The Religion of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Rev. Aric Flemming, Easter 2018Sermon by The Rev. Aric Flemming, The Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. File photo (2018) by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications



When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we will sing and shout the victory (singing).

On March 3rd, 1994, at 2:36 PM in Atlanta, Georgia. A young man was born there in the Crawford Long Memorial Hospital, two miles exactly from the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home and centerpiece of Martin Luther King, Jr's life and legacy. That young man grew from infancy to maturity as the son and grandson of black Baptist preachers, much like Dr. King. He graduated high school and matriculated at Morehouse College, the international headquarters for black male excellence, just like Dr. King.

It seemed as though he just could not get away from King. It was as if King was forever etched into the deeply interwoven fabric of his episteme. It was both a courageous charge, and a convoluted challenge to be like King. So he thought if he dare to trace the tip toes of what James Baldwin expressed as the dangerous road, before Martin Luther King Jr., he'd never make the journey. Then of all the places he could go, he voyaged to Boston in pursuit of theological education. The same city King received a PhD in theology. And now today, in this very moment, he stands to preach almost 55 years to the date of the same day, that King stood in this historic pulpit

I first want to acknowledge with utmost gratitude the ancestors present with us in this very moment. To those in fleshed and those who have transitioned to realms beyond, including my late father Aric Sr. I say thank you to my mother, father, family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, classmates, counterparts, constituents and everybody. Thank you for your fervent prayers and for being present with us.

Lastly, I want to thank the familial colleagues of the Memorial Church at Harvard and especially Professor Stephanie Paulsell for this marvelous invitation. I want you all to wave at my mother who is sitting right in the front, my mother and auntie, wave your hand mama. This morning my friends, with our time that is to share together, I want to reflect on this thought. The religion of Martin Luther King Jr. The religion of Martin Luther King Jr. A religion that is sacrificial, a religion that seeks to uncover the sacred dignity of all human beings.

I would like to counter position two small versus for our emphasis this morning, one found in Genesis one and the other in Galatians three, where in the 27th verse of the first chapter of Genesis reads, "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God, he created them, male and female, he created them." Then also in Galatians 3:28 the scripture reads, "There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Allow me to undress the unspoken elephant in the room. I know what you are all thinking, so I'm just going to go ahead and say it. I really don't mean to offend anybody in here, but I know this is going to bring me some backlash. So I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway because I might not get this chance again. Here it is. Brace yourselves. I am not a fan of evangelicals. Oh yes. Look straight ahead, look at me.

I blame Professor Walton's class on white evangelicalism in my second year of divinity school. I stand diametrically opposed to the mission of white evangelicals. I am not, nor can I be, nor will I walk ever in the powerful shoes of white evangelicals. There is no way in any breathing, functioning, existential coauthored universe where I will ever identify myself with such a mission of white evangelicalism. And God knows I dare not place the word evangelical and Christian in the same sentence.

It's as if they are one, in the same because they are not. That my friends, is what we call blasphemy. I just don't understand how you can be a white evangelical and call yourself Christian. I hear you saying it. I hear you. Well, when you say so boldly such a claim, who might you be referring to, Mr. Preacher? I'm glad you asked. Because my use of the word evangelical is predicated upon the cultural perspective that these are the folks who pride themselves on living according to the teachings of the Christian religion, Bible believing fundamentalists, Orthodox, Holy rollers, affectionately known as white evangelicals. A segment of whiteness that believes in the religion about Jesus, but not the religion of Jesus.

The reason I cannot identify with, understand, and support, such agendas is because the mission of the white evangelical is to uphold the Bible with oppressive power, but not the gospel of Jesus the Nazarite who brings good news to the poor and sets the captives free. Oh yes, there is a staunch difference between the evangelical and the real follower of Jesus. For the plight of the ever so branded Evangelos in Greek, or evangelicals is to wear an identity, not a practice boastfully so as to righteously separate and differentiate itself from the society it created, on the basis of religion.

