Sermon: Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution
On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King delivered this sermon, called I See The Promised Land. “. . . Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. . . . We’ve got to give ourselves to the struggle until the end. . . . Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to have a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. . . .And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any (one). Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
The next day, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. So on or about January 15 every year we mark in some fashion the birth and the life of this man. Grounded in his spiritual beliefs and in the power of his intellect, we see how his focus broadened from racism to include poverty and war as evils to be eradicated. King’s themes were consistent. Grounded in Protestant theology and the black church tradition, he preached justice, love and hope, with non-violent action as the means of achieving them. (An interesting aside is that Unitarian Universalism can claim an influence on King in the development of his reliance on non-violence. King attended a service at the Unitarian All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., where he heard about the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. He subsequently read Thoreau and credited Thoreau and Gandhi with his own development of non-violent action.)
Also, King drew upon the American dream of freedom and equality and he looked to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for grounding. So did Abraham Lincoln. King believed that if he could only reach the consciences of whites, racism would end. Having just seen Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, I would say that Lincoln was somewhat more pragmatic about social change. We need both: the idealists and the pragmatists.
In his acceptance speech upon being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said, and I have adapted his words for inclusivity of gender, “I refuse to accept the idea that (humanity) is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds (it). I refuse to accept the view that (humankind) is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood (and sisterhood) can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality” Unarmed truth and unconditional love. Justice, love, and hope. This is the way to the promised land. This is the part of King’s legacy that I wish to explore today and I believe that how we understand justice is the key to creating that beloved community.
King translated human equality, truth, love, justice, and hope into a philosophy of non-violent action. What could that possibly mean in a country as violent as ours? Violence exists, on the personal and the broader communal levels, not just in the ways people hurt one another physically; not just in the ways people hurt one another emotionally, psychologically; not just in the damage we do to one another’s spirits. Violence exists in our institutions and systems. Just one example being our system of incarceration, in which 7.6 million people are enmeshed, either in jails or prisons, on probation, or on parole. The largest number in the industrialized world, in part because the sentences handed out in the United States are harsher and longer in duration. The population in federal prisons increased in 2011 by 3.4% and the federal budget for 2012 posited a ten per cent increase for prison funding. More than half of all prisoners are there for drug offenses. The population in state prisons decreased, in New York partly because we eliminated mandatory prison sentences for some drug convictions. The prison population is disproportionately made up of African Americans, both in terms of population percentages in general and in terms of the percentages of who commits crime. In other words, an African American is more likely to go to prison for committing a crime than a white person is. And once a person convicted of a felony is released from prison, he/she may never sit on a jury, may have trouble voting (and in two states will never vote), and most likely will have trouble finding work and even, in some cases, a place to live. To me, that in itself is a form of institutional violence in that it is punishment that never stops punishing. It is done in the name of justice, yet it seems not completely just. What is justice in this violent world? Is it compatible with truth, love, and hope, as Martin Luther King would tell us?
Two of the strongest factors in our cultural, not necessarily our legal, but our cultural construct of justice are our Jewish and Christian religious heritage and our very human nature. Many people believe that what is just comes from God. Law comes from God. The monotheistic tradition, which is our heritage here in the west, is very clear that God is the source of justice. Jewish and Christian scripture each contain laws, rules and teachings about human behavior. The ten commandments are one notable example. They tell us not to lie, steal, kill, or break our commitments to spouses and parents. Another is the Golden Rule — treat others as we would like to be treated. Perhaps the most notable is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” found in the books of Exodus (21:22-27), Leviticus (24:17-22), and Deuteronomy (19:15-21). These messages may not all go together, but somehow they do inform what we call justice.
Another customary source of justice is what I want to call, for purposes of this discussion, human reaction. When wronged, humans react in certain ways that include fighting back, inflicting punishment, seeking revenge, demanding restitution. At times our very survival depends upon it. Our concept of law and justice, then, contains both of these streams in it: that which is customary for us to do according to our human reactions and that which some believe God, through scripture, says we should do.
