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I had the honor of moderating a conversation between the Norwalk Policy Chief and representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement at a breakfast held on MLK Day. The event was full of speeches and prayers and singing. In introducing me to the audience the Rev. Dr. Jeffery Ingraham the pastor of a large Baptist Church in Norwalk, lauded my handling of a contentious public hearing on white privilege but said in researching our denomination found that we could not be farther apart theologically. He cited a billboard from one of our churches that read “More Curious Than Certain”. He was certain Jesus died for our sins, we, he implied, considered that Jesus was a matter for further consideration.
As we worked together, of course, we could put aside those differences for the common cause we made to remember and learn from the prophecy of Dr. Martin Luther King. I reminded him later that King’s oft used line “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” was in fact, first penned by our own Rev. Theodore Parker, a staunch abolitionist and Unitarian minister. The point I hope to make was that in the words of Dr. King, “we may have come on different ships but we are all in the same boat now.”
In other words, we need to see the deep seated call for all people of faith to reclaim the prophecy of Dr. King and so many others for what it can teach us about how to live in this broken world. Prophecy is an often misunderstood as some kind of fortune telling, confusing its truth telling for a foretelling, like a tip on which horse to bet on.
A Medieval prophet prophesied to a king that his favorite mistress would soon die. Sure enough, the woman died a short time later. The king was outraged at the prophet, certain that his prophecy had brought about the woman’s death. Word spread through the kingdom and soon got back to the prophet. The King summoned the prophet and commanded him: “Prophet, tell me when you will die! “The prophet realized that the king was planning to kill him immediately, no matter what answer he gave. The prophet thought for a moment and said: “I only know that whenever I die, the king will die three days later.” source: http://www.jokebuddha.com/Prophecy#ixzz4WJoRW1nn
We are all in lamentation, even amidst our abundance. Life itself is finite, the world has struggle and now, especially we may feel lost and not yet found. The ancient Hebrew prophet Amos speaks a timeless truth when he says of those in power:
“Take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps. Let instead justice roll down like waters and righteousness and mercy like an ever flowing stream..” (Amos 5:24)
The lamentations we may be feeling will lessen (but like grief never fully close) when and if we dedicate our lives to something larger than ourselves. This is the prophetic tradition we own. We need hope here, I agree, and we need reliance to reclaim the prophetic tradition that is ours stretching back to Amos, through Jesus, through the loving ministry of Clara Barton, through the Waitsail and Martha Sharpe through Dr. King and onto such luminaries in our times such as Christopher Reeves, Maya Angelou and Mary Wright Edelman, through the lights of those still to come, Corey Booker, Nina Turner and the young Unitarian Universalist minster in Bismarck at Standing Rock, Rev. Karen Van Fossan.
We have a deep and hope filled pool of prophecy that is ours to claim. And I am proud that hundreds of thousands of women and men, girls and boys marched for justice after the inauguration. We will need to march again and again.
As I thought about this passage from Amos, I could imagine the world he was railing against. Long gone were the glory days of Saul, David and Solomon. Israel had split into its own version of the red and blue states; a civil war had divided the land into to two states; Israel and Judah with the power resting in the Southern half of the land. The Jewish empire was faltering under its own weight, made sleepy by its wealth and arrogant by its belligerence. Amos, as all good prophets should, was telling the haughty leaders that false piety wasn’t enough. That prayer in schools wasn’t going to save them, that flag waving, scroll thumping sacrilege was a lost cause. That making Israel great again rings hollow. Only justice and righteousness will save them; in fact that is only offering God really wants from his people. Our journey is only beginning but I take courage that it is the way of tyrants to fall. It always has been.
