Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, introduced Martin Luther King before his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech as “the moral leader of our nation.”
A few years later, King identified himself as a prophet, an agitator for moral good. “Today we particularly need the Hebrew prophets” to move civil rights activists beyond fear and silence. “They did not believe that conscience is a still small voice,” declared King. “They believed that conscience thunders, or it does not speak at all.”
Few biblical prophets won public approval. King identified with them, first quoting Amos on justice. Then he moved to Micah’s teaching on beating swords into plowshares. King’s voice rose to an ethical crescendo, reciting Isaiah’s “inescapable obligation” to practice non-violence.
Biblical prophets didn’t pander to listeners’ praise. Nor did they profit monetarily when indicting the wealthy as greedy. Prophets fulminated against a status quo. They argued against leaders who spoke incessantly about growing the economy but remained silent about income inequality that disproportionately pounded the poor. Prophets debunked talk as immoral about wealth coalescing among a few at the top of the social pyramid.
Why, when financial uncertainty threatens moguls, do they pile up mountains of cash on the sidelines? History shows how meager amounts trickle down to people desperate for seed money to start businesses or feed the hungry.
Reflecting on Martin Luther King’s prophetic life, biblical expositor Abraham Heschel asked, “Where in America today do we hear a voice of the prophets of Israel?’ Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. ... The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves.”
Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King benefited from Reinhold Niebuhr’s political theology. He taught at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary during the first half of the 20th century.
Niebuhr believed economic inequality clung like barnacles to corrupt social structures. He clashed with American capitalists who scorned social welfare as hand-outs, forcing citizens to become dependent on Uncle Sam.
Niebuhr saw social insurance programs like Social Security and food stamps as biblical morality in action. They wove a safety net beneath the marginalized. Niebuhr believed in King’s and Heschel’s moral practices, which provided the needy with basic security in health, housing and nutrition.
President Barack Obama voiced similar moral imperatives in his March 2008 speech on race. Historians rank it with King’s “I Have a Dream” address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural for ardently advancing biblical morality in a fiscal culture tilted towards power brokers.
“And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage,” declared President Obama. “What would be needed are Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
What does this reality look like for the destitute? During the 2008 Great Recession, African-American families suffered financial reversals three times that of white families. The average white family has six times the financial assets of the average African-American family. Because more whites than blacks invest in a record-setting stock market, the wealth gap has enlarged and deepened. American minorities have fallen into the fiscal cracks.
When economic disparity rules, it’s easy to dismiss biblical prophets as quacks who experienced what’s quirky and weird. Scripture pictures angels branding prophets’ lips with burning coals lit by God’s word. Prophets talk of strange events, like valleys alive with dancing bones or rivers gushing from front doors of churches. Some biblical prophets were streakers. Others shaved all body hair. Who wants to be identified with such nutty behavior?
Prophets used graphic body language to make bold statements about what’s unfair in society. Jesus was on the money when he told of prophets who didn’t profit a cent from hometown folk: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country” (Mark 6:4).
Early in his ministry, Martin Luther King received threatening phone calls against his life and family. One caller ordered him to leave town in three days or King’s home would be fire-bombed.
Realizing hate crimes might snuff out the lives of his newborn daughter or wife, King sat at his kitchen table. He prayed, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But I’m weak now. I’m faltering and I’m losing my courage.”
King’s later prophetic witness monetarily profited him little. Still, he answered God’s voice: “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth and ‘Lo, I will be with you even till the end of the world.’”
God’s promise fortified Martin Luther King’s prophetic soul. This voice continues to strengthen activists, prophets and good folks who challenge society to narrow the gap between the promise of ideals and their reality today.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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