One of our Seventh-day Adventist Chaplains, Barry Black, has been in the news much recently. He had his work cut out for him on January 6, a dark day that witnessed the unthinkable, an insurrection that culminated in what he referred to as “the desecration of the United States Capitol Building,” where he has served as Chaplain of the Senate since 2003. In the wee hours of the next morning, after the Joint Session of Congress concluded its appointed work of certifying the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, he prayed,
“These tragedies have reminded us that words matter and that the power of life and death is in the tongue. We have been warned that eternal vigilance continues to be freedom’s price. Lord, you have helped us remember that we need to see in each other a common humanity that reflects your image. …. Use us to bring healing and unity to our hurting and divided nation and world.”
May that be our prayer as well.
My text today is Psalm 103:6. “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.”
In 1934 Pastor Mike King went to Europe. He came back a changed man.
Mike King was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He went to Germany in 1934 for the Fifth Baptist World Congress. There he saw firsthand the emerging Nazi state. Hitler had become chancellor a year before. Books had been burned. Jews were being boycotted and restricted. The SS had established the first concentration camp at Dachau. On August 2, President Paul von Hindenburg died and Hitler became the sole leader of Germany. Two days later, on August 4th, the Baptist World Congress session opened in Berlin, Hitler’s capital city. And in the following days, with the Nazi government watching their actions, the Baptists discussed and then passed a resolution which stated:
“This Congress deplores and condemns as a violation of the law of God the Heavenly Father, all racial animosity, and every form of oppression or unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward colored people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”
While in Germany, Pastor King also took time to visit sites of the Protestant Reformation, walking in the footsteps of Martin Luther.
Mike King came back from that pilgrimage a changed man–inspired by the urgency of the hour, and by the courage of his fellow Baptists and of Martin Luther to speak up against falsehood and oppression.
And as a sign of that transformation, Mike King changed his name, as Jacob did after wrestling with the angel. He changed it to Martin Luther King. And he changed the name of his five-year-old son, Michael Jr., “Little Mike,” to Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was very young in the 1960s when Martin rose to national prominence. I don’t remember him being in the news. And that’s natural, I was 6 years old, in first grade, when he died.
I first read Dr. King’s sermons when I was a student at Atlantic Union College, a dozen years later. In January of my Freshman year, which would be January 1981—40 years ago this month—Dr. Charles W. Teel, Jr., a professor at Loma Linda, asked me to do some research for him in Boston. Dr. Teel had done his Ph.D. at Boston University with a dissertation on “Dr. King’s Protesting Pastors,” those ministers who marched arm in arm with Dr. King. While doing that research he found scrapbooks compiled by the 19th century Unitarian abolitionist, Theodore Parker. Parker was a Transcendentalist, a contemporary and colleague of Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was a leader of the Vigilance Committee of Boston helping fugitive slaves get to Canada, and was one of John Brown’s “Secret Six.” Dr. Teel had me work at transcribing Parker’s scrapbooks dealing with his interventions on behalf of two fugitive slaves, Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns, and preparing them for publication. A few years later, Parker became the subject of my master’s thesis.
Some of Parker’s sayings have come down to us from other people and we forget that it was he who said them. It was Parker who first spoke of “government of all the people, by all the people, and for all the people.” Abraham Lincoln had a copy of that book of sermons and had underlined that phrase and used it at Gettysburg.
In an 1853 sermon Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King read that or a version of it somewhere, tucked it away, and brought it out in a 1964 baccalaureate address at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
That was Dr. King’s hope. It is the Christian hope, that God will have the final say. That God will hear our cries and the cries of the souls under the altar, just as he heard the cries of his enslaved people in Egypt. We may see little progress in our day. We may have times when it seems like we are going backwards. But God is still in control. God’s truth is still marching on. God is still working righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. And God calls us to participate in that work.
Dr. King’s vision was enriched by his study of other preachers, by his friendship with Rabbi Abraham Heschel, by his study of transcendentalists and Gandhi and Tillich.
But at root, Dr. King’s vision was grounded thoroughly in the Biblical story, in the message of the prophets, and in the proclamation of Jesus Christ.
The Bible story begins with God creating a world and calling it good. And in that world he placed a garden, and in that garden he knelt, and scooped up the rich, black soil with his hands and formed a man. And out of that man’s side he made a woman. Together, Scripture says, they were made in the very image of God.
When they sinned, God sought them. When they said they were naked, God clothed them. When they left the Garden, God went ahead of them. When they were enslaved, he brought them to freedom–and he told them to remember what he had done. Time after time in the book of Deuteronomy we hear the refrain, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” Deuteronomy 5:15.
That is why God commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath, Deuteronomy 5 says, a day of rest not just for you and your family, but for your ox and your ass, the stranger or alien within your gates, your male servant and your female servant.
That is why God commanded Israel in Deuteronomy 15 to free their servants after a set time and send them forth with blessing. That is why God commanded Israel to keep the Passover, in Deuteronomy 16.
The God who freed Israel from slavery is a God of justice. In Deuteronomy 24, verse 17, God says, “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.”
