January 18

The Embodiment of Goodness

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 1:43-51

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Many of you will remember the stories about Jesus calling his twelve disciples to follow him. As reported in this morning’s gospel reading, Philip was so impressed with meeting Jesus and being asked to join his movement that he did what any one of us would have done. In a very excited manner, he passed the word onto another namely Nathaniel saying,  “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”   

Nathaniel was not immediately impressed but responded skeptically saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a prejudiced question because the answer is implied in the question. Philip seemingly ignored the question and simply responded by saying, “Come and see,” clearly implying that after meeting Jesus he would change his mind. And, accordingly, that is what happened. Soon after meeting Jesus, Nathaniel confessed that he was the son of God; the King of Israel. Meeting the man himself had purged him of all his prejudices.

Now, we can rightly assume that many asked a similar question when they first heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. who came out of the racially segregated ghetto in Atlanta known as “Sweet Auburn.” Can anything good come out of Sweet Auburn? Or more generally, can anything good come out of America’s black ghettoes? The most convincing response is, “Come and see.”

I first heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in 1959  in Athens, Ohio at the founding meeting of the National Christian Student Federation of North America. He was then only thirty years old and already known internationally for his successful leadership in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That conference became a launching pad for students as they entered the decade-long struggles for moral transformation in the churches, universities, and the military industrial complex symbolized by the War in Vietnam. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Needless to say, I was happy to be part of that generation where most of us seemed to view ourselves as agents of social change.

Many asked the question then “can anything good come out of a coalition of Christian and secular students allied with the civil rights struggles of black Americans, guided by the inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr., the spiritual music of ancestral African slaves, and the theme song of uncertain origins,  “We Shall Overcome.” The only answer then and now was, “come and see.”

Clearly, the good in history is always ambiguous. What is good for some is not good for all. The legal, social, and political progress of the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, was good for the growth of the black middle class but not good for those millions of blacks who were left behind to stagnate in the isolated cauldrons of the nation’s inner cities. There they are identified collectively as social pariahs. They comprise disproportionate numbers of the homeless and  jobless, drug addicts and dealers, armed criminal gangs who kill and abuse one another as a way of life. Many rightly view our inner cities as war zones where no one trusts anyone and very limited resources are made available to heal the social and psychological pathologies that flourish in that environment.

Tragically, both the residents and the law enforcement officers view each other as irreconcilable enemies. That mutual disrespect has led to widespread killings of unarmed blacks by the police which in turn has given rise to a new social protest movement inspired by such tragic symbols of defeat such as “Hands up; don’t shoot;” “I can’t breathe;” and such  novel practices as  “die-ins.”   The names and images of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner  Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley have become the embodied symbols of this movement’s protest against the police,. Yet, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s twitter lists 76 unarmed blacks who were killed in police custody between 1999 and 2014. That list includes nine black women. Hopefully, such names as Sharisse Francis of NY, Shantel Davis of Brooklyn, Aiyana Jones of Detroit, Tarika Wilson of Lima, Ohio, Miriam Carey of Washington, D.C. and more will gain public visibility alongside their brothers.

Let me hasten to say that numerous moral issues attend these cases of alleged police violence that cry out for public redress. Needless to say, perhaps, much needs to be done to transform an assumed war zone into a civil space of mutual respect and trust between police and citizens. In my judgment, that can only be done by eradicating poverty in our inner cities and cleansing those urban spaces of stigma. Ending poverty  was one of the unmet goals Martin Luther King, Jr. set for his first March on Washington in 1963 as well as the second March on Washington that he was planning at the time of his assassination.

Long before Martin Luther King, Jr. was called to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, blacks had viewed racial discrimination and segregation as a moral, social, legal, economic, political, and spiritual problem that required a comprehensive approach for its solution. Thus, the combined force of his moral insight, academic knowledge, theological wisdom and rhetorical skill combined to convince many that the depth and breadth of the problem constituted a malignancy that would surely destroy the nation itself if it were left unchecked.

The residue of that same problem remains deeply embedded in this nation’s fabric and wholly confirmed by the experiences of all African Americans regardless of our wealth, power or social standing. We all know that we are perceived as actual or potential threats to white America’s psychological ethos that forces it into a permanent posture of self-defense.

Now, truly good actions need to be interpreted so as to reveal their moral, political and spiritual significance. That is what Dr. King did so well and why his words have become such an enduring global treasure. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Our present situation longs for a similar interpreter. Those who claim that we have no need for such are grossly mistaken.

Clearly, the cause of our present problems is the same as those Dr. King confronted. Alas, effective cures have not been found for every malignancy whether  biological or social.

Clearly, all who shun the spiritual dimension of the struggle for racial justice fail to understand the depth of the problem we face.  It is a problem deeply rooted in our nation’s spirit: one that laws alone cannot solve; that days of service alone cannot correct; that protests alone cannot cure; that education alone cannot heal; that incarceration alone cannot repair; that jobs alone cannot restore; that wars on drugs alone cannot eradicate.

As with every spiritual problem the answer lies in bringing the human spirit into conformity with the spirit of God who alone is able to usher in a new world order; one shaped by the universal principles of love and justice the embodiment of which constitutes what is truly good. Those who have seen its embodiment must do what Philip told Nathaniel to do: “Come and see.”  Such a prophet is greatly needed in our day. Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied that goodness fifty years ago. Let us pray for the coming of a new embodiment of that much needed goodness in our day.

– The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Paris, Walter G. Muelder Visiting Professor of Social Ethics, Boston University School of Theology

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Leave a Reply