Category Archives: Martin Luther King

The offensive worker

The people took offense at him.
Matthew 13: 57

 One of my pet peeves here in Honduras is the way manual workers and campesinos,the poor workers in the countryside, are treated.

They are looked down on, at times despised, for their lack of education, for being manual laborers. They are not culto, cultured.

As I look back on my life I recognize that this is not a concern that began when I came to Honduras almost seven years ago.

Neither my father nor my mother finished high school. They were “blue-collar” workers, though my Dad, because of his incredible math skills, went from working on the floor of a steel-fabrication plant to an assistant supervisor.

But it is also for me a question of spirituality.

I remember the story about St. Bonaventure in which he told a friar that a poor woman could get to heaven just as well – or maybe better – than he could with all his learning.

I remember hearing Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in a north Philadelphia church, with a call much like this text of a 1956 sermon:

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

I remember reading this text of John Gardner in the early 1970s and sharing it with a person working at the Catholic Peace Fellowship:

 An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

Bill noted the appropriateness of the quote. He was a plumber and I was studying philosophy.

When I was a campus minister at Iowa State University, I kept insisting on the dignity of work and had a special concern for agricultural issues and students studying agriculture at “Moo U” as some called ISU.

In a talk at the Antioch retreat I reminded the students of the priestly nature of their work by quoting Monseñor Oscar Romero who once said,

 How beautiful will be the day
when all the baptized understand
that their work, their job,
is a priestly work,
that just as I celebrate Mass at this altar,
so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench,
and each metalworker,
each professional,
each doctor with the scalpel,
the market woman at her stand,
are performing a priestly office!

Today is Labor Day in most of the countries of the world. Today is also the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, when we remember that Jesus came from a working family.

The people of his town took offense at this:

 Where does this guy get all his wisdom and powers? He’s just the carpenter’s son.

Today is a day to remember the dignity of manual work – and the need we have for that work and for the people who sweep our streets, wash our dishes, grow our food. It is a day to remember that Jesus was one of them.

They have much to teach us. As Thomas a Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ, wrote:

A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul.


Really prophets

Let us set a trap for the just one,
for he annoys us
and opposes our way of life.
Wisdom 2: 12

 As we approach Holy Week, the lectionary speaks with urgency about the imminent passion and death of Jesus.

The reading from Wisdom – about the just in general – is here applied in a special way to Jesus, but its significance goes beyond that.

The truly just one is Jesus, but many just persons have experienced persecution and death as he has.

But not all who are persecuted are prophets. Some are persecuted because their style of criticism is too harsh, too accusatory, too alienating.

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Reading his sermons and talks and remembering what he said, I believe that his message was what caused his death.

He was severely critical of US society and didn’t confine it to the problems of segregation and racism. When he was killed in Memphis he was beginning to work on the Poor People’s Campaign which sought to give a voice to those who were impoverished in a rich nation. A year before he was killed he gave his searing sermon “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he not only condemned the Vietnam war but also the roots of that war in the racism, materialism, and militarism he saw in the US society.

His message made him enemies. But he spoke it in light of a call to become the Beloved Community. He spoke it because he had a dream of solidarity.

Are we willing to speak uncomfortable truths, but in a loving way? Or do we criticize injustice in a way that makes us appear justified, accusing others?

Do we fail to see the roots of war and injustice on our own hearts?

Or, do we take the prophetic message to heart, changing our way of life, and inviting others to join us in this search for the Reign of God?




Dreams, nightmares, and a call to conversion

Fifty years ago, in 1963, thousands gathered in Washington, DC, calling for justice for African-Americans.

I remember watching it on a black and white television at home in Darby, a blue collar suburb of Philadelphia.

Martin Luther King’s speech inspired many of us with his dream of a country that lived out its belief that “all men [and women] are created equal.”

His speech laid out the biblical roots of this dream as well as the cost of trying to live this dream.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places made plain, and the crooked places be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

But Martin Luther King also saw the nightmare that has always been a possibility for the United States and other nations.

In ”Beyond Vietnam,” a speech a year before his death, he warned of what the US had become in the world.  He pleaded for an end to the Vietnam War:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

And he identified the roots of this madness, this malady, this sin in the giant triplets of “racism, materialism, and militarism.”

But, like a good prophet he offered a way out:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Today as the US remembers Dr. King’s vision, the US government is considering the use of military violence in Syria and continues to support with arms and training repressive regimes.

King’s dream has been robbed of his prophetic power – the power to give us something to live for as well as the power of knowing what we must turn from if we want to live this dream.

And so we who are citizens of the US should take into account what Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Matthew 23: 29-31):

 Woe to you teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous. You say: “Had we lived in the time of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you yourselves confess to be descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

King and the dignity of manual labor

Forty-five years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. He had gone there to support the striking sanitation workers.