Deuteronomy 10:17 says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Some Christian leaders have said recently that the concept of social justice is not Biblical. Not Biblical? It is at the very heart of the Bible. Over and over again we see it in Deuteronomy. We see it in the books of Chronicles and Samuel, as God tells the kings that they are to execute justice and righteousness. In the Psalms we see that the “The Lord executes righteousness and justice for all the oppressed,” Psalm 103:6. “For the Lord loves justice,” Psalm 37:28, “he will not forsake his saints.” “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute,” Psalm 82:3. God “executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and sets the prisoners free,” Psalm 146:7.
The refrain continues in the prophets.
Amos Chapter 5, verse 23, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
We quote Isaiah 58:13 on the right observance of the Sabbath, and its warning against doing pleasure on God’s holy day. But read the full chapter. It’s addressed to a nation whose religious and political leaders confess God but have forsaken justice. Who oppress their workers, verse 3, and cheat their poor while playacting holiness through sacrifices and public posturing. Verse 6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? … If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, THEN your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
And it is to Isaiah that Jesus turns in his first sermon in his home village of Nazareth in Luke 4, verse 17, to begin his ministry and announce his call. Luke says he unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And yet some say, social justice is not in the Bible.
In certain churches, even in some Adventist churches, when a preacher speaks of justice, when a preacher opens their Bible to these passages, and proclaims the good news of God to the poor, they call that preacher a troublemaker, a rabblerouser, a Socialist and a Communist. They hurled those charges at Daddy King. They hurled those charges at Martin. And we’ve seen them hurling the same charges at the current occupant of the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who was this month elected to Congress.
They say social justice is not in the Bible.
But, brothers and sisters, social justice is there. It is in the Bible. We’ve just seen it.
In 1998 I moved my family to Houston. We moved to Alief, in Southwest Houston, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the most diverse city in the United States. My kids attended Houston International Seventh-day Adventist Church, a church that looked like the neighborhood. They went to public schools, and their friends were Black, white, brown and every other shade of human complexion. Their friends were Hindu and Muslim, Christian and Jew, Protestant and Catholic. This was their norm. We felt we had reached the day of which Martin had dreamed, “where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
But at the same time our nation was experiencing a cold wind blowing. An increase in darkness. I think it started with 9-11. In reaction to the terrorist attacks that day, Americans were told to be afraid. We were told to be suspicious. We were told Muslims were the problem. We were told we needed law and order. We were told we needed spies in sacred spaces, and a Global War on Terrorism, and rendition and torture of suspected terrorists. And some of those fanning the flames of this fear and this fanatical hate were the preachers of popular churches who lusted for political power.
Then in 2008 the US elected a Black president. And reelected him in 2012. To many, this seemed to be confirmation that we had reached the fulfillment of Martin’s dream.
But it provoked a reaction. We saw the hate swell. Rumors and lies about Obama’s birth. About his religion. About the color of his suits. But the real problem for the doubters was the color of his skin.
When the Vatican elects a new pope, they say “A fat pope is followed by a skinny pope.” The pendulum swings. So with presidents it seems. A president who epitomized equality and progress was followed by a person who personified pettiness. He did not create American racism. But over the past four years he has fanned its flames. And in so doing, the eyes of some have slowly begun to be opened to what Black Americans have known all along: through all the ups and downs of the past 60 years, some things have changed, and some things haven’t. There is inequity. There is disparity. A Black person stopped by the police has a different experience than a White person does. A Black person before a judge gets a different sentence than a white person. A Black home-buyer or car-buyer has a different experience than a White person. And in the area of health, in this current pandemic the data show that Blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID and 2.8 times more likely than whites to die from it.
Through videos on the news and in social media we have all become eye-witnesses to police brutality, with the names of those who have become as martyrs etched into our memory: Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, George Floyd, and so many more.
I joined the marches last summer in Houston. On June 2, 60,000 of us marched with the Floyd family from Discovery Green to City Hall. Clergy of all faiths joined together for prayer before, and then merged with the crowd as we made our way chanting through the streets of Houston. A week later on June 9 I joined with other students, faculty, and staff of the institutions of the Texas Medical Center in a march of White Coats for Black Lives, to remember not only the victims of police violence but to highlight the racial disparity of the COVID pandemic.
And here we are today. Ten days after an attempted insurrection upon the Capitol. Three days after Donald Trump was impeached for the second time. We are partly hopeful for the future. Partly afraid of what still could happen.
And so I return to the words of Dr. King in that baccalaureate sermon at Wesleyan University in 1964. Some, he said, were discouraged. Some were saying “that we are forever confined to nagging self-defeating wilderness experiences. But I still believe,” he said,
“that we have the resources to move on through the difficulties of the present hour toward a great and noble Promised Land which will bring peace and joy, and harmony and brotherhood to our nation and the nations of the world. We can live with this faith. I know that before we get there, there will be those moments that we will go almost to the brink of despair. … [But] somehow with this faith, we can go on toward that brighter day, toward that greater city, moving on with the faith that we can get there by and by. We can move through the darkness of the hour to the brightness of a new day. I have faith in this, and I believe in this because I believe that somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“This,” he concluded, “is our noble challenge and this is our powerful opportunity.”
And he asked the students and faculty to pray, and we now join in that prayer.
“Eternal God, Our Father, we thank thee for the opportunities of life. We thank thee for the challenges of this hour. Help us to move from all of those mountains that stand in the way of progress, that stand in the way of our stride into freedom. Now, O God, help us to go out with determination to build a warless world, and to make for a better distribution of wealth, and to make right here for a brotherhood that transcends race or color. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”