Delivered for Christian Brothers University
Annual Commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 15, 2015
To President Smarrelli, Dean Barnettt, the Black Students Association, the Office of Campus Ministry, thank you so much for allowing me this opportunity. And to Paul Haught, Scott Geis, the Department of Religion and Philosophy, and others with whom I share Barry Hall, thank you for welcoming me with open arms during my maiden voyage at CBU.
I want to begin by suggesting that we are engaged in a struggle. A struggle waged through classrooms, social media, houses of worship, kitchen tables, barbershops, television, movies, books, journals, magazines, and blogs. It is a struggle for the meaning and significance of the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the next week the image, words, and likeness of Dr. King will be used to sell you everything from car insurance to chicken McNuggets.
I remember a few years ago when I had the opportunity to see the King monument in Washington D. C. It was a profound moment and the monument was an impressive imposing sculpture. On the side of the monument were the words “Out of the Mountain of despair a stone of hope”—from the “I have a dream” speech. However, of the sixteen quotes not one mentioned any reference to race or Jim Crow. All of the quotes were inspiring and instilled hope but absent and erased was the history and context that formed that mountain of injustice from which those words were hewn. Commemoration is a powerful act of remembering. An act by which choices are made about what to keep in front of the mind, instill in the heart, cultivate within institutions and throughout our common life.
Today I want to briefly commend to you a King who does not often receive enough attention, but I believe is so critical towards building a loving and nonviolent community. For King, this foundation begins with understanding that God is love. King’s fight against segregation was not only grounded in the identification of social injustice, but in the nature of reality itself. In his 1967 sermon “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, he argued, “all Life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” At the time, King did not have our familiar language of globalization. However, he knew all to well and articulated that one cannot even leave for work in the morning without using products produced from countries all over the world. King had a keen sense that we must take seriously that we live in a world house. Our interdependence is the basic fact of our existence. Far too often, the King holiday is time for coming together without much reflection of the forces that continue to pull us apart. The legacy of King calls us to address all forms of hatred, bigotry, and injustice that rip at the fabric of a loving and just community. The King who not only dreamed of a better America but also died while fighting with sanitation workers would still be fighting for a living wage. The King who once said that he “fought segregation too long to segregate his morality” would stand with the LGBTQ community, and refuse to stigmatize our Muslim brothers and sisters for actions of the few.
I believe that the university has a critical role to play in this process. The university can foster the kind of broad learning, critical dialogue, and safe spaces often sorely missing in our culture. In addition, if one moves through the corpus of Kings writings, one finds a mind deeply invested in the possibilities of history, philosophy, literature, theology, and the sciences to addressing humanity’s most vexing problems.
The second foundation for building a nonviolent community is represented by King’s tireless efforts to deepen our understanding of love. Inspired by the scripture chosen for our program today, he was clear about the difference between loving and liking. In that same 1967 Christmas sermon, King said:
When you rise to this level, you love all men [sic] not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loves them. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies.” And I’m happy he didn’t say ‘Like your enemies,’ because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustice. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive good will towards all people.
It is this understanding of love that transforms the fact of our inter-relatedness to forms of genuine community. This labor of love if you will, must be a commitment that continues to keep us open to one another, refuses to foreclose our capacity to love and transforms our society. This challenge to love however does not exist in a vacuum. Our ability to love one another is challenged by powerful forces that have shaped our lives. And one of those forces is the force of history.
King possessed a deep understanding of the enduring power of history has in our lives. In his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) “Where Do We Go From Here?” he argued:
From old plantations of the South to newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his [sic] life and destiny he has been subject to authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of this white power structure. The plantation and ghetto were created by those how had power, both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The problem of transforming the ghetto therefore is a problem of power—confrontation of the forces of power, demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo.
If King were alive today, I think he would add another phase to his analysis. I think he would argue that the same power structure that created the plantation and the ghetto has transformed into a sprawling prison industrial complex. Thus, nonviolence is not merely the absence of violence, but a critical strategy in challenging unjust structures of power. For those persons and communities in our nation that continue to suffer under such injustices, such a strategy requires a profound form of self-love as well. Indeed, King argues that the first step in such an effort is to “massively assert our dignity and worth.” He continues, “We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black.”
If King were alive today I believe he would whole-heartedly affirm that black lives matter. Part of the great legacy of Dr. King is his ability to live out the ethics of love found in the religion of Jesus that does not sacrifice one’s cultural identity and particularity for a universal vision. It is this ethics of love that integrates issues of power and justice. King argued, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” King’s legacy calls us to love ourselves and one another, and to challenge through nonviolent resistance the unjust structures of power that threaten realization of beloved community.
Finally, there is another aspect of King’s legacy that I want to commend to you this day. It is the King who not only accomplished extraordinary things, but who also experienced all to ordinary forms of self-doubt. King’s life and ministry continued to be rooted in a relationship with God. Whatever and however your personal faith manifests itself, however you are in relationship with that which is larger than yourself, it is not incidental but essential for building community.
At a critical time during the movement in Montgomery, AL, King received a phone call at home. It was a death threat. In his autobiography, he recalled how he walked the floor, how he was frustrated and bewildered, thinking about his beautiful daughter who had just been born. He felt as if he would not be able to go on much longer. Then, at the kitchen table he began to pray aloud:
Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
And then King heard a quiet voice saying to him, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” Martin later explained, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
As all we continue to work for the beloved community, know that at times it will be difficult, but build anyway. We are all a part of a divine economy where we will reap from things we haven’t sown and will sow things we will never reap, so build on. Build when in the good times and build in the bad times. Build when you feel strong and build when you feel faint. Build. Build. Build.
Thank you for your time today.
Dr. Christophe Ringer, Visiting Assistant Professor, joined the Religion and Philosophy faculty at Christian Brothers University in the fall of 2014. Prior to coming to CBU, he served on the faculty of American Baptist College and has taught courses at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. After earning his B.A. (1995) form University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana, IL) and M.Div (2005) from Vanderbilt Divinity School, Dr. Ringer went on to earn a Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics and Society from Vanderbilt Graduate School of Religion. His primary areas of research are social and theological ethics, public theology, political philosophy, critical theory, African American religion and culture studies with special interests in the theologies of Howard Thurman and Paul Tillich and critical prisons studies.