How would Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last Sunday sermon play today?

Martin Luther King gave his last Sunday sermon at Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. Some of that sermon is reproduced below, but we urge you to read it all. Read it all and ask yourself how a man who says the kinds of things that Dr. King said would fare in the era of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Ask yourself whether your church would give a person who talks this way about ending war and poverty a pulpit from which to speak. Ask yourself in the rush to draw false equivalencies between the rhetoric of left and right in the wake of the shooting in Tucson, whether Dr. King wouldn't be counted among those who views were maybe just a little to passionate to be allowed a platform.

We all like to think that we would have supported the people whom history has proven to be prophets. But there is no such thing as an un-divisive prophet. More than 40 years after his death, many Americans still despise what Dr. King stood for, many others are afraid of giving the offense necessary to achieve his vision, and no one is organizing the destitute to march on Washington.

Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing’s wrong with that—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.

In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.

We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.

Comments (6)

It's true that no one's organizing poor people specifically to march on Washington, but this sermon is a great occasion to remember the terrific work so many are doing with the poor today. King's Poor People's Campaign provides the specific inspiration behind the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary, for instance.

My question is, what would MLK say today about the Tucson tragedy? I like to think that Obama was channeling MLK when he called for humility, not scapegoating.


You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations - to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. ...

But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.

I read Dr. King's sermon last week and the one line that I have reflected on was ""We must face the sad fact that at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing 'In Christ there is no East or West,' we stand in the most segregated hour of America." After 43 years, this sad facts remains true for most of us.

Let's make no mistake. It is we who are the rich. It is we who choose to pass by, or not.

I take issue with one thing King said that day: "What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will."

The Poor People's March, in which I participated, led to the war on poverty. And yet poverty persists. What I think has been proven is that the roots of poverty run very deep. We don't know what the techniques are to win the war, we have only glimmers.

Which is all the more reason that we must continue the war on poverty and search for techniques that are successful in getting families out of the poverty trap.

I used this sermon extensively in my Easter sermon last year (since Easter fell on April 4) and spoke specifically to the growing tide of political violence in this country, contrasting it with God's revolution of love.

For me the key idea is his use of the Rip Van Winkle story and the idea of sleeping through a revolution.

If you compare it to his Oberlin college commencement address in 1965, which is nearly identical, you can see that he may be anticipating his own death as early as March 31. The day was Passion Sunday (back when that was distinct from Palm Sunday). Which means that Easter Sunday feel on April 14 that year.

Now that blessed Martin has joined the chorus of martyrs, each and every celebration of the Eucharist, joins us to him and his struggle for the Beloved Community/Kingdom of God.

Quite so, Bill.

The light lifting has been done:

The American Revolution
The Emancipation Proclamation
Repeal of Jim Crow laws, passage of laws against racial discrimination
The Voting Rights Act

At each point you can say, there we did that. A Rip Van Winkle who slept through these events could wake up and see things have changed.

And yet, unlike the American revolution, things have not changed. What's left is a very heavy burden to lift.

My forebears owned slaves. As far as I know, did not they teach them to read, give them a mule and acreage - to prepare them for emancipation.

After emancipation blacks faced obstacle upon obstacle as King describes. Today the dismantling of these obstacles is difficult especially once at the point where it's not a victory on the battlefield or in legislation that is the goal. And, I'm afraid, even if we could magically wave a wand and remove discrimination today, there would further roots of poverty stemming from past discrimination and slavery that still have to be tackled to solve the problem of poverty.

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