Sometimes these streams flow together, sometimes they do not. They both start with the principle that justice demands accountability. Law professor Martha Minow notes that retribution can “motivate punishment out of fairness to those who have been wronged and reflects a belief that wrongdoers deserve blame and punishment in direct proportion to the harm inflicted.” Justice demands accountability. “We are unable to forgive what we cannot punish,” says Hannah Arendt. When someone commits a crime, by and large we think that some sort of punishment should follow. It is in the character of that punishment that we find the two streams diverging. The stream that flows from the human reactive impulse is justice that focuses exclusively upon retribution, or retributive justice. Retribution means paying someone back for what they did, with a little extra so they won’t do it again. This best describes our current justice system, as well as the personal applications of justice for many people. Retribution can take the form of personal vengeance: someone hits you, you hit them back, harder if you can. It can take the form of social vengeance: lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Some argue that the death penalty is a form of social vengeance. The core motive of retribution may be a self-preserving human reaction, and for me, that is totally understandable. When someone hurts me I want to hurt them back. I am particularly attuned to this when someone seems to judge or blame me unfairly. I can become defensive. I can withdraw from that person and withhold myself. That is my way of punishment and it makes me feel powerful again. How do you get revenge when someone hurts you? When justice stops rather than starts, with retribution, the danger “is that precisely the same vengeful motive often leads people to exact more than is necessary, to be maliciously spiteful or dangerously aggressive. . . (retribution) carries with it potential insatiability.” (Martha Minow) Two eyes for an eye; two teeth for a tooth. Too much withholding; too much withdrawal. Such cycles of revenge, however understandable, often do not work. We expect that we will feel better, both as individuals and as a society, with revenge, but we don’t. Instead we become trapped in disconnection, hatred, bitterness and violence, at great cost to ourselves, our families and society at large. It can feel righteous to be the one aggrieved, but where does it end?When justice stops rather than starts, with retribution, justice ceases to fully exist. Have you ever gotten revenge on someone? I have. It felt good, for a moment. Then it felt bad. Our society, and many of us individually, for the most part practice retributive justice. We get even. Sometimes retributive justice is based upon the myth that a type of violent retribution can somehow make people better and society safer. Does it? When we hit our children for hitting other children are we really teaching them that hitting is bad? Is the good guy with a gun the only thing that protects us from the bad guy with a gun? Retribution saves, or so we believe. Theologian Walter Wink asserts that every major social group of the 20th century: socialist, communist, capitalist, democratic, fascist, have enshrined the belief that violence will save; violence will redeem the injustice. And the results of this have been, and are, more violence. Another understanding of justice, which has as its basis some streams of religious and philosophical teaching, argues that justice must be more than punishment, more than retribution. This stream says that justice must also have components of restitution, forgiveness, restoration. What Martin Luther King Jr might call love and hope. It is called restorative justice.
Religious teachings, including our own Unitarian Universalist values, claim that justice rests upon principles of responsibility, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus “charged us both to place distinctions between wrongdoers and the virtuous, yet to see ourselves as all in the same camp.” (Jim Consedine, Restorative Justice) Jewish teachings place the focus of justice on community restoration. Jim Consedine, in his book Restorative Justice, writes that “The focus on crime in biblical times was not so much on individuals as on the community. . . . The Scriptures renounced any scapegoating that claimed that crime was only the responsibility of a few evil individuals. . . The test of justice in the biblical view is not whether the right rules are applied in the right way. Justice is tested by outcome. . . . Surely the scriptural quote most abused and taken out of context, ‘ he notes, “has been that of ‘an eye for an eye.’ Public perception of its meaning is usually the opposite of what was intended. . . that you should never claim more than the value of what is damaged. . . . Martin Buber, the famous Jewish scholar, in his German translation of the scriptures translates ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ as ‘as eye for the value of an eye, a tooth for the value of a tooth.’
Responsibility is proportional to the act committed, and at the same time tempered with mercy, with love. Restorative justice, then, incorporates principles of retribution, in its understanding that justice demands accountability. It goes on, though, to recognize that people are capable of change and that offenders must be helped to work toward taking responsibility for their actions and making restitution when applicable. It is an act of hope. It recognizes that the victim needs a meaningful role in this process if forgiveness is to be found. Restorative justice would put a human face upon wrongdoing and ask for a humane response from society and individuals.
Some examples include the parent of one of the children killed in Newtown who talked to the press about forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which promoted a process in which perpetrators heard how they had harmed their victims and took responsibility for their actions. It focused on reparations, restitution, and in some cases amnesty. Restorative justice happens each time we forgive the person who hurts us and with them, work toward rebuilding the damaged bridges between us. For me personally it is always a choice to turn toward re-connecting and turn away from a self-protective seeking of revenge. I think it is the same for us communally, as a society. Restorative justice is always risking our vulnerability for the sake of greater hope and greater love.
In his sermon Staying Awake Through A Great Revolution King said, “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood , and yet . . . we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood (and sisterhood). But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as (siblings). Or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
It has been almost forty five years since the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Here, in the year 2013, we live in a different time. Yet he still has something to say to us. We are living amidst a great debate about how we will understand and practice justice in our country. Right now it’s focused on gun control. It also focuses on spending cuts, taxation, health care, and the debt ceiling. “And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses–that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.” Will we choose retribution? We will choose restoration? How will we define justice, in our personal lives and in our life together? Will we stop at getting even or will we reach for more? Do we believe that we will see the promised land? How much love and hope do we have in our hearts? He had a dream of beloved community. Do we? If we do, I believe, I believe, that we can get there. May it be so.