Editor’s Note: We are pleased to announce a new monthly column on the intersection of faith and activism, by Reverend Michael Livingston, Executive Minister at The Riverside Church in New York City. Inspired by the work of the church in the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Livingston sees faith and political activism as essential partners for social transformation. In 1975, he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and began his ministry in Los Angeles and New York before becoming campus pastor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. After leading interfaith and ecumenical efforts at the International Council of Community Churches and the National Council of Churches (NCC)—where he was president and director of the NCC’s poverty initiative—Rev. Livingston joined Interfaith Worker Justice as national policy director in 2012. His work keeping the voices and needs of marginalized communities at the forefront of public discourse have enriched faith-based advocacy. While Rev. Livingston is now returning to the roots of his career and congregational ministry, his leadership continues to play a vital role in building a more effective progressive movement and a more just nation.
Look for his column here during the first week of every month.
I am often deeply disturbed by our remorseless witness. We are all implicated; we share responsibility for our witness of well-defined evil.
We don’t protect our most vulnerable children; we value people according to arbitrary standards blind to the image of God on every face; we are too quick to kill and to slow to forgive; we tolerate the desecration of the only earth we will ever know. We give a platform to political leaders who want to “take back our country”—by setting policies that favor the wealthiest over everyone else, selling public schools to the highest bidder, and tearing apart the safety net that sustains the elderly and assists our most vulnerable—as if their words and ideas are worth listening to, or are grounded in principles worthy of our attention or even support.
Our response? Too often it is tantamount to this: “Whatever.”
We allow injustices to persist as if solutions are someone else’s responsibility. We watched our Congress over the last six years—as we slid deeper into recession, as our immigration crisis worsened, as tragic deaths from gun violence killed children school by school, people in movie theaters, women and children in the sanctity of their homes—do less and less, making history for inactivity. Even now, behind all of the soaring rhetoric is a shocking lack of action. It’s almost as if Congress said, “Whatever.” How will we respond?
February is African American History Month, so rest assured there will be plenty of posturing by our elected leaders. I hope we will revisit a figure often celebrated at this time of year—but I hope we will have a new appreciation of his example, and what his example should mean in our daily lives.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young man, going about his daily business, following his predictable path when God called. He was a preacher’s kid from a solid middle class upbringing, attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Boston University School of Theology, earning a Master of Divinity and a Ph.D. He was on a Yellow Brick Road headed for Oz. But God had need of him and he joined the ranks of prophets like Samuel, Amos, and Jeremiah; like Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonheoffer; like Gandhi, Ella Baker, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others that could be named.
In part, what distinguishes King and these moral giants is the fullness with which they heard the cry of injustice and responded. And we can all hear it if we listen, and we can all respond. As Callie Plunket-Brewton remarked, “The overwhelming witness of the prophets is that God has no tolerance for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power, or who eat their fill while others are hungry.”
God has no tolerance for “whatever.”
And King had no tolerance for it either. In 1959 he said, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” Six years later, in 1965, he described his vision for where that career in humanity should lead us: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
Today, are we not a society that has lost its conscience? One only has to listen to the foolishness that passes for debate in any political season—and there is one on the horizon—or to the witless chatter on our televisions to feel the weight of “Whatever” pulling us down into the gravity of our condition.
But I have hope. I have hope that people of faith in every tradition will heed the words and examples of King and other prophets, and will wake up and rise up, will speak up and stand up; will turn for a moment from entertaining ourselves, buying things, cheering sports teams and entertainers, and insist on a world where children have clean water to drink and safe places to sleep; where the elderly can rest secure, the fruit of their labor beyond the reach of politicians; where a good public education awaits every eager child and a job with a living wage is there for every adult willing and able to work; where health care is a right, not a privilege, and humanity has matured beyond the illusion that our security is gained by weapons and wars.
This month we will celebrate many great African Americans whose contributions to better our nation and world seem incalculable. But rather than set them apart, let us learn from their example and respond as they would have responded. I long for the day when people of all faith traditions call upon those who exercise power in our nation with words lifted from the heart of our faith—so that our living may be transformed. The time for “whatever” has long since passed—it’s time for a collective and unbridled demand for justice.