Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Most Dangerous Man
distributed 1/12/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Next Monday, in the United States, we will observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Every year on that occasion, I take time to recall that the FBI considered MLK the most dangerous man in America. That's a reality check against the sanitized image of a nice man who had a happy dream of children playing together.

King was not dangerous because he was organizing a violent, armed revolution. No, he was profoundly committed to non-violence. But he was a leading strategist in a revolution of a different kind. Cornel West -- in his book, "The Radical King" -- wrote:

They [the FBI and US government] knew Reverend King was a revolutionary Christian, sincere in his commitment and serious in his calling. They knew he was a product of a black prophetic tradition, full of fire in his bones, love in his heart, light in his mind, and courage in his soul. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the major threat to the US government and the American establishment because he dared to organize and mobilize black rage over past and present crimes against humanity targeting black folk and other oppressed people.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. That killing illustrates that he was deeply feared not only by the government, but by many others who saw him as a very real threat.

The riots that broke out across the country on news of his death confirm that King was the public face for a vast population seeking dignity, equality and justice. His killing in Memphis was not accepted quietly as a personal tragedy or a strategic loss. It was perceived on a visceral level as an attack against all those who longed for freedom and who fought for rights -- and angry, grieving people took to the streets across the country.

King was dangerous as an individual -- as a visionary, an intellectual, a preacher. And he was dangerous as the most visible leader of a powerful movement demanding real change. During the last year of his life, he was explicit in expanding the scope of his revolutionary call for change. In his speech at Riverside Church in 1967, he spoke out against the Vietnam war, and he warned America against the deadly "triplets" of racism, militarism, and materialism.

I long for a leader today who embodies that kind of danger. I long for a clear, passionate and uncompromising expression of values and principles that define a genuinely just and inclusive society. I long for a movement that inspires fear in those who are the brokers of privilege, wealth and power.

On Monday, I'll be marching in Denver's annual "marade" to honor Dr. King. It is one of the largest events in the country, and I'll be joining with perhaps 10,000 others who share in the longing for King's vision and power. I'm glad that there are so many others who give thanks for his life and who feel moved by his call -- but our march-parade will inspire no fear of revolutionary change.

A week from tomorrow, I'll be taking part in Denver's expression of the Women's March. As we did a year ago, across the country and around the world, women and men will "march in solidarity for social justice, human rights, and equality for women and all marginalized people". We'll gather -- and I hope that again this year we'll be a great multitude -- as a diverse coalition of people and organizations, committed to various causes. As we enter the second year of the Trump administration, we continue to join in outrage and resistance. We're continuing to build stronger coalitions and to build power. Yet I long for the dangerous leaders and the powerful movement that would inspire fear among politicians and entrenched interests. We're working at it, and the movement is growing, but it is clear in Washington, DC and other seats of power that our movement is not yet setting the agenda or seen as a dangerous threat.

50 years ago, Martin Luther King was seen as the most dangerous man in America. He articulated a vision of the beloved community which stood in prophetic opposition to a society of exclusion, exploitation and violence. He was part of a coordinated movement that developed new leaders and mobilized for specific issues.

I long for that kind of a dangerous leader and a dangerous movement. And in my longing, I work to help build that visionary, transformational movement where ever I can.

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King was killed 50 years ago, and that's a long time. Most of us don't remember the tumultuous world of 1968, and it may be hard for us to recall the setting in which King and the civil rights movement were active.

The current issue of Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating collection of articles on "1968: the year that shattered America." They remind us of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, civil rights, human rights and youth culture. There were riots at the Democratic convention that summer, the race to the moon gave us the iconic "Earthrise" photo, and fears of exploding human population were part of the emerging environmental awareness.

One of the stories explores Dr. King's visit to Memphis in solidarity with the city's striking sanitation workers. Interviews with men who worked collecting garbage in 1968 and who took part in the strike put a human face on the converging factors of racism, poverty, disempowerment and environmental risk. The vivid details of the article helped me to grasp the historic situation in that city.

King's presence in Memphis, and his support of the striking workers, was in keeping with his expanded vision of justice and the beloved community. Melanie Harris, in her new book "Eco-Womanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths", sees Memphis as foundational to the environmental justice movement.

The Memphis movement exposed the deplorable conditions and the environmental health hazards that workers had to face daily, all the while combating racism on the job. King grasped the connections between poverty, individual and institutional racism, and environmental health hazards, and he interpreted these links as threats to justice.

In 2018, we need a dangerous movement that embraces the "intersectionality" of many issues and causes. We need the compelling vision of beloved community, of shalom, that pulls together people in a collective effort. We need both activism on specific issues, and a shared prophetic critique to guide the movement.

The Shalom Center is launching "MLK+50" as a resource and a coordinating center for action in this year. Their new website is headed, "Heeding MLK's Call: King's Values, Our Movement". Knowing the Shalom Center's long history of eco-justice leadership, I will be watching to see how this project helps to inform the broader movement this year.

Next Monday, we celebrate King Day. For me, that event is an opportunity for longing as I recognize the need for a vibrant and centered movement in 2018. It is an opportunity for hope as I join with millions across the country who share in that longing. And it is an opportunity for commitment as we join together in continuing action and witness.

I invite you -- I urge you -- to participate as you can in expressions of today's movement for a transformed society of equality and justice. Join with a King Day event. Turn out for a Women's March near you. Get involved in a group that you trust and commit to ongoing work on their issues.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most dangerous man in America in 1968. When we join together with a shared vision, we can rekindle that dangerous, liberating spirit in 2018.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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