Why we need a prophetic voice in America (COMMENTARY)

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Participants hold hands at the Moral Monday demonstration on the grassy lawn of the N.C. General Assembly last Monday (June 17). During Moral Monday demonstrations, participants listen to a fiery speech denouncing the Republican majority’s legislative actions, sing freedom songs, chant civil rights slogans and then they march two by two into the legislative building to be handcuffed by police and arrested for failing orders to disperse. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Participants hold hands at the Moral Monday demonstration on the grassy lawn of the N.C. General Assembly last Monday (June 17). During Moral Monday demonstrations, participants listen to a fiery speech denouncing the Republican majority’s legislative actions, sing freedom songs, chant civil rights slogans and then they march two by two into the legislative building to be handcuffed by police and arrested for failing orders to disperse. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

(RNS) Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to a rabbinical assembly in 1968, “a voice, a vision, and a way.”

“The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King,” Heschel said.

Ten days later, King was gunned down in Memphis. America lost more than a civil rights leader. We lost a prophet.

But the prophetic voice did not die. As we pause to remember King, the prophetic voice rings out still, interrupting our petty politics of lies and fear to call forth a moral movement that recaptures our deepest religious and constitutional convictions.

No political candidate alone offers the hope we can believe in. We need the indictment, imagination, and inspiration of the prophetic voice in America.

Out of the ashes of Ferguson and Baltimore, the prophetic voice has arisen, demanding justice for Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice.

It is a wake up call from all who face the nightmare of underfunded schools, lack of access to health care, racial profiling, mass incarceration, economic and political disenfranchisement.

This prophetic cry is the necessary alarm clock to rouse those Ta-Nehesi Coates has dubbed the “Dreamers,” — people who, imagining themselves to be white, blindly assume that America has steadily improved since King’s death.

RELATED STORY: How Martin Luther King became safe

The prophetic voice exposes both our nostalgic hopes of “making America great again” and our progressive dreams of “reform” as prescriptions based on a fundamental misdiagnosis. In a land of Dreamers, it is not enough to remember King’s dream.

We must also recall his prophetic critique. “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty,” King said, “she too will go to hell.”

My mother went into labor as King was delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, and my earliest memory is of her weeping in front of a small black and white TV set five years later when King was assassinated.

I have lived my life as a black man in America under the echo of King’s prophetic voice. Like a north star, that prophetic voice has guided me to challenge the accepted division of conservative vs. liberal in our public life. Some things are not left or right. They’re just wrong. The prophet’s voice compels us to cry out in moral dissent.

While the prophet doesn’t begin with a political agenda, the cry of moral dissent does open space for a new vision of our common life. Twice in American history we have mustered the courage to uncover our racial wound and face its continued impact.

During Reconstruction, black and whites worked together in Southern legislatures to democratize the plantation economy, expanding education, voting rights, economic power, and civil rights. Poor white farmers recognized a common cause with freed slaves in fusion coalitions across the South.

Once again in the mid-20th century, coalitions of black and white, Christian and Jew, labor and civil rights joined together following the nonviolent struggles of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the Freedom Rides.

In a Second Reconstruction, we witnessed the legal victories of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act and the expansion of social security. But this Second Reconstruction was also violently resisted by the Ku Klux Klan and undermined by the FBI. King’s assassination was a direct attack on the prophetic vision of America’s Second Reconstruction.

RELATED VIDEO: Memorial visitors see King as a spiritual leader

While the coarse language of segregation went away, a Southern Strategy was developed to divide-and-conquer coalition politics in the South. For 40 long years we have wandered in the wilderness of a Solid South where so-called evangelicals “vote their values” by electing white men who talk about abortion, homosexuality and prayer in schools while breaking every one of the Ten Commandments.

Down in North Carolina, the prophetic voice has awakened us from our slumber, stirring a vision for a Third Reconstruction. Beginning 10 years ago, we gathered an anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice coalition to pursue a 14-point moral agenda. We defied the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Southern Strategy, and we won, breaking the Solid South when North Carolina cast all of its electoral votes for Obama in 2008.

But no victory goes unpunished in a prophetic moral struggle. The summer of 2013 brought an extreme makeover of state government in North Carolina. Only the prophet’s vision could guide us: we were caught up in the moral struggle of our time.

Over the course of 13 consecutive “Moral Mondays” in the summer of 2013, more than a 1,000 people were arrested in this nation’s largest ever state-government focused civil disobedience campaign. The following February, in the dead of winter, 100,000 people marched on North Carolina’s state capitol.

In his often forgotten instructions to the March on Washington, King moved from prophetic vision to a strategic plan. “Go back…” he said to those who had voiced a cry of moral dissent. Go back to Mississippi, to Alabama, to Georgia. Go South, to face the root of our nation’s original sin.

