A Prophet Without Honor
(Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 18, 1993, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Martin L. King Jr.)
Several years ago, President Reagan signed the legislation setting aside the third Monday of January to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Many across the land rejoiced. For many of us, it was an honor long past due for a man who changed the face of this nation. It was the first time an African American was honored with a national holy day. And now every January, in every state, we pause to honor the man, the message, and his mission.
Unfortunately, as we survey the land, we would have to ask ourselves, where is the real honor? On the one hand, we celebrate a man who stood for peace, and yet we are the most violent nation in the world, so where is the real peace? We pay tribute to a man who fought for justice, and yet we have the Rodney King incidents. We pay tribute to a man who fought for economic freedom, and yet African Americans are denied loans to buy homes and start businesses. We commemorate a man who struggled for equality, and yet African Americans continue to be judged first by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character. We honor a man who championed nonviolence, and yet we glorify violence from the silver screen to the TV screen, from the state house to the school house.
How dare we say we honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. when we allow these atrocities to occur with impunity? We must do more than honor a man of this magnitude with just a holiday; we must honor him with action. We must honor him by bringing into reality what he merely dreamed about. Until we are willing to honor Dr. King with consistent, liberating actions, then we dishonor him with our mere words, and he is a prophet without honor.
Throughout history God has sent us prophets who have spoken the word, but who have seldom been heeded. In essence, they were forced to prophesy in a vacuum. That's why Jesus said, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country." (Matt. X 3:57) It was, and in some cases still is, very difficult for America to find a real place for Martin Luther King Jr. We fear the prophet. We ridicule the prophet. We jail the prophet. We even kill the prophet. But we have no problem making the prophet merely a dreamer. Let's face it, there are some people in power who have no intention of allowing my dad's dream to become a reality.
I think that in order to understand what the Bible means, we must take a closer look at the role of the prophet. God has always found it in His divine order to visit us with prophets.
Prophets have always been God's instruments to change and help us reshape our lives. And just as God visited those of old, God visits us today. God sends us prophets who are not afraid to say, "Thus saith the Lord." Without a doubt, Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed a twentieth century prophet who came to his own, and his own received him not. Dr. King brought to us the breath of newness and vision we so desperately needed. It was because of his prophetic role that people were mobilized to the streets of Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham in a movement for justice. It was because of his prophetic vision that those who had walked for years with their heads bowed down could now walk with a sense of respect, with their eyes to the hills from whence cometh their help. It was because of his prophetic vision that men who swept the streets gained courage to challenge the system and women who washed other people's clothes found faith to believe in themselves. It was because Dr. King allowed himself to be used by God that people laid down their egos, their ethnicity, their religion, and even their prejudices, and walked as one common humanity, with one common goal. The word of God is true, and it says, "Without a vision the people will perish." (Prov. 29: 18)
We must pause today to ask the question, "Where is the prophetic vision?" Where are those who have not been bought with pseudo positions, and titles that they cannot spell, and positions that they cannot even pronounce? Where are those leaders who have not allowed themselves to be used by Pharaoh to continue the subtle enslavement of a people who have tasted the sweet savor of real freedom?
It is easy to honor a true prophet with words. We can talk about what he did and how he changed America, and that is fine. But the real question is, "What am I doing?" We have seen the yearning to follow the prophetic message of Dr. King in South Africa, Haiti, Germany, Eastern Europe, and even in some places in America. But many are paying mere lip service to the name of Dr. King. We honor the name, but we do not adhere to the actions. We must face the fact that it is not enough to say, "We love Dr. King," "We respect Dr. King," "We honor Dr. King." In my mind, he would not be terribly impressed with our mere words and our lip service. He would say that you honor, love, and respect me by picking up where I left off.
My brothers and sisters, it is not enough to say that we marched with Dr. King twenty-five or even thirty years ago. We need to ask ourselves, what are we doing now? In fact, some of us have not truly marched in twenty-five or thirty years. How do we expect change to occur if we are not willing to put on the whole armor of God and fight injustice wherever it raises its ugly head?
Now, when Jesus said that "a prophet is without honor," He was really saying that we have a tendency not to appreciate people until they are dead. This is certainly our story because America has a serious disdain for live heroes and an affinity for dead ones. Elvis is still being sighted, and his stamp drew more people to Graceland than any one of his live concerts. It seems as long as we have them in the flesh, we have a tendency to take them for granted. Those who are more at a distance seem to be more appreciated and revered. But there seems to be an irony to it.
For you see, here we are twenty-five years after the death of my father and thirty years after the "I Have a Dream" speech, yet where is the proper honor? We have a national holiday, and some people spend that day sitting around doing nothing. We ought to use this day to create and nurture greater racial understanding, friendship, and cooperation. For as my father said, "Like life, racial understanding is not something we find, but something that we must create...the ability to work together, understanding each other, will not be found ready made; it must be created by the fact of contact." We ought to use this day to teach our children self-respect--who they are, where they come from, how to love and help their neighbors. We ought to use this day to teach America that it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.
Those who walked with Dr. King say his contributions speak for themselves, and those who have come after say, "We respect the man, but his ideas are questionable, and his methodology is obsolete." This means that the further we move away from Dr. King and the civil rights movement the more we will need to teach future generations the true story. Without action, the forces of evil will continue to haunt us. Think about it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hard Questions, Heart Answers by Bernice King. . Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.