Posted by: Beverly Dale | February 1, 2010

Martin, Jesus, and Me

At the commemoration rally planned by Penn Haven, a student group committed to addressing homelessness and poverty, I was asked to speak about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, his faith, and about poverty. But I can’t talk about that unless I also talk about empire. Rev. King said, “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” Yet I am well aware that Penn, as an elite Ivy League school, does not usually teach nonconformity.

Students are expected upon graduation to enter the upper echelons of society and continue generating the products and wealth upon which an empire subsists. You are expected to be captains of the ships of state that continue to guide this nation as the leader of the world promoting our way of life as the expected way, as the superior way. You are not expected to be nonconformists who challenge the status quo. The empire has been built and you are expected to maintain its prestige. Justice, peace, and brotherhood rarely find a place in empires.

But Christian texts call the status quo “the world” and in the biblical texts this is an uncaring place lacking in justice; but most especially for those as the bottom of the socioeconomic scale and at the bottom of the social status scale.

But the faith teachings that Rev. King followed challenge the whole notion of empire, a domination system built by force and fear giving unfair advantage to those on top.

Dr. King challenged the empire of the United States as it drained its social welfare funds into an ongoing war without end in South East Asia. Jesus lived in first century Palestine in a world controlled by the brutal arm of the Roman Empire and the local authorities who were complicit. How shall we challenge our empire, our position as the self-appointed policeman of the world with over 850 military bases around the globe and trillions of dollars being spent in two needless wars when the empire can’t even assure our citizens adequate healthcare? Can’t assure that none of our citizens will ever go hungry? Can’t we assure that every able bodied person is guaranteed meaningful employment at a livable wage and a roof over our heads?

But Jesus said (Matt 25:5) “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”  This is the foundational truth upon which Rev. King based his nonconformist life, caring for his neighbor by lifting up the vision of a better world. It means ending the violence of poverty.

Ending hunger means not only an adequately funded food stamp program but access to quality and healthy foods that are sustainably grown, not empty calorie junk food or foods filled with chemicals. It means living in harmony with the earth’s resources to ensure the children of the next generation will have adequate food. It is totally unacceptable to have people go hungry in this nation and in this city, but they do.

Quenching thirst means not only caring for the city’s water supply and not allowing access to public water to become privatized, but also caring for the oceans on our planet and securing their viability for the future. Are we doing violence to the environment?

Welcoming the strangers is to consider how inhospitable our immigration laws are and whether or not we treat the immigrants in our midst as brothers and sisters regardless of their legal status. Are we condoning violence instead of creating hospitality?

Being concerned about sickness is to look at a broken health care system and how access to quality medical resources can be bought only if you have enough private resources. Are we allowing insurance companies to do violence by putting profits before people’s health and well-being?

Being concerned about the imprisoned is to look at the disproportionate number of racial minorities in our prison system and how the survival of “Small Town USA”–gutted of their own small industries in a globalized world as well as by corporate farming–actually depends on the growth and expansion of the prison industry. And we fill those prisons with poor people.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had a vision of a just world where poor people have the basic rights upheld in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. When is the last time we have read that in this empire? (1)

This document states that a “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,”

Forty five years ago Rev. Dr. King said “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be… The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” These are “extremists” who care about “the least of these.”

Rev. Dr. King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’  He called for “disciplined nonconformists” and “creative extremists.” Like the prophet Amos he wanted justice to “roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24)

He called this “the Beloved Community.” His faith community calls it “the Kingdom of God.” We might choose to call it a more compassionate and more egalitarian society where a domination paradigm (known as empire) is no more. The good news is it doesn’t take everyone, only the creative extremists dedicated to disciplined nonconformity with a goal of peace and justice, and only those people of faith who choose to love their neighbor as they love their God. According to King “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.”

It is time to stop conforming and become justice leaders. It is time to become disciplined and creative about being peacemakers. As long as there is empire, there will be war. As long as there is war there can be no “beloved community.” And without this vision, there will never be justice for any of us.

Copyright (c)2010 Beverly Dale

(1) Article 24 Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25 Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 26 Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children… shall enjoy the same social protection.

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