January 15, 2012
Year B Epiphany 2 (MLK)
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“It is a well known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.” Who said that? (And no, it was not Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry). Seriously, it does not matter to me if you are Republican or Democrat, I happen to be neither, don’t ask anything more, but I am getting a kick out of Mr. Perry and Mr. Gingrich talking about “vulture capitalism” not because of their party affiliation but because major, main stream politicians are using the word “capitalism,” and in a disparaging way. For so long the parameters of the debate has been shifting rightward, and here it is shifting radically left and in a presidential primary race. God Bless America. God bless Occupy; this is their work.
But who said that, that capitalism has outlived its usefulness? Martin Luther King, Jr.. I am guessing that that is not one of the quotes we would find in our average high school history book, is it? No. We are taught about the King that led a movement to introduce black people into the fold of full citizenship, and he did it non-violently. His legacy and civil canonization are ensured in this work alone. He changed the face of the world. His work directly made possible our current President’s presidency; and whatever your opinions about our current president, the fact that we as a people could and did elect a black man to that office is something that makes this country better. But this is not all that Dr. King did. And actually, he was martyred precisely when he started getting involved in the other aspects of his work. What was he doing in Memphis when he was assassinated? That’s right, he was there working with the sanitation workers, a largely but certainly not completely black union who were striking for what we would now call a living wage. He became a real threat to the standing order not in the movement towards civil liberties for black folks, but when he started seeing and teaching that poor American folks, both black and white, had a lot more in common with poor folks around the world then they had with the economic elites in their home countries. He really scared the powers that be when he pointed out that the subaltern, the oppressed here shared common cause with the oppressed peasants in Viet Nam they were being sent into battle against. King’s story parallels Archbishop Oscar Romero in that when Romero moved from speaking theologically about love to direct appeals to the soldiers to stop killing their?” countrymen, he too was martyred. But, capitalism has outlived its useful life. Recalling the voice of a great philosopher, “Them’s fightin’ words.
To celebrate the life and witness of The Rev. Dr. King, I want to look closely at a line from one of his sermons that really got into me, and is revealing not only about his work, but is revealing about the nature of our world. He preached, “The greatest problem facing modern man (sic.) is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live.”
Ends and means is a major theme in King’s work. He was an ardent critic not only of Soviet style communism, but of pure Marxists thought because of its moral relativism. King advocated a Christian socialism, which ensured the just distribution of wealth and privilege and was rooted in accountability to God and neighbor. To Marx, the ends do justify the means so long as the ends are proper. The very essence of the non-violence King ascribed to and enforced within the civil rights movement is that hate can never be overcome by hate, but by love alone; that victory, even, is not the goal, but justice and reconciliation.
So he writes, “the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live.” Let’s start with the ends. What are “the spiritual ends for which we live?” _____ It is the beloved community. The reign of God, the Kingdom of God. It is Emmanuel, God with Us. It is justice rolling down like waters and peace like an ever flowing stream. What have we been talking about week in, week out? ____ Our raison d’eter? The great commandment. Loving God and loving neighbor. Exactly. These are our spiritual ends. It is loving our enemy, not as they are but as they might be. I read an article that said it is not that King would advocate loving George Wallace for who and what he was in that time, but loving George Wallace for the God given potential he had to be different, to be better, to be more how God desires us all to be. Humans, the temporal world itself, we are not a product but a process, we are fluid, flowing beings, never static. Loving a process is much like s “mother’s love for her (sometimes) wayward child.” These are the ends. The same ends that we strive for here at Resurrection.
“The means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live.” Let’s break down the means part. What are the means by which we live? _____
It is everything we are part of. Our politics; how we organize ourselves. Our economy; how we organize things. Our ecology: the complex community in which we live. Our culture: how we make meaning of the world. Our religion: how we endeavor to engage ultimate Reality. Everything that it takes to live as individuals and societies are the means.
So how do these means, these very temporal aspects of our existence outdistance our spiritual ends?_____ Let’s go through it by the numbers. Our politics: the means trump the ends when we value our ideas, our partisans, our candidates over the good of the whole. Wanting the government to sit in deadlock or wanting leadership to fail because it benefits one party over another in electoral politics is an example. The plague of money in politics is another, where some voices are get more attention than others because of what, money? Come on. Fools. We the people cannot govern ourselves, we cannot strive for justice in this climate. The means have outdistanced the ends.
Our economy: when the structures of the economy, the legal framework benefits one group over another, the ends and means are askew. When there is sufficient wealth for everyone to have enough but it is distributed in a way that some have more than they could possibly ever use and others don’t even have what they need, this is sin upon sin upon sin.
Our ecology: when we trade material wealth (which is generally reserved for the few), when we trade that for the health of our air, rivers, soils, and oceans, we are adrift. When we prefer, by law and opinion, cattle over wolves, cheap food over healthy farms, paper over old growth forests, fossil fuels over a future, profits over people; we have let the means trump the ends.
In our culture, the ends are bested by means when we value appearance over substance, when choose distraction and entertainment over beauty. Our culture is bankrupt when the means of delivery are so important that everything contained within is reduced to being “content.” And in our religion the means we live by outdistance the ends we live for when we spend more on evangelism than mission, when we value our denomination over a relationship with God, when our ideas exclude, our doctrines diminish, and our practices, our communities alienate. Remember, Dr. King said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week…
What is comes down to, these ends and means being out of balance, is that it is all interrelated. He preached, “Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” Dr. King’s vision of the world, its interconnectedness, the interrelatedness of the non-human and human world, the seen and the unseen, the sacred and the profane, the secular and the religious, it is nothing but organic; it is whole, like an organism.
I know that my story is coming out in drips and drabs, but here’s another piece. before we moved to Eugene, I farmed. Windy and I had a little farm in Western Massachusetts for a couple of years, then after a hiatus in Cambridge, we moved to a monastery where I started a small farm for the brothers. We grew 100 kinds of vegetables, some small grains, flowers and kept chickens, turkeys and pigs. It was great. In farming you get an intimate education in the interrelatedness of things. What you do anywhere on the farm, be it an adjustment you try to make in the soil, a redirection of water flow, or a change in how livestock rotates, reverberations throughout the system happen. Sometimes they are subtle reverberations, like a bit more purslane seems to come up after the chickens went through, and sometimes they are more clear, like when I laid perf-pipe to drain the puddle in front of the trash cans and then the road washed away…
What Martin Luther King, Jr. lived, preached and died for; what Jesus Christ lived, preached and died for was the truth that how we live, matters. How we love, Matters. How we pray and worship, how we eat and throw things away, what we do and who we are, the very quality of our lives and the world in which we live, all of these things matter. They matter to those we share the world with, neighbor and neighborhood; and these things matter to God. You matter to God. And for this, and with and for Brother Martin, we give thanks. AMEN