By Bishop LaTrelle Easterling
In observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and Black History Month, Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling, episcopal leader of the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula Delaware Conferences, preached the following sermon on Feb. 1, 2023 at American University.
Here we are again. Having come through January, the month where we celebrate the life, extol the legacy, and mourn the martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and now transition into February where we reflect upon the contributions, accomplishments and genius of a people predicated on the notion that it can be successfully done in 28 or 29 days. And this truncated exercise becomes all the more difficult in a nation that wants to whitewash or eradicate that history altogether. And this year we embark upon the journey literally through the blood of the slaughtered -- through the blood of Tyre Nichols, a young man simply trying to get home.
America, the very term has become synonymous with the land of the free and the home of the brave. America, the blessed shore where the tired, huddled masses may flee yearning to be free. America, held up by many as the greatest nation on earth. Formed on July 4, 1776, the United States of America became to the world a symbol of representative democracy, individual freedom, prosperity, justice and self-determination. Her Declaration of Independence boldly declared, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. This was America’s birth and her boast. This is the America the world was promised. But, even before that vision was midwifed into existence, the colonists had dispossessed indigenous peoples of their land and liberty; imported human beings from distant shores by force, subterfuge and promises of salvation, aborted the freedom of men, women and children shackled and shuttled across what for many became a watery grave; before that birth was completed, she had relegated many poor whites to indentured servitude. America proclaimed that all men were created equal – yet not all were equal enough to be free. America was born on July 4, 1776, but the struggle for justice was just beginning. How long, O Lord?
We celebrate King every year across this nation. We put portions of his speeches on endless loops and gather in great numbers to offer sermons and service in his honor. We claim to ascribe to his preaching and his pleas for justice. But if we tell the truth, if we tell the whole truth, we have sanitized and stultified Dr. King until he no longer disturbs us. Just as we have done with Christ, we celebrate the man while ignoring the message. We have domesticated him for our purposes rather than be compelled by his nonconformist challenge. We like the part of King’s dream that envisions the sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners walking together down a heretofore untraversed path because it is akin to a children’s tale and demands nothing of us as adults. But King also preached about economic equality, educational equality, voting equality, political equality, labor equality, land equality and legal equality. That is not the stuff of fairy tales. That is the stuff that eradicates evil. Beloved, King did not ask to be worshiped. King did not ask to be revered. King did not ask to be placed on a pedestal, no - King asked America to be America! King asked for the purveyors of injustice to cease their unjust ways. For us today, the struggle continues, and we cry out, “How long, O Lord?”
This year, as we gather, we are emotionally and psychologically exhausted. We gather to celebrate King’s life and legacy on one day when every day we see the continued reality of White supremacy, Christian nationalism, racism, homophobia, police brutality, and every other form of imposed degradation. We deign to gather under the aegis of purported equality while we live in a nation of perpetual inequality. We come together in the halls of academia in the illusion of peace when our institutions and communities are in chaos. The poverty rate of all people of color in America is dramatically higher than that of White Americans. The medical profession still administers healthcare disparately if the poor and people of color can gain access at all. Education continues to slide into de facto segregation by zip code or private vs. public funding streams. The pandemic exacerbated an already immoral chasm of wealth and prosperity. The haves have more and the nots have less. How long, O Lord?
Beloved, we know what we see all around us. We all see voting rights being eroded through gerrymandering and laws to make casting a vote more difficult. We see the politicizing of academics by attempting to ban critical race theory. We all see the over-policing of certain neighborhoods and the brutality perpetrated on brown and Black bodies. We all see the lies being proffered concerning the last election, lies that almost cost Paul Pelosi his life. We see immigrants being shuttled about like cattle. Yes, we’ve seen strides in the White House and the Supreme Court, and while all of that is true and to be celebrated, representation without reformation is not transformation. The systems and structures that manifest inequity must be dismantled. We know what we see. And whether you are a person of faith or claim no faith at all, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman wrote, “The core feature of a moral life is to see. Choosing not to see is immoral.”
