Last week was the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., during which I again heard excerpts from King's final sermon, delivered impromptu in support of a sanitation worker's strike in Memphis, Tennessee. To paraphrase his remarks, "I fear no man tonight. I would prefer a long life, but length of years is not the ultimate concern. Though I may not get there with you, I have seen the Promised Land!" One can only wonder what might have been the happy result had King been able to pursue his growing vision not only of an integrated US but of a world where ALL (both oppressed and oppressor) were "free at last."
I was reminded of a 60s song about Abraham, Martin, and John, with its references to Lincoln, MLK, and JFK, concluding "it seems the good they die young." One could surely add Jesus to that list, and Gandhi, and so many others, both women and men. Of course any such list would need to avoid sentimentality--the "good" are not without human foibles. But the greater truth is that such souls show the unitive potential of our race.
So what is it about our ken that so often causes us to snuff out the bright lights that could illuminate the future's path? Fear and greed are two commonalities evident in these early deaths. Who was fearful of, who stood to lose from, the abolition of slavery, the end of the Vietnam War, the freeing of India from colonial rule, a Poor People's March on Washington, the abolition of Temple rituals? The answer is caught up in Walter Wink's phrase, "the powers and principalities of this world."
The testimony of Abraham, Martin, and John is that these powers and principalities may have their moment in the sun, but ultimately the universe "bends toward justice" in a great reversal where the greatest shall be least and the last shall be first. Thank you, brothers, for your faith-filled witness. You give sanitation workers and the likes of us renewed hope. May we have the courage to pick up the fallen torch and carry it forward.