To Speak for the Weak

RutesTen Days into our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech.

Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
By Tommy Airey, co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net (photo above with former intentional community members Mabel and Ivy

More than 50 years ago almost to the day (March 9, 1964), citing an 1868 treaty which empowered Native American peoples to claim surplus federal land, five Sioux activists occupied and took possession of Alcatraz Island. It was less than one year after the notorious federal prison closed down after decades of complaints over high costs and the flushing of sewage into San Francisco Bay. These indigenous prophets envisioned a redemption of the island, transforming it into a cultural center and university. They were apprehended and removed after only four hours, imperial conventional wisdom dismissing their public offer to buy the land for the amount the government had initially offered them: $9.40.


This courageous witness of indigenous resistance intersects with our “Beyond Vietnam” script, shimmering together with the Lenten Gospel episode of the prophetic inauguration anointing all people of faith and conscience with both the identity and “vocation” of being God’s children:

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ (Matthew 3:16-17)

At the font, we all hear the messianic commission of Psalm 2, “You are my beloved child,” alongside Isaiah’s prophetic blessing of the suffering servant, “with you I am well-pleased.” Like Jesus, we are challenged with the vocation of claiming royal personhood by committing our lives to self-donating service.  As Dr. King proclaimed time and again: The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.

The baptismal waters inevitably lead us to the wilderness. Our confrontation with Satan reveals a series of three illusions about what it means to Make America the truly great America that it is called to be (the challenge Dr. King named in his last sermon, four days before his murder).  Sure enough, when confronted with lies and illusions, Jesus proclaimed: “It is written.” The battle for the Bible is nothing new! As it turns out, everyone wants to quote Scripture to justify their own agenda, whether it is rooted in the American Dream or Dr. King’s Dream.  The wilderness illuminates the tension:

The Satanic illusion in Matthew 3…

  • Commanding stones to become loaves of bread (economic hoarding)
  • Jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem (religious spectacle)
  • Controlling and colonizing the globe (political patriotism)

…contrasted with Jesus’ simple prayer in Matthew 6:

  • Give us this day our daily bread (living simply so that all can simply live)
  • May God’s kingdom come (religion is not about a shoo-in for my soul to get to Heaven but a shoe on the soles of all feet)
  • May God’s name alone be sacred (for America to bless God and not the other way around)

Forty years after the death and resurrection of their leader, Matthew’s wilderness temptation story summoned a network of communities pledging allegiance to “the heavenly movement” vowing to reject, resist and repent from Roman imperial conventional wisdom. The Gospel reached back into the Hebrew Bible to clarify the choice: Exodus or Egypt. It called them back to the wilderness where they unlearned the well-worn path of hurrying and hoarding.  They became scripted into the way of manna and mercy. As Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves writes, these disciples participated in a subversive experiment:

The early Christian community was an underground counter-culture. The reason it was so ruthlessly persecuted was because the dominant powers perceived it as a basically dysfunctional and subversive social reality. The values it wanted to realize and live out implied in the long run the abolition of the very foundations of the Roman Empire.

Today, all over the United States, small clusters of beloved children of God are still creatively commissioned to a vocation that confronts the political, economic and religious illusions of the American Dream. Wage-suppressed-earth-oppressed economic bargains, spectator-driven worship services and emotion-fueled patriotism continue to function as idols that uphold the status quo.

Lent calls us to become dis-illusioned from these imperial patterns. This will take “disciplined non-conformists”–like Jesus, Dr. King and the five Sioux activists at Alcatraz–committing to simple practices like contemplative prayer, unlearning white supremacy, lectio divina, the Ignatian examen, fasting, twelve-step recovery, boycotting, direct action, divesting and all sorts of right-brain activities to cultivate our imaginations.

The flag, a hyper-focus on the family and a church built on felt-needs: these mechanisms motivate the masses. King Jesus and Dr. King rejected all three. So should we.

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