taking the words of Jesus seriously

Editor’s Note: As we leave January, going from the month where we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., into Black History Month, we have a special reflection on Dr. King’s legacy penned by one of Chicago’s own. The senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, leaves us with a crystal clear reminder: Do not de-radicalize King. This message has special significance this week as President Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union Address. The impact that Dr. King had on this country as a justice seeker and a Christian are undeniable, but if we today merely raise hosannas to King’s name without the same courageous commitment to fighting all social ills, we are merely loud gongs and clanging symbols – especially if we do so despite the obvious presence of evil in our midst. – Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas, editor of “We Talk. We Listen

Once   again,   as   a   nation,   we   stand   on   the   precipice   of   contradiction   and   conflict.

This month, across the   nation,   in   various   communities,   and   across   the   city   of   Chicago,  organizations   attempted   to   celebrate   the   legacy   of   Dr.   Martin   Luther   King, Jr.,   and    the   freedom   struggle,   called   by   some  the   Civil  Rights   Movement.  I use   the   term    “attempted”   because   most   celebrations   will   de-radicalize  Dr.   King, into   a   feel-­good  rhetorical   eunuch   who   offers   no   challenge   to   America’s  open   wound   of   racial    animus   and  the   brutality   of poverty.  Dr. King’s name   will   flow   from   the   lips   of   infantile   political   pundits,   who   offer   horrific myths  about   “manure-­‐holes”   and   ethnicity   while   simultaneously   uttering    the   name  of   a   genuine   prophet   and   morally   courageous   revolutionary   named  Martin  Luther King,  Jr.,   who  was birthed   into   a nation   that   negated   his personhood.

In   this   moment   where   civic   and political   decency   have   been   recaptured   by  Confederate   ghosts   who   haunt   the words   of   the   president   of   the   United States, we    need   to   salvage   the  true legacy   of  Rev.  Dr.   Martin   Luther   King,   Jr.,   the power  of   Fannie  Lou Hamer ,  and the   brilliance   of   Bayard Rustin.   The   truth   of   the  legacy,   and   the    impact   of the   above   individuals,  is   the   fact   that King,   Hamer,  and   Rustin   sought   to  disrupt   the   political   and  economic   structure   of   America,  based   on   a   moral vision    drawn   from   the   Abrahamic   tradition  and   connected  to   the   spiritual work   of   the    anti-­‐colonialism   movement   of   India,   led   by Mohandas K. Gandhi.  

Dr. King,  a Baptist preacher, raised in the Black theological tradition of resistance, service, and commitment, set   the   tone  —  nationally  —  for Black Southern resistance to disable vulgar forms of blatant acts of white supremacy.

Fannie Lou Hamer,   a   former   sharecropper-­turned-­activist  and non-­traditional   teacher,   came   from  the    same   theological   tradition   as   Martin Luther   King,   Jr.,   but   was   raised   in   the   web   of   poverty   and   sexism;  plus the  frigid  actions   of   racism   in   Mississippi.  Hamer  became  the  guiding  light  for merging   faith,   gender,   and   class   as   an   intersection.

Bayard Rustin,   who   was   Quaker,   gay,   and   a   believer   in   the   power   of   people organizing   for   change,   became   the   organizing   mentor   and   teacher   for   Dr. King   and    Fannie  Lou  Hamer  throughout   the   movement.  Each   person,   Black and   faithful,   yet    raised   in   different   circumstances   dared   to   offer   a   vision,  not   of   “making   this   country    great   again,”   but   stating,   without   equivocation:

“America  cannot be a city on the hill  without treating those who have been scarred by this nation’s racial  glaucoma with  dignity and offering  a new economic and  social vision  for  the  democratic  experiment  we  call America.”

The   rhetoric   of   Donald   Trump   demonstrates   a   deep   moral   fracture   and   flaw   in   our    nation.  The   language   of   privilege   and   undergirding   tone   of   dismissal floats   in   the   air    of   civic   conversation.  In   times   such   as   this,   we   need   not celebration   and    commemoration   of   men   and   women   who   lived   valiantly,   but we   need   to   be    disturbed   and   re-­energized;   not   by   the  “safe”   King,   created by   certain   persons   to    tone   down   his  radical   legacy,  but   we   need   the   radical King,   the   radical Hamer,   and    the   radical   Rustin.  We   do   not   need   simple slogans,   but   we   must   arm   ourselves  with moral   courage,   outrage,   and   a   vision for a   nation   where   the  debilitating  effects   of    poverty,   racial   hierarchy,   and gender   marginalization   are   actively   banished   from    public   policy   and   political discourse.

I am not interested in singing songs or stating what “we used to do.”

I am interested in  fighting and drawing strength and lessons from the  ancestors of our struggle and planning a better future for my children.

As we celebrate King this month,  I  hope  you  will   do   more   than   remember, but join   the   fight   to   resist   policies   that   dehumanize   those   who   are   incarcerated and   incarcerate   families   of   the   incarcerated.  Resist   words   dipped   in  fear, designed   to   demonize   “dreamers” —  brilliant   children raised in this country brought to America by parents looking for a better life.

Resist economic policies designed to cripple the poor and further enrich the wealthy.

Resist alleged “bar stool talk,” that  is nothing more than vile speech, anointed by the racist demons of this world.        

We need the legacy of King,  the power of Hamer,  the brilliance of Rustin,  and most of all, we need you.

About The Author


Otis Moss III built his ministry on community empowerment and social justice activism. As senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. Moss spent the last two decades practicing and preaching a Black theology that unapologetically calls attention to the problem of mass incarceration, environmental justice, and economic apartheid. Hailed as one of the “twelve most of effective preachers in the English-speaking world” by Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, he has been cited by Chicago Magazine as one of the city’s thirty most influential people. He is an NAACP Image Award recipient, award-winning filmmaker, poet, and professor of homiletics at Mercer University McAfee School of Theology. He is married to Monica Brown and they are the proud parents of two children.

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