Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

Here is my sermon for Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday:

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 18th, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant “Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
--Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
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.
--Amos 5:21-24

In his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Harvard University’s Peter Gomes writes:
One of the invitations I least welcome is an invitation to speak to some college campus in the month of January at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service. It is not that I lack regard for Martin Luther King Jr. If Protestants had saints he would be one of them, and I am convinced that he saved America from itself and allowed it to begin to live out the full implications of its own demanding creed. I am second to no one in my regard for Dr. King’s heroic accomplishments, of which I and all other Americans are beneficiaries. Having said that, however, I still find the day, with its celebrations, problematic.
Peter Gomes goes on to wonder “if what we thought was a movement turn[s] out to be only a moment.”

He writes that
“the problem is not with the civil rights movement…but that we are reminded of how far removed we are from those great events. How much remains to be done, and how little will there is to do it.”
He continues:
“How na├»ve it seems now, to imagine that there was a moment within the lifetimes of many of us today when it was possible to think of redeeming social sin by moral courage, and to do so under the leadership of a Christian minister who believed that the gospel of Jesus Christ had social, moral, and political implications.”
For King, the
“end was not only the end of legal discrimination, but nothing less than the bringing of the principles of the kingdom of God into play in the life of America.” Pp. 161-163.
I tend to resonate with what Gomes is saying in his book while keeping in mind that in 48 hours America and the world will taste the fruit of the civil rights movement. We will witness the inauguration of the first African-American president. We need to enjoy and savor that precious fruit. It isn’t everyday we get to taste of it.

When King wrote his letter to white clergymen in 1963 from a Birmingham, Alabama jail, there were signs in restaurants and businesses that refused service to blacks. Blacks were denied the right to vote. Colored children were not welcome to newly constructed amusement parks. Segregation was the rule of the day and the church was silent. The church was offended by the demonstrations for equality. The church said it isn’t time yet.

It is hard to imagine that the church could have been so complacent in the face of such obvious injustice. Of course there were exceptions. There were congregations and clergy who marched. There were people of faith who took great risks and who handed over their own bodies for the bodies of others. But the exceptions proved the rule. Churches were largely indifferent or offended that their peace was disturbed.

It is hard to imagine the complacency of the church until we see that little has changed. Many folks today, that is white folks, are happy to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as long as we keep it to issues that are already settled. Few people openly advocate today for segregation in schools or that African-Americans should ride in the rear of buses. Those issues are yesterday’s issues.

If King’s birthday, and that for which he stood, is going to be acknowledged today, then we would do well to acknowledge the work that remains to be done. King and the gospel he proclaimed included civil rights but it didn’t end there.

He spoke and acted for economic justice.
He spoke and acted for peace and against the military industrial complex.
He spoke and acted against the wars we wage and the lies we invoke to wage them.
He spoke and acted for the rights of workers and for access to education and health care.
He spoke and acted against corporate greed that exploits our resources and wastes our planet for the profit of a few at the expense of the many.
He spoke and acted for the kingdom of God.

He didn’t invent this. He spoke and acted by drawing from the resources of our most cherished scriptural texts. He reminded good church folks that the Bibles they carry to worship and place prominently on their coffee tables contain both indictment and promise.

Our scriptural texts indict us, if we dare read them, for our complacency with injustice and our lack of moral courage and will. They promise us, if we dare hear it, with a way of life in which justice flows down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice not for some of us—but for all of us.

When King spoke and acted this way he was accused of meddling. He was accused of bringing politics into the pulpit. He was accused of being an extremist. In his letter from Birmingham Jail, he answered these accusations:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ."

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
It was extreme when King told America:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
In 48 hours we will taste that fruit of creative extremism. 50 years ago, the skin color of our nation’s new first family would have kept them from sleeping in motels. This week they will enjoy their first night in the White House.

We must not delude ourselves into thinking it was simply the passage of time that made for this new situation. It was due to the hard work of consciousness raising, of organization, of refusing to obey unjust laws, and thereby changing those laws, of speaking out, and of renouncing privilege.

King responded to his fellow clergy who told him it wasn’t time yet for justice. He was told he should wait for a better time. Justice will come in time, they told him. Be patient. King wrote:
Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
That was Martin Luther King writing to his fellow clergy from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.

I find myself amazed but not surprised how consistently those who are in positions of privilege have the nerve to tell those who are fighting for their rights and for their lives that they need to wait and to be patient. If those advocating patience had their rights denied and their lives threatened I doubt they would be offering the same platitudes.

This past week in Nashville, a hotel employee was fired for being gay. This happens all too often. Thirty states including Tennessee have no laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Usually this type of discrimination isn’t quite so blatant. Usually, some other reason is given. But in this case the owner stated clearly why this employee was losing his job. He didn’t do anything wrong. He was gay. That was enough.

Where is the church in all of this? With a few exceptions the church either encourages this kind of discrimination through a warped reading of the Bible or it is complicit in its silence.

Don’t trouble us with those issues
it says. Be patient.

Six years ago President Bush told America that he would put his best efforts to work for a just peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But just let me take care of this little business in Iraq first. Be patient.

Time has not improved this situation. Patience has not been a virtue.

What time is it for sexual and gender minorities?
What time is it for all of the children of Abraham in the Middle East?
What time is it for the poorest in our country?
What time is it for our planet that is entrusted to our care?

I am hopeful about this new administration. It certainly is time for a new direction. But I am concerned for our new president. He has a long to-do list. If we do nothing but leave this list on his desk and ask him to take care of things for us, we will be in for some grave disappointments. His to-do list is our to-do list.

I am also concerned that the economic changes we are facing may cause us to put issues of social and environmental justice on the back burner. Bailing out the status quo will not move us toward a sustainable future. Now more than ever do we need creativity and collaboration. The lives of our great-great grandchildren not yet born are counting on us.

Martin Luther King’s vision was not limited to one issue. He proclaimed boldly a new vision for America and for humanity. White, black, gay, straight, Palestinian, Israeli, Christian, Muslim, religious, secularist, female, and male all make up what he called a beloved community.

It is false to think that we need to pit issues of justice against each other or that one has to wait for another. They all work together and must work together. I will give Martin Luther King the last word:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.


  1. I don't doubt that Dr. King would decry the injustice of the fired employee, but I'd bet my last dollar he would not support same-sex marriage.

  2. One thing that is impossible to know and impossible to prove is how a figure of history would act in the present.

  3. "I'd bet my last dollar he would not support same-sex marriage."

    Please prove it. Not with something he wrote 40 years ago, but with something he wrote today. Since 40 years have passed, please prove Jim, that if he were alive today Dr. King would not support same-sex marriage.

    And then demonstrate why we should expect Dr. King to be correct on every issue.