Tuesday, December 9, 2014


©Wendell Griffen, 2014

On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered at Riverside Church in New York City the most prophetic sermon of his life, titled “A Time to Break Silence.”  Sadly, that is the sermon most politicians and pundits least remember and almost never quote.  The sermon made news because it marked Dr. King’s most public denunciation of the U.S. military adventure in Southeast Asia and his call for the U.S. to immediately end the war in Vietnam. 

But Dr. King also uttered the following prediction after issuing that call.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and laymen-centered committees for the next generation…  We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy… It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us.  Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”  Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible… I am convinced that … we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

The giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism have been on full display in the tragedy surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. by Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department. 

When Wilson testified before the grand jury he likened Brown to a demon—something inhuman.  Several days after Brown was killed a local policeman was captured on videotape calling describing lawfully assembled protesters “animals.”  The idolatrous cancer of racism pervades American society despite those who pretend it doesn’t exist.  The killing of Michael Brown exposes how much that cancer has metastasized within law enforcement. 

When Ferguson, Missouri Police Chief Tom Jackson finally identified Darren Wilson as Brown’s killer he released convenience store security video footage that purportedly showed Brown stealing a handful of tobacco products shortly before Darren Wilson shot him to death.  The idolatry of materialism was evident as a law enforcement leader clumsily tried to suggest that theft of a handful of tobacco products somehow justified killing an unarmed robbery suspect.

When Brown’s family and neighbors peaceably assembled in their own community to protest his death they were attacked by the St. Louis County, Missouri law enforcement apparatus armed with military weapons and armored vehicles.  The idolatry of militarism has been pervasive since Wilson killed Brown. 
President Obama’s announcement that the federal government will fund body cameras for law enforcement officers doesn’t address any of the giant triplets Dr. King warned about.  Mr. Obama could have announced a multi-million dollar cultural competency training campaign for law enforcement agencies.  Attorney General Eric Holder’s much heralded recent remarks in Atlanta could have criticized racism in law enforcement.  Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder, like so many other law enforcement leaders, seem unable to admit that people in law enforcement are susceptible to behavior driven by implicit bias during encounters with people of color. 

It is easier to hand out body cameras than to confront systemic bias within law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies are typically eager to accept tactical equipment.  They are unwilling to confront the systemic reasons why they are viewed with distrust and resentment by people of color. 

Tiresome calls for “calm” and “peace” despite pervasive racism, materialism, and militarism suffered by people of color under the guise of “law enforcement” show that Dr. King’s wisdom is still rejected.  The grand jury charade orchestrated by St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch and the angry outcry after the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown remind us of Dr. King’s haunting warning when he quoted President Kennedy words:  “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”    

Societies reject prophets at the risk of their own peril.  Our nation is paying the penalty for murdering its greatest prophet and ignoring his wisdom.   We can’t afford that cost.

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