I would like to share with you some words Abraham Lincoln wrote to Congress, just one month before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. They were written to Congress because, of course, Lincoln lived nearly a hundred years B.T. … before television. And the State of the Union was a written document, not a televised event. Lincoln’s words,
“The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
One of the great challenges of any era, every era, is to disenthrall ourselves from old ways of thinking. To disenthrall, to free ourselves, to become unchained.
This morning we strive to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Last Monday. We will seek to honor Dr. King’s memory and legacy by pondering freedom, both physical and spiritual, and remembering the long road to freedom, here in this country.
We want to acknowledge the importance of both physical and spiritual freedom – for they are linked. They are linked. And I must tell you that one of the truly intimidating things about writing this morning’s message was realizing that, among many others, two giants, Dr. King himself and President Abraham Lincoln have already trod this path. And I ask myself, what can I do?
All of us are aware that when this country began, slavery was a part of it, institutionalized in the Constitution. There was a fascinating series on PBS recently called “The Abolitionists.” If you missed it, I’d recommend it. It chronicles the long and painful road from accepting slavery to the realization, at least by the majority, that no human being has the right to own another. And from that struggle came the Civil War. We all know that.
One hundred-fifty years ago this month, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. It was an Executive Order which, constitutionally could only apply to those states currently warring against the U.S. government. Two years later, in 1865, at long last, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution banned slavery forever, anywhere within the United States. This you already know.
What you may not know is the history of what happened between the Thirteenth Amendment and the mid 1940’s. I didn’t, until I read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. If you have any interest at all, it is worth reading – just not late at night.
But if you do read it, it will ground for you and make much more clear why Dr. King, along with Rosa Parks and so many other incredibly courageous men and women were needed to lead the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. From 1865 to 1945, when black GI’s returned home to usher in the beginning of a new era of race relations, black men could be and routinely were taken off the streets, jailed on some trumped up charge, and then sent to work in factories, unpaid, as slave labor, and in chain gangs or the like. You see, there was a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. Involuntary servitude was allowed if it was punishment for a crime … any crime. It was indeed slavery, all over again … legal, and institutionalized across the South.
Then the 1960’s, and the freedom riders, and the marches, and the leadership of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
Fifty years ago, Dr. King shared his dream with us. It was and remains a beautiful, profound and inspiring dream. Yet we know that the march towards freedom in this country has been a long one and a painful one. And it’s not over. Slavery is now outlawed everywhere. But it still exists. Much of the world’s clothing comes from slave labor. There is a thriving business in human trafficking, particularly but not only women. And that includes this country where, as but one example, a woman is tricked into coming to the U.S., smuggled in, seeking employment and a better life, only to work in a household with no rights, and no way out. And as many of us know, half of the world’s chocolate and virtually all the cheap chocolate comes from slave labor, and frequently child slave labor.
“I have a dream” Dr. King told us. But it wasn’t the sort of dream you wake up from and put aside. It is a goal, not a gift. It was and remains to this day a dream from which we can draw hope, and inspiration … the inspiration to pick up the mantle and work, work to make that dream real.
Dr. King was taken from us forty-five years ago – and I still remember that horrid, gut-wrenching day. For some, he has become merely an excuse for a three day weekend and MLK Day sales. But for those of us who hold his words in our hearts and in our souls, we become the keepers of the dream. And as Hillel said … if not now, when?
Keepers of the dream? “But what can I do?”
It is time to speak of spiritual slavery, the chains we forge for our own minds, that can confine us in the smallest and darkest of prisons.
Here we are, in the 21st century. And we still, to this day, separate ourselves by “race,” by religion, by gender, by wealth, by creed and by country. And it must stop! And if we won’t stop it, who will?
“But what can I do?”
First, we must break the chains of our spiritual imprisonment. One of the most formidable of those chains is the choking leash and collar that yanks at our throats and tells us, “You’re too small. They’re too big. The task is too great.” A lie! But it is a paralyzing lie if we believe it.
Dr. King wrote in his last book, a book I deeply recommend, entitled prophetically, Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote, “A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory. It underestimates the value of confrontation and dissolves the confidence born of a partial victory by which new efforts are powered.”
This is not to say that the cause is not urgent. Dr. King concludes his hopeful and inspiring book by writing, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”
And so the question, in the end, is not what have others done before us. The question is what will we do? I believe that this is the fundamental question raised by Martin Luther King Day. What will we do to help build upon Dr. King’s dream?
Now is indeed the time for action, but it is not a time to despair. Dr. King, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, spoke of his optimism as well as his hopes. He spoke in 1964, but it might as well have been yesterday. He said,
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and in an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘is-ness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘ought-ness’ that forever confronts him I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that even amid today’s mortal bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
Powerful words. Uplifting words. But again the shackles of our own minds beckon us with the imprisoning question, “The problems are so immense. What can I do?”
Perhaps this can help.
Imagine a scale, a huge scale, a cosmic scale. On the one side of the scale lie justice, compassion, connectedness. On the other side lie injustice, hate, and greed.
When we ask, “What can I do?” we acknowledge the enormity of the scale. Will any of us tip those cosmic scales one way or the other? I doubt it. But we remember Dr. King as he spoke of the impact of a succession of small victories, not one complete victory for all time.
Each of us, every day that we live, adds something to those great scales … to one side or the other. It may be a mote of dust, a twig, and perhaps once or twice in our lives, a good-sized pebble. But each of us, whatever the size of our offering, every day adds something to one side or the other.
What can I do? What can any of us do? We can decide to add whatever we can to the side of connectedness, of compassion, and of justice.
Some examples. See that box marked “Food Bank Donations”? At every service we collect food for the Lynnwood food bank. Every service. Are our small contributions ever going to make even a dent in world hunger, or hunger in the U.S. or even hunger in Snohomish County? I doubt it. But a few families that would have gone hungry – won’t. And that, my friends, is very much worth the effort.
Another example will be available during our social time. One of the reasons that we’ll have chocolate walnut pie to enjoy is because that pie, made at The Sisters in Everett, is made with fair traded chocolate. Now, so far, I haven’t convinced the Sisters to use only fair-traded chocolate in their pie. But I bring them fair-traded chocolate whenever I want a pie, and they are becoming educated in what that means. And we as a congregation have started giving out fair-traded chocolate at Halloween. Small victories to be sure. But they count.
What can we do? We can be aware, as an example, of where our clothes come from. We can be aware of what is frequently the hugely high cost of cheap – what it costs others to bring to us so-called “bargain” prices. I encourage you to be aware of The Better World Shopping Guide, a consumer book that is interested not in what products are cheapest, but which are the most ethically made. There is a saying that every dollar we spend is a vote for the world we want to live in. Think of how many votes we have, every day!
What can we do? Each of us can do our admittedly small part. But acting together – not so small. And if we are willing to gently educate others as we go – even less small.
Our final hymn today is my favorite in the hymnal. It is a hymn of determination and of hope, and, I believe, a fitting tribute to the dream of Dr. King.
“We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken. We’ll build a land where the captive walks free.”