Heeding King’s voice, our Moral Movement has discovered the power of this prophetic way forward. We know we must be rooted in the South, American injustice’s native home. We must remain state-government focused, building on transformative coalitions that exemplify the diversity that is our future. And we must face race head-on, insisting on a grown-up conversation about race and poverty in our public squares.

Only a Third Reconstruction can save us from the violence we see in our street and in policies that commit attention violence against the poor.

As Heschel knew, the prophetic voice, vision and way are not new. They are as old as the ancient prophets and as near to us as the very human Baptist preacher we remember today.

The future of America depends on the influence of a prophetic voice. The only question is whether we will embrace it by moving forward together or resist it by trying to shoot the messengers once again.

(The Rev. William Barber II is the leader of the Moral Movement and author, with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, of “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement,” published  by Beacon Press. He spoke at the Riverside Church’s MLK service on Sunday and  the King Center’s commemoration at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Monday.)

  • “But no victory goes unpunished in a prophetic moral struggle.”

    What is prophetic about it?
    Religion and its inhumane decrees of bondage and bigotry was precisely the enemy in the pursuit of human rights for all. The Southern Baptist Church was founded on principles of RELIGIOUS SLAVERY.

    Americans who seek prophecy show no respect for their Constitution
    The only “prophetic voice” we need is the US Constitution
    which represents one of the highest achievements of human endeavor.

    The nauseating and depraved consequences of ‘prophecy’ are the religious beheadings, medieval superstitions and empty gods which fill up our news 24 hours a day.

    Eliminating Jim Crow was about reducing the power of the rich, religious power and living up to Human Rights above God’s laws.

    “that America may one day live up to the promise of its (secular) creed” – MLK


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  • Black Folks y’all already know a democratic socialist. His name was King. –Killer Mike

    Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.
    –MLK, 1966

    I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. … –MLK, Letter to Coretta Scott, July 18, 1952

  • Greg j

    I think Dr King knew the difference between destroying your enemy and winning people from your enemy. The enemy was something rather than someone. I don’t know if you destroy things like racism and poverty. It could be that you go from generation to generation winning people away from the acceptance of these things. Winning from generation to generation looks different than destroying your enemy from generation to generation. Sounds different, feels different, works different. Hard to explain what exactly makes that difference but people can be moved to change we have witnessed it in this country. But is it the prophet or is it something else?

  • Our problems will not be solved by another prophetic leader. http://thelastwhy.ca/poems/2011/6/29/dalai-lama-pope-et-al.html

  • I would add that when the Church, both as a collection of individuals and as an institution, does not speak prophetically to society, it supports and promotes the sins of the status quo and the oppression practiced by those with wealth and power. But not only that, it disillusions its own members who are young. Unfortunately, there are more historical examples of the Church siding with wealth and power than examples of the Church speaking prophetically. And evidence the Church is failing to speak prophetically is seen when the Church emphasizes the need to repent from individual sins while neglecting to preach repentance for national, societal, and systemic sins.

  • Jack

    This article is correct, and wonderfully so, on how Dr. King’s generation was truly prophetic — speaking truth to power and risking their lives, their safety, and their freedom in the process. This includes the pantheon of black civil rights heroes, but also people like Rabbi Heschel and most starkly, young people like those who died horribly in the “Mississippi Burning” atrocity.

    But today’s apologists for thugs and bullies like Michael Brown are not prophetic; they are conformist. Worse, they are calling good evil and evil good. By turning thugs into heroes, they devalue the true heroes in the black community, who live quiet lives of integrity and compassion.

    Unlike the current generation of conformists and moral cowards, King was not afraid of addressing the problem of thugs, criminals, and the destructive radicalism that makes excuses for bad behavior.

  • Scott shaver

    Perhaps the prophetic voices around us just aren’t recognized as such. They could very well be rejected carte-blanche as xenophobic, homophobic, politically insensitive, gender insensitive, micro-agressive…..or whatever else the grid of positive tolerance demands these days.

    Don’t know that “prophets” have always been as moved-by-the-culture as some would have them today.

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  • Debbo

    Exactly, Mr. Day.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    As a cradle Methodist and former leader in the UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) I am satisfied that a certain Presidential candidate which shares those characteristics can function as that so-called “prophetic voice.”

  • Jack

    But Scott, some of these same people have decided that the way to advance the things of God is to go the way of the world, by hiring out political “muscle” in the form of arrogant, boastful, sneering, unrepentant demagogues like Donald Trump.

    That is not prophetic.

    Unfortunately, there are no prophetic souls running for president, nor are there any prophetic voices in America today.

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