Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

18 January 2016
group photo

The Right Rev. William E. Swing, URI President and Founding Trustee, gave the following speech as the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration, hosted by the Interfaith Roundtable of Kaua'i, at the Lihue Neighborhood Center. Learn more about the celebration in this news article.

Hawaii - January 14, 2016

I did not know Martin Luther King, Jr., although we served churches at the same time, he in Georgia and I in West Virginia. Nevertheless he had a profound impact on me at the time. In those days, the central issue of society was race. It wasn’t about all races; it was specifically about whites and blacks. Using the metaphor of a piano, Martin used to say, “Every man from a bass black to a treble white is significant on God’s keyboard.” In the little steel town where I served, God’s keyboard translated into advocating for open housing for the blacks in the exclusive white neighborhoods. If that Baptist was laying it on the line in the march on Birmingham, the least I could do was to lay it on the line for integration in my little town of Weirton, West Virginia.

To think that more than 50 years later, I would be asked to speak on the island of Kaua’i at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration outraces my imagination. I cannot thank you enough for the honor of standing here before you today to celebrate this great man, the only clergyman in the history of our country to be honored with a national day of remembrance.

Martin Luther King, Jr. came from somewhere. He came from a soul infused by Holy Scripture. His ancestry was the entire family story portrayed in the Bible. From the first pages he discovered that all of us are created in the image of God and therefore endowed with surpassing dignity. Martin embraced the story of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, and stoked his spirt with the fire of exodus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter raised a sword to kill a soldier, Martin heard the words of Jesus saying “put away the sword.” Henceforth, Martin was set on a path of non-violent confrontation. And the picture of Jesus being unjustly accused, brutally crucified and surrendering himself in hope for a better world beyond the tomb, called Martin to his own death in Memphis. Martin took the Good Book to heart and lived it out to the end.

Black Civil Rights was totally his cause back in those days. I cannot help but speculate about what other causes he might embrace were he to have lived until 2016. I do know Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He made his monumental contribution in helping to end apartheid in South Africa. But as the years have gone by, I have watched him weigh in on a series of controversies where human rights of individuals and nations have been threatened. This makes me wonder about what reaction Martin Luther King, Jr. might have to today’s world.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. and I were sitting on a bench here in Lihue today, I have no idea what he might say to me but I know what I would say to him. I would say, “Martin, you won’t believe what has happened to religion.” Let us remember that the Civil Rights movement came out of religion, the people in the marches were religious, but today, religion has fallen on hard times.

Today, groups in Europe are killing Jews again. Again! One third of all Jews in Europe are contemplating leaving. Today, Christians in the Middle East are facing “the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing” whereby they must convert to Islam, or, perhaps, be beheaded. Today, the religious group that suffers the most deaths from the violent Islamic extremists are Muslims. A cataclysmic religious civil war between the Sunnis and Shia is brewing. Sights of the shattered streets of Yemen, appear to be a previews of coming attractions for a great swath of this earth. “Martin, you won’t believe what has happened to religion.”

Sex and religion have occupied the headlines. In Nigeria, Boko Haram kidnapped, raped and sold into slavery hundreds of young school girls. Slavery again, Martin, is in vogue in certain religious circles. In the United States, one of the leading movie contenders for an Oscar at this moment is a movie called Spotlight, which is about priests molesting little children in Boston, across the United States and around the world. When the bishops had to choose between defending their priests or the little children, they typically defended the priests. “Martin, you won’t believe what has happened to religion.”

No wonder when a typical young person in our country is asked whether or not, he or she is religious, the answer is “no.” “I am spiritual but not religious.”

Nevertheless, religion, good and healthy religion, flourishes at the same time. Billions of people, regularly, find religious paths to communion with the Divine. At the same time, they nurture families and reach out to people in need. Each religion is entirely independent from other religions and each has its own unique vocation.

Fifty years ago, for just an instant Martin Luther King, Jr. added two other dimensions. First, he got religions to work together. “Together.” In his famous “Dream” speech he talked with amazement that “Catholics and Protestants, Jews and those of other religions” had come together to March on Washington. He had hit upon a startling phenomenon. If each religion could, for a moment, come together for the common good of society, the world would be enriched immeasurably. Instead of each religion, independently, always enriching its own identity, what if religions came together occasionally and served the common good, together? Today, the word “together” translates to the word “interfaith.” Interfaith aims at bringing together, on occasions and in actions, the diffuse religions of the world for the sake of the world.

The other dimension that Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered was the power of “non-violence.” When the religions come together, what if……. each of them would forswear violence? Wouldn’t that honor the peaceful claims of the various religions? Wouldn’t that allow religions to meet each other at their highest and best? Wouldn’t that give the world an example of the best way to find an answer to the thorniest problems?

Today, let us combine Martin’s two insights: the concept of religions together and the concept of non-violence. What if……the world’s religions could, today, come together and make a non-violent proclamation. A simple one, just one sentence! We could affix our faiths to a paper that said, “In the Name of God, we refuse to kidnap, torture, rape or murder people of other religions.” Would the religions of the world sign on? Again, “In the Name of God, we refuse to kidnap, torture, rape or murder people of other religions.” That’s it! Revolutionary to the point of sounding insane at our present moment in history! But that is about as far fetched as saying, in our country’s early history, that African-Americans should not be slaves and should be able to vote, hold public office and enjoy all of the freedoms of American citizenship.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Is it about fondly remembering the past? Or is it more? Is it about learning from the past and marching into the future with the insights and the courage of that great man? January 18, 2016. I’ll tell you what I am going to do. I’m marching!