Ebenezer Baptist Church is a pretty ordinary building. It stands on a street corner in what is called the Old 4th Ward of Atlanta. And if it weren’t that its pastor was once Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, it would probably not attract much attention today. Now, however, it is a part of the National Park and Monument dedicated to the life and legacy of MLK and it stands next to the tombs of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, surrounded by a pool of water inscribed with the text: Let justice flow like rivers ….
I was extremely privileged to visit the Church during a recently visit to Atlanta, and to see for myself the very ordinariness of the place. The fellowship hall, where so much of the planning for the civil rights campaign took place, could easily be attached to an average British Methodist Chapel. Sitting in the sanctuary, I became aware of those countless thousands who came there to pray: prayers of suffering and oppression, of hope and joy, longing for freedom and justice. A sanctuary in a very real sense for those who sought respite, having been kicked and beaten by mobs of racists and police alike. I was praying in a holy place ….
I am cautious of claiming Dr King as a mentor and hero of the faith. As a sat in the Church where he ministered, I became very aware of my own privilege as a white male. I am a member of a group I did not choose, but nevertheless it grants me significant power still today. I am conscious too that others who claim MLK as their own would reject my demand for full rights and dignity as a gay man on theological or cultural grounds.
Nevertheless, Dr King inspires me because he was all too aware of the challenge of change. In his sermon on Matthew 10:16 (“Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves, be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves’’), he recognised that his call for serious thinking and compassion would be met with resistance. For he lived in a society where there
“is an almost universal quest for easy answers, and half-baked solutions.
Nothing pains some people more than the idea of having to think.”
The naivety of some good-hearted people can be one of the greatest obstacles to overcome, then as now. The idea that most people are progressive or want change was severely shaken in the Brexit referendum, though it is not gone. This is even more true in Church circles where the liberal myth that right-thinking people are always on the progressive side is alive and well. In 1967, Dr King gave a speech at a University where he said:
“I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation, the forces committed to negative ends of our nation, have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the violence of the bad people but for the silence of the good people. Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God; and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so it is necessary to help time and to realize that the time is always right to do right.”
Here he also challenged the myth that change is inevitable. For those who are privileged by the status quo – and that includes many liberal, progressive voices – time costs nothing. For the rest, it is justice delayed and, therefore, justice denied. Good intentions become the paving stones for a hell-bound road if they are not turned into action for change. In the same speech, King went on to say:
“When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. When evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”
Sometimes, turning good thoughts into action for real and lasting change is harder than battling prejudice. But it is worth it in the end, if we are to avoid,
“remembering not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”