This is the reason it's political puppets can spew hatred in the name of God. And though I do not embody an opposing hatred, I must confess that the real problem of white evangelicalism is that it fails to face up, accept, and contend with the corrupt society it made in this nation's founding beginning with chattel slavery. Not a democracy, but what I call an Amer-religious theocracy.

But this problem is not just near and dear to the founding of the heart of America. It is also closely identifiable with your childhood, where you probably read a character penned in the 1818 classic novel by gothic fiction writer Mary Shelley, about a mean well scientist with the freedom to imagine beyond average capacities, named Victor Frankenstein. So to please and impress himself, he created a being in his own image, but failed to come to grips with the monster he made. This illness is called the Frankensteinian complex, a parasite of the soul that eats away at the integrity and conscience of a creator, whenever that creator cannot deal with, or come to grips with the horrors they have produced.

If you haven't caught on yet, I've just described to you the history of America, birthed in a legacy of white evangelicalism. And now more than ever, we are left to face the music that loudly sings of the shame. Now we have to come to grips with the truth, the truth that coercing Africans through the Atlantic, shifting us across lands and forcing natives against the grounds they commune. Now we see that if you must war to take life from others, you will always war to salvage your own.

And to make matters all the worse, with capital and coercive power, to make themselves comfortable in the mess they made they could not deal with the guilt of what they had created in the wake of manifest destiny, evangelicals built theological frameworks that ultimately endangered the oppressed, and justified their violence in the name of Jesus. Because they could not come to grips with the political structures, the oppression, and the violence they condoned, even to this very day.

Because when you actually have a moral compass, it's hard to deal with the monsters we make. Though I must admit also, that if we take the fundamentalist God of the Bibles that we read, there are some ways of reading held within them that closely stand parallel to the plight of evangelicals. Because whether they know it or not, the God they read in the Bible is guilty of the same crime. Not coming to grips with the world God created. Not a crime of the head, but an offense of the heart.

No wonder evangelicals can be so comfortable immiserating the least, the lost, and the left out, to take land that doesn't belong to them and it all makes sense now because the God they read about in Genesis did the very same thing. Remember, I was raised by a line of Baptist preachers I can tell you the story well enough evangelicals summate, that the biblical texts we reference today posit, and put forth that God's disgust with the world God made in the creation narratives, after calling the creation's good. They believed God made Adam and Eve than Eve went looking for trouble, God got mad, He cursed them, turned God's back to them. Little white Jesus comes along to restore God's eye back to humanity.

What a conundrum. I know it sounds heretical. But I have to call out the God they imagined in this text because as I trained as a student at Harvard Divinity School, my mentor Jonathan Walton challenged me to see the most vulnerable characters in any biblical text. And in Genesis one, this text is therefore no exception. For it reads, for our emphasis in 27, that God created them. God created them. Which means they are the most vulnerable in the text.

So having divorced myself from a white evangelical hermeneutic, I've uncovered a deep seeded rose growing in the concrete. For I would counter argue that Genesis one, is not a text as they read that fosters the practice of separatism. But merely an example of what happens when God gets together. When God unifies God's self, when God becomes one, when God is made whole. Because in the same passage, when God breathed into them, breath, or in Hebrew, ruach, or the spirit of God, God unified them with the fundamental human practice of breathing.

Oh yes, my brothers and sisters. If you allow me to make this plain for you, so simply put, to be alive, to be living, to function, to exist, to matter, to qualify, to just be human or to even just be, regardless of the intricacies that differentiate us in practice. No one has the authority to mishandle your sacredness. Why? Because you are not dependent upon them to live. You are already breathing. And that is a gift from God. Just as it was in the beginning. And the same breath God breathed into them, He also breathed into you and me. We are all bound together by a singular practice of inhaling and exhaling the spirit of God. Do me a favor. Take a deep breath for three seconds on my count. Ready? Go. One, two, three. Hold it. Let it out. One, two, three.

