“Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prophetic question waits for a response
Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson
January 17, 2020
When the title prophet is used in this modern era, it mostly references the prophets spoken of in the Old Testament. The Christian world is familiar with these iconic figures—voices like the prophet Isaiah declaring, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isa. 40:3 NASB).
Walter Brueggemann writes, “Sociologically, the prophets are situated realistically among issues of social power, functioning as speakers and advocates for a variety of social interests that are said to be congruent with God’s will and purpose.”[i] This description resonates with the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
King did not label himself as a prophet. However, in a sermon preached in 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia a few months prior to his death, he gave what would be considered his eulogy. While delivering a message about “The Drum Major Instinct,” that drum beat that presses the ego and causes self-inflation, King alluded to his prophetic work. In his own words, he said to share at his funeral, “that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody… Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness.”[ii]
The message that King was a “drum major” played at his funeral in April 1968. While those words are etched on the hearts of many, it was his work that justifies the prophetic mantle. Cornel West in his book “Prophecy Deliverance,” noted King as “the most effective black prophetic Christian leader”[iii] as he described the evolution of Black Theology.
The description of a “drum major” is what I would consider to be the modern prophet’s work. Brueggemann noted that in ancient Israel, the “prophetic personalities…tended to be clustered around great public crises…”[iv] King was intimately involved in “great public crisis,” from the Montgomery bus boycott, to being the face of the Civil Rights Movement. It is in the same fashion of the prophetic voices from Scripture that we hear King’s prophetic voice today.
“Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” was published posthumously in 1968. Writing in 1967, King synthesized what was happening in America; the disparity that plagued the poor, the disenchantment of the underserved, the willful disregard of those in power and the unrest that would tear at the moral fabric of this nation.
Prophetic messages are not time sensitive. While an event or crisis may necessitate a prophet to rise up and speak, the message can reverberate through time. Isaiah called for clearing a path for the Lord. It was a call to prepare spiritually for the coming of the Lord. To the nation of Israel, Elijah the prophet spoke vociferously, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21 NASB)
While the voices of the biblical prophets spoke to a nation of people in a particular moment, their words echo through history and speak to a world very different from their own. Those words continue to be relevant. The keen prophetic insight of King falls among the prophetic voices of the sacred text. To America in 1967, King asked the prophetic question, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?” In 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. This legislative act legally declared that every African American of voting age had the right to vote as any other Americans without being harassed or turned away. King noted that “one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end”[v] with Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, America was not ready for the next phase. Seeing the dehumanizing treatment of blacks in the south was offensive to white America, yet, equality was another issue altogether. “Chaos or Community?” raised the question of what will America do? In 1967, when America was on the verge of erupting, King had his prophetic finger on America’s pulse.
While the voices of the biblical prophets spoke to a nation of people in a particular moment, their words echo through history and speak to a world very different from their own. In the same fashion, we hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic voice today.
If we fast-forward 50 years later to August 2017, the question raised by King resonates clearly, “chaos or community?” Similar to the prophetic voices in the biblical text, King’s question booms clear as chaos erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017. On that Saturday, White Nationalists clashed with counter-protesters over the removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The New York Times reported this event to have been “one of the bloodiest fights to date over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South.”[vi]
It would seem that progress should have been made towards building the “beloved community” that King so often referred to. In the same amount of time, advances have been made in every field imaginable. Significant progress has been made in technology since 1967. In 1967 there were no cell phones, we were still listening to music via radio frequency and on stereos that played actual records and albums. Today, music is streamed through as many apps as you can imagine. In 1967, if you wanted to speak with someone in another country, or on another continent, the telephone was one of the ways that was done. Today, even Skype is a thing of the past, as FaceTime and virtual meetings take place as common practice. Today the technology for cars to drive themselves exists. Yet being civil seems to have not progressed much at all. It is my contention that based on the current state of chaos, it seems the question has been answered. However, I believe, this was a rhetorical question or one that King wanted to use to raise America’s consciousness.
While we celebrate the legacy of King, I think time would be well spent focusing on that prophetic question, “chaos or community?” As we lift up the famous King speech, “I have a dream,” may we pause to address the reality that the dream has not become a reality. In the spirit of Elijah, who raised the prophetic question to the nation of Israel as they had jettisoned their faith, King’s question hangs in the ether of the moral atmosphere waiting for a response that will shine the light on the best humanity has to offer.
The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes: (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2002), 158.
[ii] James M. Washington, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (HarperCollins Publishing, New York, NY, 1986), 267.
[iii] Cornel West, Prophecy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 1982, 2002) 103.
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes: (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2002), 159.
[v] Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1968), 3.
[vi] Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Brian M. Rosenthal, New York Times, “Man Charged After White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville Ends in Deadly Violence,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/us/charlottesville-protest-white-nationalist.html. Accessed January 4, 2020.