In the tradition of the ancient Hebrew Prophets, I see our prophecy in the words of James Luther Adams “the moral obligation to direct our effort… towards a justice loving community.” Distinctly different than those religions that retreat from the world, our religion must, by its very nature, help justice flow into the world. We and others are here to proclaim that prophecy; in the Old Testament way, not only of the future but of what in the present needs to be change. Prophets as Adams put it “foretell” if this continues this will happen, not forth tell, as if they had some crystal ball. As a free church we come from an ancient tradition of foretelling: “The Radical Reformation of the 16th cent., the heralds of the Renaissance, the mystical and radically democratic sects of the 17th cent., (from which many of our religious forebears hail), the democratic revolutionists of the 18th cent. (Including the founders of our own nation, many Unitarian), the religious liberal….the evolutionists and scientists of the Social Gospel in the 19th cent. – all were prophet bards foretelling and struggling for a new epoch.” (From The Prophethood of All Believers by Adams). We are right here part of that same prophethood of all believers, the prophethood that brought us Theodore Parker, Thomas Jefferson, Lydia Maria Child (the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate) , Elizabeth Cady Stanton, our own all Unitarians and Universalists, who foretold and acted upon that prophecy.
The prophets are here and they are more than us but to reclaim our prophecy we must begin by unblocking the dams up stream. Its one thing to rescue the victims of our arrogance it’s another to unblock that which holds justice back. Or as William Booth the founder of the Salvation Army put it over a century ago “We can’t just keep picking people up at the bottom of the cliff without climbing up the mountain to see who is throwing them off.” (As quoted in God’s Politics by Jim Wallis). What are these damns that are holding justice back not only in the freedoms of our own country but the very right to life in the world’s poorest countries?
First among them is our failing as a moral country. We have to replace platitudes towards religion with the real religion of life. Upholding the moral values that 30,000 children a day dying of hunger is just plain wrong. We have the moral values that say that debt cancellation to the lowest 10% of the world is not only possible but necessary. We have the moral values that hunger and abuse and poverty here or anywhere else for that matter is wrong. We have moral values that saying any torture – any – is wrong. That there is no such thing as just a little bit of torture.
We can begin to live up to our prophetic imperative by proclaiming those moral values in the public square. Not only in good minded churches binding together but in YOU speaking out at work and in your community about YOUR moral values. We are the people we have been waiting for.
Some would disparage over the world we live in but take hope and have courage. I always remember the words of Theodore Parker, our great prophet ‘the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’. It is our task to create a better world, even just a little bit of it, to remove those impediments towards the flow of justice again, person to person, hand to hand, arm in arm, help does arrive despite the politicians. Our social action committee, these brave souls are here to help you let justice flow again. Our prophecy is to support those who, like the two hundred women and men from our church that marched yesterday, because they are us, we are the same. As Jim Wallis puts it, we must stop being the thermometer that measures the temperature of the world and begin to be the thermostat that turns the heat up and melts the dams of injustice, breaking through with the free flow of justice (in Great Awakening by Jim Wallis)
Join us as we change the world. Give generously to the causes we support. As Wallis said “Imagine politics being unable to co-opt the (religion) but being held accountable to its moral imperatives. Imagine social movements arising out of spiritual revivals and actually changing the wind of both our culture and politics. Imagine a fulfillment in our time of the words of the prophet Amos’ ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Just imagine.” (ibid, Wallis)
I have become convinced that our spiritual sustenance is tied to our engagement with the world, not, as is so often believed in our retreat from the world. One of the rising prophets of our own age of lamentation and disruption is a young African American from Cleveland and State Senator in Ohio, Nina Turner. Ms. Turner offers this advice in reclaiming our prophetic voice. Her grandmother who had survived Jim Crow in the South used to say that you need three bones to be a prophet. A wishbone so that you can dream of a better time, a jaw bone so that you can speak truth to power and most importantly a back bone so you can stand up for love and justice. In the words of another upcoming prophet the Rev. Dr. William Barber the head of the NC NAACP and the founder of the Moral Monday movement, “we need to move if we want to change the world, we can’t just think about it, it’s easier to build a monument than to build a better world.” Here is to building a better world, starting with the call within us to own our better selves. Amen.