MLK Jr: Shabbat Shalom and Becoming The Beloved Community
A few things about how I ended up like this, and invited here to remember The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’m an Episcopal priest. It didn’t have to turn out like this. In my college years I approached Rabbi Stanley Kessler in West Hartford, CT, about converting to Judaism. I had studied with him for a year we during which we read books like Night, As a Driven Leaf and The Last of the Just. I studied Biblical Hebrew. I was inspired by God-Ha Shem who came across in the texts as a God of Shalom and Justice for all people. I was motivated by the fact that my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was, is and always will be a Jew. I did my undergraduate work on Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Since in 1971 no one on the Religion Department faculty knew anything about Wiesel, they assigned a grad student, a Jewish woman from West Hartford, Bernice Saltzman, to be my thesis advisor. She remained a mentor for years and years afterwards. It is Elie Wiesel who reminds us that the opposite of Love and Shalom is not Hate, but Indifference. I was ashamed that “The Church” had made terrible mistakes throughout the ages, even encouraging anti-Semitism, Racisim & violence. Rabbi Kessler, however, talked me out of converting. He said, among other things, “Kirk, there are enough Jews in the world. What we need are more Christians like you who like us! We are worshipping the same God, a God of Love and Justice, and you already come from a fine religious tradition. Embrace it.”
I grew up in the United Church of Christ (UCC) where I knew that the distinguished African-American gentleman in the back of the church most Sundays as an usher and a deacon, Dr. Percy Julian, was the first black person to buy a house in my hometown of Oak Park, IL. What I did not know was that Dr. Julian grew up in Alabama. I did not know that Dr. Julian, as a scientist, was a pioneer. While working for Glidden Paint Co., he was the first person to synthesize the human hormones progesterone and testosterone, and his work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills. I also didn’t know that his house in Oak Park had been fire-bombed before his family had moved in. Or, that he and his son would often have to sit up in a tree on their property to protect the house with a shotgun.
I was aware that when I took the El from the west-suburbs into the Chicago Loop that the train passed massive housing projects. I was clear that that was no way to live and that it was unjust. I was aware that my father played a role in establishing local banking and real estate practices to prevent block-busting and red-lining in the villages which helped integrate our community. I led an effort in my high school to have a weekend-long meeting with East Side Disciples and Blackstone Rangers, Chicago gangs, to learn why the gang culture exists. We had an opportunity to bring a musical arranged by Oscar Brown Jr with a cast of these same gang members to perform at the high school that weekend. I was told by our assistant principal no, we had a school bond issue coming up for vote soon and that we could not have “those people” seen being bussed into Oak Park. On TV I saw the white neighborhoods in Cicero throw bricks and insults at Dr. King as he marched down the streets. We all saw the west side of Chicago and a number of cities nationwide erupt in riots and flames when Dr. King was assassinated.
I remember seeing photographs of Abraham Joshua Heschel side-by-side with Dr. King, and was keenly aware of the important role that American Jewish community played in the Civil Rights Movement. A highpoint of my college years was seeing Heschel speak on our campus one evening a few days after the Kent State shootings. He started us with a period of silence to reflect on the horror of that event. The silence was long, powerful and necessary. Just seeing Heschel was like seeing one of the Hebrew prophets walk in and stand before us. He held us in a theological spell for an hour or so. It was broadcast and recorded by the campus radio station, but alas, the tape has been lost. Which is OK, for it was the experience of Heschel himself that made the deepest impression that has never left me or any of us who were there.
In his tiny little book, The Sabbath (Shambhala, Boston:1951,1979), Heschel writes: “There is a Realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue but to be in accord.” I believe this is at the heart of the problem, and pretty much all our problems – we allow ourselves to be distracted by the need to have, to own, to control, and to subdue others and the planet itself. He observes that Covetousness is the only commandment made twice, and his belief that Shabbat, Sabbath, is the antidote to our covetousness by breaking our cycles of wanting, having, owning, controlling, and subduing long enough to remember who we are and whose we are. I believe Heschel and King could only do what they did by taking Sabbath time, Shabbat time, to keep their focus on what it means to be human in a world in which materialism, consumerism, violence and political chaos do their best to distract us from Being, capital “B.”
