Who is our Martin Luther King Jr. today?
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 the question is necessary is because King’s vision of justice and moral leadership is often gravely limited by others and misunderstood. As a matter of fact, too many people thought then, and continue to think now, 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 was far wider and challenging than we might have once imagined.
For King, justice was more than a racial, 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 broad 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 a new King, the LGBTQ community need not look any further, because he is right among us—the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson.
The tumultuous events surrounding the election and consecration of Robinson are the prism through which we see the Episcopal Church’s long struggle and history with homosexuality. And we also get to see the church’s theological underpinnings upon which homophobia and heterosexism have rested and the continued ecclesiastical power to which it is clamped.
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, in addition to the right-wing faction of the Episcopal Church, Robinson is perceived not only as an agitator but also as the foretold Antichrist.
Setting off an international firestorm of reactions, both positive and negative, that could possibly lead to a schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion, Robinson’s consecration is nonetheless a symbol of gay liberation. It not only challenges the church but also this nation’s existing discriminatory laws that truncate our full participation in American democracy.
Elizabeth Adams’s 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 postmodern world that is challenging not just racial but other oppressions that have gone unexamined and unaccounted for too long in this country and that continue to create ongoing cycles of abuse and discrimination for us all.
In his address “Facing the Challenge of a New Age” before the first annual Institute on Nonviolence 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 also change the world.
“The hour calls for leaders of wise judgment and sound integrity,” King said. “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 with the moral conviction and social gospel ethic of King’s, 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 The Advocate, January 12, 2007