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Notes And News

Photo Op

by The Reverend Meredith E. Ward on January 13, 2022

This Sunday, as we celebrate the life and witness of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded once again of how profoundly Dr. King’s faith informed and sustained him. There are several well-known photographs of Dr. King that have always stayed with me, showing him marching arm in arm with a row of clergy and faith leaders. In one photo, there are priests, ministers, rabbis, and a nun all lined up at the front of the march, their clerical garb on full display. In another photo, a priest is carrying a processional Cross while a rabbi holds a Torah scroll. We know that Dr. King was close friends with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and we will hear about those relationships in our Forums this Sunday and next week. For me, what is so powerful about these photographs and these friendships is knowing the impact that they had on the movement and how their faith was at the root of everything they did. Dr. King understood the moral and spiritual force of a non-violent march for justice led by people steeped in the language of the Hebrew prophets and the love of Jesus. They all knew very well the story of God calling a hesitant Moses to lead the people out of bondage with the reassuring words, “I will be with you.”

Of course, not all faith leaders of that time liked King’s movement or agreed with his tactics. In 1963, several prominent clergy in Birmingham, Alabama – Catholic, Episcopal, Jewish, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist - issued “A Call for Unity,” calling King’s demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” It was to these faith leaders that King addressed his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” letting them know that unjust laws are of no use to those who “would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the … community.” King knew churches and church leaders. He knew how to tap into the power of their spiritual authority and he also knew how to call out the “do nothingism” of their complacency.

Activist Jennifer Amuzie writes, “Activists love churches. If a ‘faith leader’ can come to your protest and the press arrives, the chances that your protest will be covered by the media goes up – even higher if you have someone in a clerical collar, and higher still if they gets arrested. … Activists love churches, but churches don’t love them back.” (Jennifer Amuzie, “Activists and Churches,” in Preaching Black Lives (Matter), Gayle Fisher-Stewart, ed. Church Publishing, New York, 2020, p. 88).

Unfortunately, Amuzie’s cynical outlook on the church has a ring of truth to it. Has the institutional church become stultified and complacent? Is the church just there for the photo op? Or do we truly believe we have something uniquely valuable to contribute to the cause of justice? I believe we do, and we can look to Dr. King’s example and to the roots of his movement for inspiration. We can remember those powerful photo ops from a generation ago and know that our faith, like theirs, is a mighty spiritual force. And if at times we aren’t feeling entirely up to the task, we can remember God’s words to Moses that we will hear on Sunday: “I will be with you.”


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