Therefore, it is true when we actualize our existence under the principle of unequivocal unity, realizing the sacred dignity of every human being. When we unify under the breadth God gave us, as recorded in Genesis, we permeate a hope that produces otherwise possibilities. When we breathe with one another, standing on the battlefields of life, we conjure realities we've never seen before. And into homelessness, poverty and inequity, a love for all people regardless of race, color, creed, gender, sexuality, ethnicity. A hope for a future without war and senseless bloodshed. For if we fail to see God as unified, as whole, as a gestalt, as one, then we have missed what God really is.

So now let everything that has breath, breathe with love and compassion for one another. Let everything that has breath as the Psalmist would say, breathe until mass incarceration is dismantled and prison industrialism destroyed. Let everything that has breath breathe, until impoverished communities are provided equal protection and opportunity under the law. Let everything that has breath breathe, until we see miracles, signs and wonders of healing, reparation and restoration of the world God made in the beginning.

And when we come to the place of celebration, let everything that has breadth give honor and glory to God who is able to do exceedingly and abundantly above all we can ever ask or think. My brothers and sisters. This is not the time for God to be separated by our pride. But the time for God to be unified by our human experience. Unified by the creation God made in the beginning. For the counteractive scripture of founding Galatians gives us chronological evidence, that the God who made us in the beginning only hopes for the work of Jesus to make us one in the end.

It reads that "There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male and female. All of you are one in Christ Jesus." Before the creations were male and female, they were one. Before they were Jew and Gentile, black and white, ethnicity and disunity, they were one. Before God stepped foot from eternity into time to be in-fleshed in humankind, God was one. And within unity they made us. But life lived on the principle of separation is the apnea of the human condition. When we have ceased to breathe together, we have forsaken the spirit of God.

And as I enter my closing thoughts, I know what you're saying, once again. I can hear you loud and clear. This sermon did not have much of anything to do with Martin Luther King Jr. But I want to remind you that this sermon is not entitled the religion about Martin Luther King Jr. But rather the religion of Martin Luther King Jr.

So to ease your panic, if there was ever a quote I could read to surmise the religion of King in his own words, I'd read from Kings canon, words penned to a host of white evangelicals found in one of the greatest letters ever written. His letter from a Birmingham jail. What he says more over, "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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."

But King was a personalist. He was a theologian, he was a scholar. He would not allow, unlike me, what he misunderstood about someone to keep him from seeing the God in them, hearing the breath in them, feeling their effervescence, including the white evangelicals he was writing to. He knew all of the right things to say and just how to effectively communicate. But I must tell you that I am less impressed with what he wrote, and more enraptured by what he did.

As I take my seat, I'll tell you a story about brother King that impacted my conscience completely, an intimate story by my beloved Dean Carter that he shared once at Morehouse while I was a student. One day as King was entering into a public lobby, there was a white gentleman endued with anger and disgust with King's presence. At this point, King has risen to political prominence, which angered some of his white counterparts in the 1960s. And at the opportunity to embarrass his character the gentleman walked to brother King and asked, "Are you Martin Luther King?" Brother King respectfully replied, "Yes, I am." And with the intent to publicly humiliate him, the white gentleman chucked up a glob of saliva and spat in brother King's face.

And as the spit rolled down his nose, King reached for a handkerchief in his pocket and wiped his face of the saliva. After which he folded the cloth, he handed the napkin to the white gentleman and offered these peaceful words, "I think this belongs to you."

Above Christianity, above integration, above workers' rights, above theology, above all that was written about him, that is the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr. To let no one pull you so low, as to hate them. But to always reverence the sacred dignity within them, even if it leaves you hanging on a cross made by the very people you wish to save.

I count not myself to have apprehended. Yet, by this, I have been inspired and encouraged. Thank you, Brother King, what a religion it turned out to be.