“The Conscience We Rejected”
The Commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. (transferred) - January 21, 2019
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
We should not be celebrating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today. There should be no parade outside our doors. He should not be commemorated on The Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints. We shouldn’t be doing any of this for him… Because Dr. King should still be alive.
He would be an old man in 2019, but he might still be with us. He would have celebrated his 90th birthday last Tuesday.
But Dr. King isn’t alive. He was murdered nearly 51 years ago, on April 4, 1968. He was killed in Memphis, TN, while supporting black city sanitation workers on strike for equal pay and benefits to their white counterparts. He was assassinated as he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which would involve another March on Washington, D.C., to demand economic justice across the USA. He was killed after regularly condemning the US government’s behavior in the Vietnam War
In truth, Dr. King was killed for refusing to accept or support the status quo. Despite centuries of church-sanctioned violence, segregation, and economic exploitation, he chose another, more faithful path. Dr. King once said in a sermon that the Christian Church “is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state” (King, 72-73). He took that call quite seriously. Dr. King died trying to be our nation’s unwelcome conscience. In fact, he died because he tried to be the nation’s conscience.
He told the powers that be what they needed to change, and our nation refused to do it. He cried, "Peace," and we, the USA, persisted with war. He cried for an end to poverty, and we continued in greed. He cried for equality of all races, and we replied with mobs, attack dogs, police brutality, and lynchings.
Our country would not and could not change, and wanted to stomp out the prophetic witnesses that questioned their power. All of us have felt that tug from our conscience. Something within us knows what is right and yet we ignore it or suppress it, or even rage against it, because we would rather pursue pleasure than the common good. Well, Dr. King was the voice of the conscience that our nation rejected, indeed, that we rejected.
Like anyone else, Dr. King wasn’t perfect. But he had suffered enough to know hypocrisy when he saw it. He knew that we as a society failed to live us to our ideals. Christians in America especially failed to obey Jesus when he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” He knew we were better at making enemies than loving them.
And so Dr. King refused to sit down and let the world and the Church continue its self-destructive behaviors unchecked. Instead, he picked up on the moral imperatives of the Gospel and sought to transform a racist, greedy, and violent society through the power of God’s love, peace, and justice.
Dr. King should not have died when he did. But his death was predictable. (It was not the first attempt on his life, and Dr. King regularly spoke about his death.) Dr. King’s death was predictable because sin revels in the darkness. Sin doesn’t want to be called out and exposed for what it truly is. That’s as true for an individual soul as it is for the soul of a nation. America couldn’t handle a conscience like Dr. King’s, steeped as it was in mind and heart of Jesus Christ. And so it eliminated that conscience.
But it didn’t really.
The Church survived the death of one of its great prophets and teachers. The Church is still here, assembled this morning as it always has. We, the Church, have survived martyrdoms perpetrated by raging oppressors for over 2000 years. If we can survive the death of the Son of God, if God can raise him and us from the dead, then nothing can hold us down.
And so on this day of remembrance, our call is not simply to mourn what was and is no more. God is calling us to continue to pursue the Dream of Dr. King, and better yet the Dream of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. For when we follow Jesus, we will see the same deficiencies in our culture that Dr. King saw and point to the same solutions he put forth: peace, economic justice, and racial justice. May God give us the grace to listen to this conscience today and always. Amen.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. "A Knock at Midnight." In A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran (New York: Warner Books, 2000), 65-78.