I got the homily done: yay! Gary thinks this is an unusual take on the subject, and I hope people will at least be interested in a story they haven't heard before. (Thanks, Gary, as always, for editing help!)
Here are the readings.
Today’s readings all link vision, the act of seeing, with other actions. “Kings shall see and stand up,” proclaims Isaiah; the Psalm tells us, “many shall see, and stand in awe.” John continues this theme: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” Jesus tells the two disciples, “Come and see.” Andrew responds by finding his brother, Simon Peter, and seconding John’s testimony: “We have found the Messiah.” In all of these cases, seeing God and God’s work on earth creates a response: either standing in awe and worship, or speaking out to spread the vision. Once we have seen the sacred, we are called to do something about it.
The question of what to do, though, is more difficult, not least because the consequences of our action can be costly. Jesus died for his vision. So did Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and labors we will honor tomorrow. And if, as Christians, we believe devoutly in resurrection, we would still prefer to postpone our deaths as long as possible.
Dr. King is certainly a shining example of someone who acted in the service of his beliefs. But the question of how to further his legacy -- of what to do in his honor -- may produce conflict, even among people of good faith who believe in his work.
More than ten years ago, I read an essay by Andre Codrescu. It begins, “Memphis in Egypt was the City of Dead Kings, and so it is with Memphis, Tennessee. Our Memphis boasts two dead kings, Elvis, king of rock and roll, and Martin Luther, king of the poor.” Codrescu proceeds to compare the outlandish spectacle of Graceland, Elvis’ famous mansion, with the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated. Graceland, which employs a huge staff, displays shag rug on the ceiling, one to three TV’s in every room, and Elvis’ gun collection. A tour bus arrives every three minutes. Codrescu describes the Lorraine Motel, on the other hand, as “an abandoned shell with a heap of rubble in front:”
The sun beats mercilessly down from the cloudless sky on the abandoned asphalt and cement of downtown Memphis. There is a sign on one of the few doors left among many gaping holes on the second floor, a sign that alerts the passerby that this was Martin Luther King’s room. From the balcony hangs a wreath. This is the spot where King stood when he was shot. A high, wire fence surrounds the desolate ruin. Camped in front in a small tent is Jacqueline Smith, the last tenant of the Lorraine. She has vowed not to move until the city builds a free civil-rights learning and culture center there. But the city, which owns the expensive real estate, envisions a paying “museum of civil rights” . . . with tour buses coming and going every three minutes. No way, says Ms. Smith . . . .Codrescu wrote this essay in 1990. In 1991, the city’s National Civil Rights Museum opened its doors to visitors. Jacqueline Smith had seemingly lost her crusade, but she still hasn’t stopped speaking out about her own vision. As far as I’ve been able to tell, she still lives outside the museum, displaying her clippings and photos to anyone who will look. She prints up signs that say things like, “Stop Worshipping the Past, Start Living the Dream,” and "$8 Million for James Earl Ray Exhibition -- $ Zero for the Poor, Needy and Displaced." She has, on occasion, been arrested.
I browse through the few but essential clippings and newspaper photos that [she] has laid on a makeshift table. The hot sun is melting the plastic on the cheap frames. Her seemingly hopeless battle with the city has not made her bitter. She sees herself continuing Dr. King’s struggle, her cause no different from her daily chores. Between answering questions, she goes in and out of her tent with a pan of water for her tea.
Smith’s website says that her “personal dream has always been to convert the Lorraine Motel into sheltered housing for the poor and displaced, a community centre or facilities for the needy.” She claims that these uses would be far more in keeping with Dr. King’s spirit than the museum itself is, and she urges visitors to boycott it:
The National Civil Rights Museum exists to educate the public about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and to promote Civil Rights issues in a proactive and non-violent manner. Sadly, it fails to live up to these ideals. The truth is that the museum has become a Disney-style tourist attraction, which seems preoccupied with gaining financial success, rather than focusing on the real issues. . . . All in all, the greatest criticism of the Museum is that it dwells heavily on negativity and violence. Surely the underlying signals must portray hope and non-violence.Smith objects to a high-tech, high-cost laser display showing the path of the bullet that killed King. She objects to displays about the Ku Klux Klan. She also objects to black-tie museum events that honor the wealthy while ignoring the plight of local residents:
Within two minutes walk of the museum you will find the homeless, sleeping in cardboard boxes or out on the street. Their civil rights remain violated. Museum spokespeople pontificate about the fact that civil rights abuses did not end with the death of Dr. King, yet stand by and watch while families within yards of the museum are evicted from their homes.It’s easy to dismiss Smith as a kook. On her website, she rails against former President Carter because he promised her that he wouldn’t visit the museum, but then did. As a result, she refused to shake his hand when he tried to talk to her again. Yet even Smith’s detractors acknowledge, somewhat uncomfortably, that she has a point. Wouldn’t Dr. King want the financial resources poured into the museum to be spent instead on the poor? How would he wish us to honor him? What would Martin do?
Jesus was a prophet, disturbing the comfortable by reminding them of their responsibility to the downtrodden. As a result, he was often dismissed as a kook, and ultimately crucified. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a prophet, dismissed and reviled and ultimately killed. And yet there is no doubt that both Jesus and King changed the world. I believe that Jacqueline Smith, too, is a prophet, and I hope she will help create some of the social change she has envisioned, without incurring the terrible price too many of her predecessors have paid.
The controversy about the museum, meanwhile, mirrors controversies within, and between, Christian churches. How are we called to honor Jesus? By standing and adoring him in expensive shrines built to his memory, or by working in grim neighborhoods on behalf of unhappy people? Such issues are at the heart of many of the schisms the church has undergone since its founding, and they are with us still.
The issue here, I think, is balance, finding a both/and answer, rather than an either/or one. The Civil Rights Museum undoubtedly serves a valuable educational function, teaching visitors about the history of discrimination and social justice in this country. People who come and see the museum will, we can only hope, also be spurred to take concrete action for civil rights in the here and now. Remembering the past is an essential part of changing the future. Consider our own eucharistic prayer, in which we remember Jesus’ life and death so that we will be prepared to share his feast and continue his legacy. Each church service ends with this injunction: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Love and serve. We stand in awe, or kneel in reverence, to love God, but to serve God, we must speak up, speak out, and stubbornly maintain our ground even when we appear to have been defeated. We must be willing to look like Jacqueline Smith, to be dismissed as kooks. And we must, above all, be willing to look, even or especially when the sights we see make us unhappy, when our vision shows us not the glory of God’s kingdom, but the sad places where that kingdom has not yet appeared: abandoned buildings, abandoned people, abandoned dreams. Only when we look will we see, and only when we see will we be shaken into the passionate service our Lord has commanded us to perform.