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Martin Luther King Jr. The Power of Conviction
Sermon Date:Sun, 01/16/2011
Every year, most UU congregations celebrate the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. We seem to have a particular fondness for him. I think his words and work resonate with us because they echo many of our own principles and causes. Although his language draws heavily from Hebrew and Christian texts, he often spoke of concepts very familiar to us, things such as the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people, and the interconnectedness of all life. The following is an excerpt from his 1967 speech "A Christmas Sermon on Peace":
"It really boils down to this, that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly... We aren't going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality."
But... I'm not here to talk about how he was "one of us". In fact, that kind of tribal thinking is antithetical to everything he stood for. One of his most often used phrases was "All of God's children"--emphasis on "all".
The questions I'd like to explore today are "How did he achieve so much? Where did his power come from? What personality traits helped him be effective?"
In many ways he was just a regular human being. He was sometimes fearful, sometimes doubted his own abilities. And yet he persevered and achieved a great deal. His influence continues, and will continue for a very, very long time. I think we should not only follow his example and continue his work, but also study him and others who have succeeded in changing the world for the better. What can we learn from him?
As I read about him the three things that struck me most often were VISION, COURAGE, and CONVICTION.
I think the first thing every leader needs is vision. The ability to see things, not as they are now, but as they could be.
It is unfortunately true that anyone attempting to make great changes is going to need great courage. There's always someone who's going to be opposed to change. And the greater the change, the greater and more fanatical the opposition. He faced constant threats of violence against both himself and his family. It's hard for me to understand how someone keeps going in the face of such threats. But he did, and for that we must all be greatful. For that he has earned our respect and admiration.
Not too long ago I watched a movie about Mahatma Gandhi, the one starring Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. And although it's a movie and must be understood as such, I did learn a few things about Ghandi that have been verified by subsequent readings. What affected me most was his absolute and unwavering convictions.
So too with Dr. King. He may at times have had personal doubts about his own abilities, but he did not seem to waver in his belief that his cause was true; that it was noble, righteous and just; that all God's children, regardless of color, deserve freedom, opportunity and equality.
Another conviction he had, one he shared with Gandhi, was in the great power of nonviolent resistance. In fact, Dr. King was greatly affected and influenced by his study of Gandhi's life and accomplishments. He even traveled to India to see Gandhi's achievements first hand and to talk to those that knew him.
Both morally and practically committed to nonviolence, King believed that "the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people."
He was first introduced to the concept of nonviolence when he read Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience while at Morehouse College. Having grown up in Atlanta and witnessed segregation and racism every day, he was ‘‘fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system.’’
In 1950, as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, he heard a talk by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. Dr. Johnson, who had recently traveled to India, spoke about the life and teachings of Gandhi. Gandhi, King later wrote, was the first person to transform love into a powerful force for social change. Gandhi’s stress on love and nonviolence gave King ‘‘the method for social reform that I had been seeking’’.
Entire books have been written about the concept of nonviolent resistance. It's a very interesting topic, but not one we have time to fully examine now. Let's just focus on what's at it's very core. In Dr. King's own words...
"At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love." "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding darkness to a night already devoid of stars. ... Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that... Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Love is so much the core of nonviolent resistance that Ghandi sometimes referred to it as "love force".
I don't think you can have real confidence in the power of a nonviolent approach to affect change unless you have a deep and fundamental faith in the essential goodness of people and in the power of compassion and love. King said...
"The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to nonviolence. It gives them new self-respect; It calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they possesed...And finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality."
"stirs his conscience"...
If you believe nonviolence has a chance to work, then you must believe your opponent has a conscience--that your opponent is fundamentally good. King confirmed this core belief even more clearly when he said ...
"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 unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Dr. King so loved people that to his opponents he said...
"Do to us what you will, and we will still love you. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. And will so appeal to your heart and conscience, that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory."
Vision, courage and conviction:
* Without a vision of the world he was fighting for, he could never have been convincing and led so many people.
* Without courage and a firm conviction that his cause was just and true he could never have persevered in the face of danger and setbacks.
* Without a love of people and enduring faith in their ultimate goodness he could not have effectively wielded the weapon of nonviolent resistance, what he called "the sword that heals".
I'd like to conclude by repeating selected parts of Dr. King's I have a dream speech. The dream is of freedom. Freedom for oppressed people. And perhaps even about freedom for those who bear the weight of hatred. For hatred is a millstone that drags you under the dark and murky waters of fear and isolation. I pray that those who carry that burden may see the wisdom of letting it go so they can float up and out, into the light of eternal love.
" I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"