Dr Martin Luther King Jr
©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010
A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.
Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)
(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
—Theodore Roethke, from “In a Dark Time”
These early Quaker luminaries, Margaret Fell, George Fox, the Valiant Sixty, and Mary Dyer were carried by the strength of their beliefs, by the closeness of their community, and by their repeated use of the model of early Christians, who themselves, before Constantine institutionalized the budding Christian movement, were equally willing to witness. Indeed, the word martyr stems from the Greek word for witness. Those martyrs were numerous, numbering some 2000 who died during the persecution that arose around St Stephen’s time. Their suffering was legion, manifold, endlessly varied and often unspeakably horrific.
Beheading John the Baptist
Apparently this included all of the gospel writers: Matthew, slain with a halberd (like a long hatchet with a steel spike) in the city of Nadabah, CE 60; Mark, dragged to pieces by the people of Alexandria; Luke, hanged on an olive tree in Greece; also John, the author of Revelations, boiled in oil only to survive; and Paul, once Saul, dying in the first persecution, under Nero, his neck severed by a sword. And finally Peter, to whom Jesus offered the lesson of “and you will be carried,” Peter apparently was crucified in Rome by Nero, choosing to hang upside down because he said, “I am unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus.” (History of Early Christian Martyrs, European Institute of Protestant Studies)
This is dedication. Not to the degree most of us might personally undertake, but worth considering. Can change occur, true witness be presented, without risk, without courage, without a testimony that says, here I stand, this is what I stand for, and I shall not be moved?
What carried these early martyrs? What was their direction?
For some of us in the Religious Society of Friends and the wider United States community, Christ is bedrock, surely for early Friends and early Christians. We can interpret his life and its aftermath in many ways, most onerously—and I believe wrongly—as anti-Jewish and anti-Judaism. Read James Carroll’s massive book, Constantine’s Sword, for explication, or the seminal book by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide, or from our own Alan Kohrman, his pithy booklet, Quakers and Jews. Christ died in part for challenging the authorities, the Roman authorities and the Jewish authorities. He spoke out. He acted, and like Martin and Malcolm, he had premonitions of his own death. He was not deterred, he might have been emboldened by this threat. He was free to die, therefore free to live. He knew what he stood for and what the costs would be. In my book, he is a hero and a role model and a guide, arguably divine or maybe not, but certainly courageous and sagacious and prophetic.
Jesus with the woman accused of adultery
Archbishop Oscar Romero
I believe in resurrection, in the idea of resurrection, not necessarily bodily resurrection, but pedagogical resurrection. The teachings live on, or can. Here’s an example: Oscar Romero, knowing what might happen if he continued to oppose the military government of El Salvador, said, If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.
This last part is crucial, in the Salvadoran people. Romero will not live again magically, but only with the participation of the people. That is you and me. What carried him? What carries me? What carries you?
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador
I dream of Martin Luther King
While working in South Africa in 1999, I dreamt of Martin Luther King coming to me. I was back on the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, we were in our stay place for the night, a church somewhere in the south of the US. We’d eaten, we pilgrims were sitting around on benches and at tables. In walked Martin, he sat down at an empty table and no one came to join or welcome him. So I did, nervously. I sat opposite him, said in a quavering voice, thank you for coming to visit with us Dr. King. Can I bring you some tea?
He nodded yes.
I returned with the tea, set it down in front of him, my hand shaking. I worried I’d spill the tea on his papers. He was to talk to us. And that is how the dream ended, but only the sleep part ended. I awoke as if from a nightmare, and horrifying it was in its implications. Like profound dreams generally, this one carried into semi-consciousness. I lay there, thinking, Martin has appeared to me, as if tapping me on the shoulder, and whispering in my ear, “Skip, my friend, I’m dead, but you’re alive, it’s your turn.”
My turn to walk the talk, do the deed, take the risk. Martin—remember I am a born again Kingian—both commands me and holds me. He directs me and he supports me.
He’s reported to have said, Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. And those with nothing they’re willing to die for are not fit to live.
Let’s look at the last year of his life. He was speaking and acting against the war on Vietnam, angering many of his supporters. He chose to stand with the sanitation workers in Memphis when he might have been concentrating on organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. The Campaign itself was an attempt to shut down the federal government until it changed the system that fostered suffering. He and Malcolm were hinting at collaboration, bringing together the militant and more moderate wings of the civil rights movement. He propounded an analysis that pinpointed the roles of militarism, materialism, and racism, the triplet of our anguish. He called for a revolution of values.
On the way to the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington DC in 1968
I believe his analysis was correct and continues to be applicable. I believe government hands killed him—the so-called, by former vice president Dick Cheney, dark side—knowing how threatening he was. Thank god the dream is not dead, thank god for people like Boston city councilor Chuck Turner who is organizing to fund the dream. And I continue to be thankful for how Martin carries and directs me.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy and others at the Poor People’s Campaign, Washington DC, summer 1968
My role is not to organize the resistance, but to motivate and inform it. My role is not to analyze the political and social picture but to visualize its manifestations. My role is primarily to wake myself up and awaken others. Awaken, rise up from the slumber of comfort, from the ease of security, from the balm of convenience. Awaken to a life that is free to live, because free to die. To a fuller life, a more robust and edgy life.
We do not need to look far for examples of living the good life: Martin, Malcolm, Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, George Fox, Margaret Fell, Mary Dyer, Frederick Douglass, Francis of Assisi, Nichirin of the Buddhist order, his student Nichadatsu Fuji , founder of Nipponzan Myohoji, Gandhi, Thoreau, Dorothy Day, Rachel Corrie, the list is endless. We can each be, in the words of the South African author and activist, Alan Paton, humble apostolic successors, joining the cloud of witnesses, our lives teaching others how they might live.
Or closer to home we can look to the war tax resistance of people like Susan Furry and others in our New England yearly meeting. They see the folly of praying for peace while paying for war. They refuse to give their tax money to the government and instead usually put the money in an escrow fund the proceeds of which fund socially beneficent organizations. The agencies they and other dissidents and witnessers work for, such as Friends Meeting at Cambridge, New England Yearly Meeting, Cambridge Friends School, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting all have to decide whether to accede to the demands of the Internal Revenue Service or live by the principle of our founder, the good Rabbi Yeshua: honor life, do to others what you wish them to do to you.
I honor political and social witness—sharing the suffering of the afflicted and fighting for justice and peace. As someone pithily put it: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This may not be for everyone but it is important and a prime example of what I’m trying to express: the need for courageous, possibly self sacrificial action to challenge and correct the onerous conditions smothering us.
What carries you? What is your direction? How will you—in community—rise up?
Free Gaza Movement, a flotilla leaving in May 2010 for Gaza with humanitarian supplies and personnel—to break the siege