It might seem strange that he had gone to support a struggle of workers, this man who spoke against segregation and racism, who protested the Vietnam war and US militarism. Yet I think support for workers was central to his Christian understanding of the human person and the dignity of work.

I heard Dr. King in person once, about 1965, in a church in North Philadelphia. A friend and I were two of the few white faces there, but I felt at home. When King came he spoke strongly of the value of the human person.

I remember well one part of his speech, which I found in a sermon he gave in 1956:

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

This struck home to me and has affected my life and my ministry in profound ways.

When I worked with college students I used this quote in my talk on the Antioch retreat to emphasize the dignity of all work as sharing in the work of God.

Here in Honduras this quote inspires me in my work with the poor to treat all of them with deep respect and to help them see the dignity and worth of all they do.

Since I’ve been here I’ve always greeted the street sweepers in Santa Rosa who pick up the litter on the streets. Some of them respond and a few months ago, one woman greeted me warmly and told me she wondered if I was still there.

In the countryside it’s also very important to affirm the dignity of manual labor – in the home, in the fields, building houses. The people in the countryside are looked down upon – “people of the mountains” [“hillbillies”], as one politician called them a few years ago. But they have an inestimable dignity in the eyes of God and their work is important.

And so Martin Luther King challenges us to respect the worth of all labor, especially manual labor, as he challenges us to work to rid the world of racism and war.

May his words and his actions inspire us to be with the marginalized of this world, respecting them, and helping them see the dignity of their lives and their work.

A personal note:
Only recently have I realized why affirming the dignity of all work is so much a part of me. My parents, who grew up in the depression, never finished high school. They both began as blue collar workers. My dad was promoted to the office because of his skills, including an incredible ability to do complicated mathematical calculations in his head. I grew up in a lower middle class, mostly blue collar, neighborhood and I finished college at the University of Scranton where many of my classmates were the first to attend college in their families, as was I. My roots in the blue collar worker of the lower middle class have, thanks be to God, survived many years of education and even professional work in the church and the university.





True greatness

If you want to be first,
make yourself the servant of all.
Matthew 20: 27

Today’s Gospel, Matthew 20: 20-28, with its parallel in Mark 10: 35-45, is one of my favorite Gospel passages, especially in light of Martin Luther King, Jr., sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” available here.

But instead of commenting on this again, as I did here and here, I’d like to share my translation of a prayer by Madre Francisca Pascual Domenech, founder of the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate. Five of them live down the street from me here in Santa Rosa de Copán. Sor María Jesús shared this last night on her Facebook page.

Father, full of mercy,
You who have shown us
that the only way to live humanly is love.

Teach us to leave behind egoism,
to not fear to say “YES”
to all the needs we encounter on our paths.

Teach us, Lord,to give you thanks for your mercy,
and to ask you pardon for our hardness of heart
and lack of confidence facing our sisters and brothers.

Teach us, merciful Jesus,
to form the community of love and hope,
that you want us to be.

We trust you and we believe in you,
merciful God,
Father, full of kindness,
who have made Christ our brother
and have given us the Spirit
who gives us life and hope.

Here is the Spanish original:

Padre, lleno de misericordia Tu que nos has mostrado,
que el único camino para vivir humanamente es el amor.

ENSEÑANOS a salir del egoismo,
a no tener miedo a decir “SI” a todas las necesidades
que encontramos a nuestro paso,

las gracias por tu misericordia
Y a pedirte perdón por nuestras durezas
y desconfianzas frente a nuestros hermanos.

ENSEÑANOS, Jesús misericordioso,
a formar la comunidad de amor y esperanza,
que tu quieres que seamos

Confiamos en Ti y creemos en Ti, Dios misericordioso,
Padre lleno de bondad,
Que has hecho de Cristo, nuestro hermano
Y nos has dado el Espíritu
Que nos da la vida y esperanza.

A Jewish prophet and prayer as subversion

Prayer is subversive.

You only have to read the canticle of Hannah in 1 Kings 2: 1-10 or the canticle of Mary in Luke 1: to hear how God wants to turn this world upside down.

The bow of the mighty is broken
but the weak are girded with strength
1 Kings 2: 4
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts
and raised up the lowly.
Luke 1: 52

All too long the poor have been victimized by systems and powers that seek to hoard the goods of this world and to keep the poor in line.  But God wants something different.

Forty years ago today, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel died. He was a Jewish theologian and philosopher who shared his learning with the world, not only within the Jewish community. He also shared his learning by living it in the streets as he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., for racial justice, and marched with people of many faiths (and no faith) to seek an end to the war in Vietnam.

One of his quotes has touched me deeply for many years:

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.

