When King was assassinated in April 1968, the nation believed that another person with his moral conviction and social gospel ethic would not come along.
And in light of today’s queer civil rights struggles with members of King’s own family – like his niece Alveda King saying queer civil rights are special rights and his daughter Bernice stating that her father did not take a bullet for same-sex marriage – the LGBTQ community must ask: Who is our Martin Luther King Jr. today?
However, much of the reason for this query is that King’s vision of justice and moral leadership are often gravely limited and misunderstood. Too many people thought, and continue to think, that King’s statements regarding justice and moral leadership were only about race and the African-American community. They fail to see how King’s vision of justice and moral leadership were far wider and challenging than we might have once imagined.
For King, justice was more than a racial issue, a legal or moral issue. Justice was a human issue and had to be addressed anywhere it was being denied. And this was evident in King’s passionate concern about a wide range of concerns. “The revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place,” King once told a racially mixed audience. “Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice.”
Moral leadership played a profound role in the justice work that King did. As the nation looks for King, the LGBTQ community needs not to look any longer because he is right among us – the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson.
The tumultuous events surrounding the election and consecration of Robinson is the prism through which we see the Episcopal Church’s long-time struggle and history with homosexuality. And we also get to see the church’s theological underpinnings upon which homophobia and heterosexism have rested on and its continued ecclesiastical power to which it is attached.
Like King, Robinson’s moral leadership comes at a conservatively recalcitrant time in U.S. history when the nation is once again unabashedly discriminatory toward a segment of its citizenry. And like King who fought against a broad base of social injustices, Robinson understands that the struggle against homophobia in the Episcopal Church is only legitimate if he is also fighting the racism in the church as well as out in the world.
“King and his era informed me firsthand about race in this country, because I’ll always remember seeing separate water fountains,” Robinson told me. “People thought King was an agitator, and my father called King a communist.”
Today, according to our country’s morality jihadis like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, and the right-wing faction of the Episcopal Church, Robinson is not only perceived as an agitator, but also as the foretold Antichrist.
Setting off a worldwide firestorm of reactions, both positive and negative, that could possibly lead to a schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion, Robinson’s consecration is a symbol of gay liberation that not only challenges the church but also this nation’s existing discriminatory laws that truncate our full participation American democracy.
Elizabeth Adams’ book, “Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson,” depicts a man of quiet dignity and humble beginnings, who was born in Kentucky to tobacco sharecropping parents.
Through Robinson’s life Adams tells a wider story – that of the Episcopal Church’s relevance in a post-modern world that is challenging other oppressions rather than solely race that has gone on unexamined and unaccounted for too long in this country and continues to create for us all ongoing cycles of abuse and discrimination.
In King’s address “Facing the Challenge of a New Age” before the First Annual Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change in 1956, King stated that moral leadership is predicated on doing selfless public service that will not only ameliorate your immediate circumstances, but is a public service that will also change the world.
“The hour calls for leaders of wise judgment and sound integrity – leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice; leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity; leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.”
I miss King. The nation misses King. And we all miss the resonance of his voice heard in the inimitable rhetorical style of the African-American tradition of speaking out against American racism.
But today I hear a new voice – Robinson’s.
And it is a voice that also resonates the moral conviction and social gospel ethic of King telling us in our ongoing civil rights struggle: “Don’t ever forget the power behind you is greater than the opposing force ahead of you.”
Published in In Newsweekly, January 11, 2007.