The Presence of Justice: MLK Sunday 2020

Rev. Elizabeth Bukey
Notes as prepared for First Church in Jamaica Plain, January 12, 2020


Readings from MLK's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail"


Letter from a Birmingham Jail (and context), The Atlantic

"Martin Luther King Jr was a radical. We must not sterilize his legacy," Cornel West

"For decades, the NFL wrapped itself in the flag. Now, that’s made business uneasy," The Washington Post

"Black Lives Matter and the Intrepid Lives That Preceded It," New York Times

"Visitors in the Struggle for Racial Justice," Rev. Aisha Ansano

"Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind," New York Times Magazine

"9 Surprising Industries Profiting Handsomely from America's Insane Prison System"

"Jail Visit, Call Systems Seen As Overly Burdensome," WGBH

"Meet the young activists of color who are leading the charge against climate disaster"

"The Injustice of This Moment Is Not an ‘Aberration,'" Michelle Alexander, The New York Times


"The great great stumbling block in Black people’s stride toward freedom is the white person who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” (paraphrase)

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from a Birmingham jail is addressed to white clergy. To the white church.
To eight white clergy who had criticized King’s actions for liberation as counterproductive, urging him to use the “proper channels” and “common sense” to end segregation. To use the courts and negotiation, not protest, not direct action.

We read today from King’s response, and by the way, he was two years younger than me when he wrote this, and only three years older when he was assassinated.

This is King’s response to the white church of his time.

And the question I always ask on this MLK Sunday is: what would he say to the white church today?
What would he say to us?

Because while we are not an entirely white church, we are a historically and mostly white church, in a historically and mostly white denomination.
People of color, I see you. I know that when I preach about race it’s weird and I often have things to say to my fellow white people.

I guess what I will say is that these words are for us to wrestle with, institutionally, and for many of us, personally.

King has been transformed by dominant society into a saint and a symbol: white people with power like to take his most warm and fuzzy words out of context and make him into someone who said “well we should all love one another and be nice.”

When actually he was hated. Only 33 percent of US Americans had a favorable opinion of him in 1966.
He was condemned, and ultimately murdered for what he did and what he said.

When actually he was not a saint, in terms of being without moral failing or mistake.

He was instead a prophetic person. As in the “prophetic people” that are named in one of the
six sources of Unitarian Universalism in our guiding documents.

"Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love."

Today, and basically ever since I became a minister, a word that pops out on MLK weekend is “challenge.” A word that pops out is “confront.”

Words and deeds of prophetic people aren’t words that are nice, words that are fuzzy.
I don’t mean to say that justice work is cruel and hard.
That’s some dominant culture nonsense.
But in the Biblical tradition, prophecy doesn’t actually mean “predicting the future.”
It means “holding up a mirror to the injustices of the present day.”
King did that. He had plenty to say that was challenging, that was confronting the powers of evil: and, relevantly, the people who by going along with an evil status quo are complicit in that evil.

And so what I refuse to let myself do, as a white minister on MLK day is to let myself off the hook. To sanitize his legacy. To betray my own commitment to confronting powers of evil and empire.

And so I ask the question: what have I done to confront evil recently? Specifically the evils of US empire, capitalism, and racism?

To quote Dr. Cornell West:

“In this brief celebratory moment of King’s life and death we should be highly suspicious of those who sing his praises yet refuse to pay the cost of embodying King’s strong indictment of the US empire, capitalism and racism in their own lives.”

And you should really just go read his article for a better version of what I’m trying to say.

What I’m trying to say is what you probably know:

That we are called as people of ethics and people of faith not just to understand that RACISM is wrong, but to understand how racism is entwined with US Empire, capitalism, heteronormativity, transphobia, patriarchy, ableism and all the other isms to make up one multi-headed monster that we have to challenge.

We are called to stay awake to the fact that being “against racism” means being against capitalism and for coops and land trusts, being against military spending and for publicly financed education, being against mass incarceration and for police reform and prison abolition. Things that our Social Justice Action Committee has been working on understanding.

That we are called to listen not just to the most radical parts of Dr King—which we are—but ALSO to the words and deeds of prophetic people who live TODAY.

Because they are reviled and scorned today.
Not just by the overt racists whom this president has kept stirred up, but also by the white moderates whom we know.
Who might sit in part of our own hearts.

Who am I thinking of? You’ll have your own ideas, but here are a few:
Colin Kaepernick. Sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem.
Who said when asked why quote "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

And for this he has not just basically lost his career, but been a target of hostility from the President of the United States.
And from right wing folks.
And also from plenty of white liberals who wish he would just stand up and play.
Stick to sports.
As MLK was told to stick to religion.

We would do well to remember that the Department of Defense pays tons of taxpayer money to NFL and other sports teams for patriotic displays and military-related programs, as a way to recruit our young people into the machine of militarism.
There’s no technical link between that money and teams requiring players to participate in National Anthem ceremonies, but you can connect the dots easily enough.

