by Dr. Theresa Latini
President, United Lutheran Seminary
In recent days in the United States of America, we’ve been awash in moral outrage, and rightly so. Politicians, news commentators, pastors, theologians, global leaders, and ordinary citizens have risen up in opposition to President Trump’s references to Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as “sh**hole countries.” In the context of discussing U.S. immigration policy, President Trump spewed, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” And “Why do we need more Haitians? . . . Take them out.”
When such vitriol flows from the White House, it is incumbent upon all of us to speak an unequivocal “NO!” As we do so, President Trump’s comments must be named for what they are: racist, xenophobic, hateful, violent. They deny our common, universal humanity. They exclude and de-humanize persons of color. They tear apart the fabric of community. They marginalize. In short, they promote death rather than life. These comments carry within them the power of the void (or, nothingness)—a kind of power that would turn the most vulnerable of God’s good creation back into nothing.
Over the years, I’ve turned to Dr. King’s sermons to help me lead in moments like these. He teaches me to interpret the pervasive sins of racism, classism, and militarism in light of scripture and above all he reminds me of the biblical mandate to love. His sermons, indeed his whole life, witness to much that we desperately need today: persistent nonviolent resistance and peacemaking; an unwavering neighborly love grounded in the gospel; a dogged refusal to dehumanize the so-called enemy; a commitment to action and radical restructuring of our social order so that justice and peace might prevail.
Over the weekend, I read again his sermon “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break Silence,” delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. To summarize of a few of the most salient of Dr. King’s points for our consideration today:
1. We must speak out.
Silence is betrayal of marginalized and vulnerable populations. Silence also is a betrayal of our own values. Such speaking out against racist, xenophobic speech and policies will need to be persistent. Sporadic speech is not enough to confront the goliath of injustice looming over our country.
2. We must speak out with humility, not self-righteousness.
If Dr. King himself speaks of the “betrayal of [his] own silences,” then how much more so ought the rest of us do the same?! Our moral outrage must be coupled, especially for those with privilege, with a willingness to also stand under the “NO!” of God. Insofar as we perpetuate injustice—both intentionally and unintentionally, consciously and unconsciously, personally and structurally—we are called to confession and repentance, again and again.
3. We must speak (and act) locally and nationally and globally.
We cannot work for justice in one arena and ignore profound injustice in another. For we are all connected to one another; so are our socioeconomic policies. Dr. King said, “A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind [sic] as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
4. We must act individually and systemically.
We must care for persons and care for our institutions. Such care entails advocacy and comprehensive change. Dr. King preached, “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
5. We must act nonviolently, because all of this work is fundamentally about love.
God is love and love is the “ultimate reality.” Which means, among other things, that we must love our so-called enemies, wherever we have created them. When we hate even those who act in hateful ways, we run the risk of becoming like them, and we perpetuate the very thing we are longing to end. Saying “NO!” to President Trump, then, must be accompanied by the hard work of speaking out against his actions, and the power of the void, without dehumanizing him. For in doing so, we say “YES!” to the God of love, the God of forgiveness, the God of peace.
On this day of commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., may we commit ourselves to this work, and may we pray together for God’s reign of peace to come.