Dr. King saw and exegeted the times he inhabited and offered a warning to America. King dared to speak an unabashed truth to a hubristic nation. In fact, because of the disparity he saw and was forced to live he opined that there were actually two Americas. He said,
“There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America, millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America, people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
I understand King’s analysis and poetic critique. King was speaking into the atmosphere the reality on the ground as he saw it. And, one should tread lightly to take exception with Dr. King, but I believe he would agree that in fact, there is only one United States of America. There is only one nation founded upon unalienable rights. There is only one nation purporting to offer unadulterated liberty. There is only one country extolling justice for all. But the dream is not yet a reality. We see the unfinished business of King’s clarion call for true equality. And like the Psalmist we ask, how long, O Lord?
The literary function of lament in the cultic life of Israel was to voice the perils of the current world and to seek divine intervention within it. Lament also shines a light on the circumstances that imperil God’s people and the losses they incur day after day after day. Lament is a communal means of processing the grief, disappointment, and need through the expression of complaint and petition. It is the release valve on a pressure cooker of emotions boiling in the kitchen of a society that will not treat all her citizens as human beings. The question really isn’t, “How long, O Lord?” The question is, “How long, America?” How long before you live into your creeds and amendments and laws and freedoms? How long before Black and Brown men, women and children can live free in our God-given skin? In the words of Rev. Dante Stewart in, Shoutin’ in the Fire, “We want our memories and our bodies to be handled with care. …where the weights are no more. Where bodies are not broken. Where bodies are not wounded. Where the pieces of ourselves are put together again. Where we are free. Where we are home.”
We don’t need another empty celebration of Black History Month, we need a celebration of the life, beauty, brilliance, creativity, struggle and love of Black people. We need this country to confess that we are not America’s burden, that we do not engender fear and foreboding. Our lament is that it has been 160 years since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and 158 years since the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and yet the social construct of whiteness that infects many of our institutions binds and cripples and oppresses people of color today. As Tyre Nichols is laid to rest today in Memphis, we will cry out and lament and march and demand justice:
Until we can jog in our neighborhoods without fear of being accused of criminality,
Until we can drive our cars without being stopped for no reason and killed indiscriminately,
Until our children can play in parks or walk home from the store and make it home alive,
Until delivery drivers of color can do their jobs without having to defend their right to do their jobs,
Until racial profiling is a thing of the past,
Until America abandons her addiction to racism.
Because until America is truly America to all, she is America to none.
Martin died fighting for the soul of this nation. Does that collective soul not break when another grown man cries out in the street for his mother? What are we prepared to do to make this dream a reality? As Timothy Snyder writes in his short book, On Tyranny, which everyone should read, memorize and share, “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” This country must be transformed from the inside out. Our elected leaders must govern justly. Our churches must teach the liberative Gospel of a loving God. August institutions such as this must ensure that their research, curricula, programs and practices uphold and uplift the highest moral values and impart the deepest ethical principles. Our law enforcement officers must enforce the laws without regard for race or class. Lady justice must truly be blind, and poverty should be a thing of the past.
And so, we ask, where is the hope for us today? America is still becoming. America is still forming. America is still living into her ideals. We are still a very young nation, and the last chapter has not been written. We are the architects. We are the scribes. We are the justice seekers. We are the ones who can make her creeds and declarations and Amendments a reality. We are the ones who can ensure that the check no longer comes back marked insufficient funds. We are the ones who can loose the shackles and finally set all the captives free. We are the ones who can cease the hypocrisy of being a nation of immigrants now refusing to welcome the stranger. We are the ones who can not only enforce just laws, but also renew hearts and minds. As King aptly stated, “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” We can be the nonconformists.
America can be America for all when she is willing to see the humanity of all, deconstruct her systems of oppression and recognize the inherent dignity of all. How long? Until we can all sing truthfully, “My country, ‘tis of Thee, sweet land of liberty for all eternity. Let freedom ring, let freedom ring!”