So I think of Kaepernick.

And I think of Patrisse Khan-Cullors.
She is one of the black queer women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement. Her memoir is titled “When They Call You A Terrorist.”
And that’s exactly what people have called her and her fellow Black Lives Matter Activists. Terrorists.

When they were calling out that “black lives matter” out of love for black people terrorized and decimated by police violence.
Crying out about the repeated murder of literal children.

Even among white liberals Black Lives Matter is not universally supported.

I remember again a story I’ve told you, of a few years ago Black Lives Matter protesters blocking a freeway and having to talk myself and another white friend through an argument which paralleled Dr. King’s letter quite clearly. They were saying:

“I’m upset about that black person’s death. But they’re never going to gain support if they inconvenience people like that. It just makes people madder.”

As my fellow UU minister Rev. Aisha Ansano put it, many people (white people) might respond:

“I really don’t think that the struggle for racial justice shouldn’t exist. I just think there are better ways to go about it than blocking traffic and making me late for work. I get annoyed and frustrated and it really doesn’t convince me to join your fight.” She continues:
What, exactly, is going to convince that person to join the fight? Picket signs on the side of the road? Then they’ll just think, “Look at those troublemakers disturbing the peace over there,” as they drive on their way to work. Then they'll promptly forget about it.” End quote.
Those of us who don’t want our peace disturbed are rarely consciously hateful or bigoted. Neither were the clergy to whom Dr. King responded.
They mostly weren’t segregationists.
These were mostly white men with good intentions.  
But they did not want an upset to “law and order.” They wanted “the proper channels.”
In their letter they praised the police for their restraint.
They praised the police.
That’s important.
As I’ve said to you, one of the things we mean when we say “black lives matter” is that there is something deeply wrong with our systems of prisons and the policing that gets people into them.

If we say Black Lives Matter we can’t mean “police officers shouldn’t kill unarmed Black people, but we can probably fix that easily without changing much of anything.”

We have to mean that those of us who are white are willing to have the foundations of our ideas about safety, government, and race shaken up and toppled.

That those of us who are white be willing to understand that calling the police when people of color are involved may actually make people LESS safe.

People of color, especially people who have disabilities, or people who are women.
Who are queer queer, trans.

You may remember that according to a 2012 study, 48 percent of LGBTQ survivors of violence reported incidents of police misconduct when reporting to the police.

We have to be willing to say we’re for police reform and prison abolition.

By the way, if you’re not personally for those things, that’s ok.
There’s nothing in Unitarian Universalism that requires you to agree with anything the minister says.
But I would encourage you to think deeply about it.
Don’t start by saying something about it to me at coffee hour.
Start by reading a few articles about it.

I am still learning.
But I’m calling on myself and all of us to understand that prisons are one of those structures of evil we’re challenged to confront.

To listen to people like Michelle Alexander, who refuses to let us forget that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow and the new enslavement, and that the systems of mass incarceration and mass deportation are quote “both deeply rooted in our racial history, and they both have expanded in part because of the enormous profits to be made in controlling, exploiting and eliminating vulnerable human beings.”

And calling on us to be willing to do real things to change them.
As Cornell West wrote, to pay the cost of embodying a strong indictment of the US empire, capitalism and racism in our own lives.

That means giving our time—working with prisoners like some of you are doing. Supporting supporting bills currently before the Massachusetts lawmakers to establish free phone calls, and reforms of in-person visits. Congratulating New York City and San Francisco for making phone calls from local jails free last year, the first major cities in the US to do so. We can support the work of Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement to end what is essentially torture.

It means risking being called extremist.
It means risking our own safety in protests or in community safety teams.
Risking or giving up our money or other resources.

Divesting from private prisons and the businesses and banks and private equity funds that profit from incarceration.
Not just Geo group but things like Aramark Corporation, which supplies prison food, or Global Tel* Link, which has a near monopoly on prison phones.
If you’re a Harvard student or alumna, there is a current campaign there to push the University to divest.

It means listening to people like Rev. Mariama White Hammond at New Roots AME church in Dorchester, reminding us that we have to put our bodies and our church policies on the line to slow climate change, not just because it will affect everyone, but because we know that it will be black and brown and poor and disabled and colonized people who will bear the worst of the climate changed reality.
Who already are.
Who will be vulnerable to the heat waves which will sweep New England. The storms.

Two year ago I called us to join in being extremists for love, extremists for racial justice.
To be a church FULL of extremists for racial justice.
My question to leave us with today is: how can we become not a collection of individuals who are doing this but a church ORGANIZATION that is extremist for love, extremist for justice?

It will be so, so easy to fall back asleep.

Instead, may we keep each other awake. And have quote “the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”