Remembering a Prophet

prophet (נביא): the proclaimer or mouthpiece of God

As we honor Martin Luther King today, we remember him primarily for his central role in risking everything to demand racial equality and civil rights in the United States. We forget, however, that above all he was a prophet. Martin Luther King spoke the Word of God to a nation who did not want to hear it and, in so doing, secured the same fate that has befallen all those chosen by God as prophets. Like all prophets, the words spoken to us all are now our responsibility: do we do to them the same that we did to the speaker or do we take them up, give them life, and heed the necessary change in business as usual which they demand of us?

On this national day of remembrance, I watched Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, introducing the life of the history professor who began his career as an activist working with both the with civil rights movement at Spelman College and as a working class union organizer. Having worked with Martin Luther King in the struggle for civil rights, Zinn continued the prophetic mission of Martin Luther King in numerous other dimensions of the struggle for justice. In words that seem to echo that of the Magnificat, Zinn reminds us that there are things seriously wrong and we can’t really depend on those in power to set them right.

Like all prophets, Martin Luther King invited us to be true to the foundational covenant of our nation, that Declaration of Indendance in which we boldly declare the moral statement that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. Zinn too calls us to task for failing to abide by the charter of the United States, reminding us that the task of justice is not to ask who deserves it: everybody deserves it (Marx in Soho). Ultimately the witness of Martin Luther King, Howard Zinn, and countless others become reasons for hope despite every reason to doubt (cf. my comments on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Spe Salvi).

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