Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2013/ 10 Shevat, 5773
In his own words
By Paul Greenberg
Every year he grows more ceremonial, distant, symbolic, less alive. It is the fate of heroes. Their pictures are relegated to banners, their words become clichés, their very names become streets and boulevards instead of a living presence. Icons.
Maybe, but have we listened before? How long has it been since we've really heard his words and felt their force? And their continuing, insistent relevance. Instead our heroes become fit subjects for dry-as-dust doctoral dissertations and the endless re-evaluations called historical revisionism.
It's now been explained that the civil-rights movement used religious ideas for political ends -- which is a popular thesis among the political scientists who have studied its success. It never seems to dawn on these experts that maybe it wasn't the protesters who used religious ideas but the ideas that used them.
Some ideas are so powerful that they cannot be resisted. They're less ideas than imperatives. Because they are not imposed from without but, once planted, grow from within. Once heard, really heard, they become inseparable from our own thoughts, conscience, fulfillment. It's not as if we had a choice in the matter. We just can't deny some ideas -- and ideals. They compel, the way love and justice and truth compel.
No wonder the prophet denies that it is he who is speaking or wants to speak. On the contrary, he is compelled to speak. He has no choice. And the rest of us find ourselves compelled to listen sooner or later -- unless we can manage to stay caught up in the everyday, in boredom and indifference, in political sophistication.
Prophets are associated with protest, with fiery words and wonders. We forget that the prophet is also a comforter, and that if he tears apart our easy preconceptions, it is to reconcile us with the truth he has to utter, and with our better, different, changed selves.
From his first appearance on the national stage and in the national consciousness -- the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s -- this black Baptist preacher out of the South kept his eye on the prize: not victory over others, but reconciliation with others.
The young minister's message back then had a lot more to do with Exodus than Marx, with joining together rather than rending apart.
Listen to what he said in the midst of his first confrontation with the already crumbling power of
"A boycott is just a means to an end. A boycott is merely a means to say, 'I don't like it.' It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is the creation of a beloved community . . . the creation of a society where men will live together as brothers . . . not retaliation but redemption. That is the end we are trying to reach."
His cause wasn't just a boycott. It wasn't just a political or economic or social struggle. The powers and principalities involved were of a different order, and so would be the victory.
In July of 1956,
The biblical cadences of his speech were unmistakable, and his belief in the
The legal victory in Montgomery came on the 13th of November, 1956, when the
But this preacher did not exult in himself or his people or even in his principles. In the familiar call and response of the black church, voices every Southerner used to grow up with as he passed a black church on a Sunday morning or Wednesday go-to-meetin' night, this son of the South exulted not in any temporal political victory but in the hope that we, all of us, would be reconciled -- with each other and with the Father of us all.
Only he put it plainer, simpler, better. He compared the white segs whom he had fought so hard, who had locked him up, who had 'bused and scorned him, with the prodigal son who had only wandered off for a while on the wrong path:
"I must still believe there is something within them that can cause them one day to come to themselves (That's right! Yes!) and rise up, walk back up the dusty road to the father's house. (Yes!) And we stand there with outstretched arms. That's the meaning of the Christian faith."
Powerful stuff. And this preacher went beyond Bible stories and Sunday School illustrations. He named names: "I believe that the Ku Klux Klan can be transformed into a clan for God's kingdom. (Yes!) I believe that the
It's a toss-up who was more scandalized by that kind of talk -- the kluxers and their nice respectable white-collar counterparts in the Citizens Councils, or the young SNCC organizers in the back pews who'd come down from their Northern campuses to give Marx a push. And instead found themselves confronted by all this Godtalk, by a language and worldview counter to all their assumptions -- and it was coming not from those they proposed to struggle against, but those on whose side they wanted to struggle. What a story their faces told as all of that dawned on them. They had come to convert others, but the best of them found themselves converted.
Then there were the others -- the young and impatient, the proud and angry, the ideological and sophisticated. They tended to snicker at this nice preacher innocent of their dialectic, and called him De Lawd behind his back. What could he know of the world who preached nothing but love?
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
if (strpos(, "printer_friendly") === 0)
=<< © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.