, too, operate without illusions, lest we be discouraged when change does not happen. Persistence must always be our watchword.

But in our persistence, we can always remember what King knew, which is that God has broken through. The Kingdom is in our midst. “Come and see,” Philip said to Nathanael in our New Testament text. He had seen Jesus and recognized Him as the messiah so long awaited. Nathanael, too, immediately accepted the Jesus in the same way, because he sensed that Jesus knew him and his deepest longings. To him Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

For us, as for Martin Luther King, our God is personal. It is love, not evil, that is at the center of reality. For us, as for Martin Luther King, our God is active in history. God has given us our freedom, which means victory will not come easily or quickly. But for us as for Martin Luther King, God is in our midst. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” Our struggles toward peace and justice count, and will prevail, because they are consistent with the meaning that God has given to this world, to our existence in it, and with the love of God which has been placed in the hearts of us all.

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