I taught American History for two years to 10th grade girls. Very difficult, very disappointing to look at the underbelly of our several hundred-year experiment on this continent. No one asked us to come here. Yet, those of us who came not only represented a great variety of Christians, but there were Jews and Muslims among us from the very beginning. Many of us, especially the Muslims, did not come by choice. For many the Sin of Slavery brought them here and they too are original settlers. The great problem that King lived to resolve grew out of this American system of Slavery and the Civil War. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ought to have rendered it unnecessary for Dr. King to have to sort out the “race issue.” Yet, the result of granting personhood and political personhood to people of color was the Ku Klux Klan, the horrors of Reconstruction, violent voter suppression, and the establishment of the Jim Crow south. Historically, it is ridiculous that the Civil Rights movement resulting in the landmark legislation of the 1960s was even needed one hundred years later!
Nevertheless, look where we find ourselves today: legislated and judiciary erosion of voting rights, a resurgence of White Nationalism, voter suppression, and divisions the likes of which could not have been imagined the day Barak Obama was first elected President of the United States – a day of great Hope and fulfillment for many. Now we have a president who makes denigrating remarks about people of color from Haiti and Africa.
Enter the importance of Shabbat and an evening like this one. I bring up Shabbat because I believe that is where the inspiration for King, Heschel, Wiesel and others is derived. Shabbat is a break with the culture of unfettered covetousness – which some lamely refer to as Ayan Rand’s Objectivism - we not only have people in congress promoting her philosophy, but one US Senator is actually named after her! We have an entire stream of Evangelical Christianity that proclaims a Prosperity Gospel – God wants you to have two Teselas in every garage, and a SubZero Refrigerator well stocked in every mansion. Our culture of Covetousness is endlessly exhausting. Shabbat is a time, among other things, to be renewed and to reflect upon the foundational texts of our two sister faiths. Believe it or not, in college our New Testament course began with Isaiah, so potent and relevant to the life of Jesus and what would become the emerging Christian community was the prophet’s majestic poetry!
What do we find? Texts like Isaiah 60 which emanates from the darkness of Exile: Arise! Shine for your light has come! The prophet goes on to imagine people from all corners of the Earth, Jews and Gentiles, streaming into Jerusalem, submitting to YWHW/Ha Shem, the God of the Exodus, the God of Abraham Isaac and Ishmael, the One God who spoke creation into being, who breathed his Ruah, his Spirit, into a handful of dust and created us, male and female he created us! This God calls us to care for one another, especially the world’s most vulnerable people represented in the texts as “widows, orphans and resident aliens.” I was recently chastised for being “too political” in the pulpit for mentioning God’s care for resident aliens! Imagine! Shabbat gives us time to remember who we are and whose we are. As the Song of Songs so elegantly reminds us, we are God’s Beloved Community!
God calls us to Be – to be God’s own Beloved Community. These are the words Martin King used to define the goal of the movement – becoming The Beloved Community as God/HaShem, Isaiah, Jesus and the entire Biblical narrative imagines we ought to be. Shabbat gives us time to reflect on how we can be God’s Beloved Community, a Community of Shalom – Shalom which more than peace and prosperity means seeking the well being of every single person in our society. Shalom means Justice and Peace for all people – not some people, not most people, not a lot of people, but all people! The prophets remind us that this is God’s Hope for all of humanity!
Last Sunday in our tradition we remembered Jesus’ Baptism by John in the River Jordan – the river central to all Judeo-Christian traditions. After which the heavens were torn open, God’s Spirit, God’s Ruah, like a dove descends and lands on Jesus, and a voice declares, “You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Henri Nouwen, a priest and theologian, helped many of us to see that this is what God says to all of us: I have called you by name from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands, and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will not hide my face from you. Wherever you are, I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one. You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased. Shabbat is a time to remember this, and that it is this Belovedness of every person that is the foundation of all Justice and Justice for all.
Noted author and full-time curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut once made the following observations on Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, or The Beatitudes:
“I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by-and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. It may be that music is that second good idea’s being born.”
- Kurt Vonnegut. Palm Sunday. Random House. New York, New York. 1981. p. 296
Music, I believe, also emanates from Shabbat time. The great Hasidic songs, the great Shaker songs, the great music and dance of the Sufi Muslims, the great works of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, all mean to take us out of ourselves and connect us with others – with God and others – all others. Lest we forget, our common story begins with Miriam and the sisters grabbing their tambourines as they danced and sang their people to freedom from slavery in the Empire. As did King and the movement we recall today. I believe he wants us to keep singing, until our singing gives birth to the next good idea! Beloved Not Fade Away