We attended Trinity Church, Wall Street, last Sunday for their observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday. The guest preacher was Dr. James Cone, professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary here in New York.
It was a joy to hear him once again. I read his first book “Black Theology and Black Power” when I was in seminary in the late sixties and it was probably my first introduction to the kind of “liberation theology” beginning to make itself known popularly at that time. He observed yesterday that virtually all of the liberation movements since King’s day — from the women’s movement to South Africa to the Philippines to gay rights — have drawn upon his philosophy of non-violent resistence seen pre-eminently in Jesus Christ himself and, in another context, Mahatma Gandhi… both of whom King sought to emulate.
But Cone’s main point in the sermon was that Dr. King’s name has been appropriated by all kinds of people today — politicians and presidential candidates among them — who would have been (or still are!) actually opposed to his message of justice! All kinds of powerful people show up at King Day events, seeking to identify with this great American martyr who — in reality — continue to impede the kind of progress for which he lived and died!
In short, he warned us against claiming the name of Martin King (or Jesus, for that matter) if we are not willing to pattern our lives after the example of theirs. Or, in the words of yesterday’s Collect:
“Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever.” Amen.