During this time of darkness and hope, let us pray prayers of subversion and live them, especially Psalm 72 which speaks of the good ruler:

May he defend the poor of the people,
and save the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
For he shall save the needy when they cry,
the poor, and those who are helpless.
He will have pity on the weak and the needy,
and save the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their souls;
to him their blood is dear.
Psalm 72: 12-14

Would that nations and peoples lived the prophetic words of scripture! This year is a time to start.

Not as the rulers of the nations

Today on the feast of St. James the Greater, celebrated with special devotion at Santiago de Compostela en Galicia, Spain, the Gospel is Matthew 20: 20-28, one of my favorites and a text that Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon.

The mother of James and John (in Mark’s Gospel, James and John) approaches Jesus to ask Him to give them a favored spot in His Reign.

Jesus asks them if they are willing to suffer as He will. They say yes. The word reaches the other apostles who are upset, thinking that James and John are being favored by Jesus.

But Jesus remarks that “the rulers of the nations lord it over them…But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant… The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life for the ransom of the multitude.”

The political authorities want power to lord it over others, but the followers of the true Reign, the true Kingdom, seek to serve. Service is the way to be great.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., said:

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

We can be great by serving and in such a way work for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of Walter Rauschenbach in 1918. This Protestant minister was a major proponent of what we call “the Social Gospel.” He saw the centrality of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ preaching and the importance of service, seeking to respond to the social sin in the world.

His realism as well as his hope are clear in this quote:

We shall never have a perfect life. Yet we must seek it with faith…. At best there is always but an approximation to a perfect social order. The kingdom of God is always but coming. But every approximation to it is worthwhile.

And so, seeking the kingdom of God, living as servants, we work for and hope for God’s Reign. And that is not the way of the rulers of the nations.


Martin Luther King and work

April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King. Jr., was assasinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember the night well.

I also remember the night I saw and heard him speak,

About 1965,  a friend and I went to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak in North Philadelphia. It was a moving experience and we were some of the few whites in the crowd. But I remember clearly one of his quotes, which I found in another speech. (King like many good speakers, often recycled his best ideas.)

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

In societies that undervalue or demean manual labor or look down upon those who work on the land, these words of King speak clearly.

Until a few months ago I was unaware of one the reasons why I bristle when people speak poorly of campesinos here, especially those who have not studied much – or at all.

I realized that my roots are in blue collar workers. In addition, neither of my parents finished high school. Dad didn’t go to high school but went to work. He was a man with a good heart for others and he also had a good head; he could work out complicated math problems in his head! And Mom had to quit school to go to work because of the depression. Yet she continued to love to read. (I guess I get my taste for reading from her.)

They were both blue collar workers who suffered in the depression. And thus Martin Luther King’s quote echoes deeply in my heart.

May our world recognize the value of all work and may all workers see how their work can be a part of God’s work of living as signs of the Kingdom of God here on earth.



The drum major instinct

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 20: 17-28) the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give them a privileged position in his Reign. The other apostles get upset. Jesus responds by calling them to be servants, not like the rulers of this world who love to lord it over others.

On February 4, 1968, two months before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave an incredible sermon on the parallel passage in Mark (10: 35-45), on “The Drum Major Instinct.” It is well worth reading, or listening to, and can be found here.

I have loved this sermon since I first heard it because it acknowledges that all people are called to be servants and we don’t need to be doctors or Ph.D.s or big shots. What is important is to serve.

Today looking at the sermon I found that King also had strong words for the US. Since I have been rather disturbed by the US vice-president’s visit here as you can read on my other blog here, I decided to share King’s very strong words:

I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy….

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” … And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now….God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place…. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.”… He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon.… Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” … And that can happen to America. …

And thus, for these and other words, and for his prophetic words against racism and militarism,  people plotted against Martin Luther King, Jr., as they did against Jeremiah (18:18).

Will we listen to the prophets and to Jesus and serve, or will we seek to lord it over others?

That’s a critical question for us and for our country this Lent.


Last year I also wrote a blog entry on this text and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech. You can read it here.


Martin Luther King and Revolution

Forty three years ago today, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., U.S. civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and champion of nonviolence, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One year before he was killed he gave an extraordinary speech, “Beyond VietNam,”  in which he laid out his opposition to the war, noting the roots of war. Sadly his words still ring true, a challenge to US policy and aspects of US culture:

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military “advisors” in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

These words – including the historical references to Latin America – are still relevant in light of the US military, political, and economic presence in Latin America, including Honduras where I minsiter.

I pray that the United States listens to these words of a prophet – but, as Jesus lamented in today’s Gospel, John 4: 44, “No prophet is recognized in his own country.”

The full version of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s speech – titled “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence, can be found, with a recording of the speech, here.