Something for me to remember as I vote

From the Moveable Type blog, January 19, 2008; edited to fix linkrot, although I can’t find the original Josh Marshall link.

Via Josh Marshall, I came across video for this Bill Moyers commentary on Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson – which you might find interesting in the aftermath of all this Clinton/Obama flap you may have heard about:

LBJ worried that the mounting demonstrations were hardening white resistance. He had been the master of the Senate, the Great Persuader, the man who could twist your arm with such flair and flattery you thought he was actually doing you a favor by wrenching it from its socket. He reckoned that, with a little time, he could twist enough arms to end or at least neutralize the power of die-hard racists, all of them – including some of his mentors – white supremacists, who threatened to bring the government, if not the country, to its knees before they would see blacks eat at the same restaurants, go to the same schools, drink from the same fountains, or live in the same neighborhoods as whites.

As the pressure intensified on each side, Johnson wanted King to wait a little longer and give him a chance to bring Congress around by hook or crook. But Martin Luther King said his people had already waited too long. He talked about the murders and the lynchings, the churches set on fire, children brutalized, the law defied, men and women humiliated, their lives exhausted, their hearts broken. LBJ listened – as intently as I ever saw him listen, he listened. And then he put his hand on Martin Luther King’s shoulder, and said, in effect, “Okay. You go out there, Dr. King, and keep doing what you’re doing, and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

Lyndon Johnson was no racist, but he had not been a civil rights hero, either. Now, as president, he came down on the side of civil disobedience, believing it might quicken America’s conscience until the cry for justice became irresistible, enabling him to turn Congress. So King marched, and Johnson maneuvered and Congress folded.

Listen to the whole thing. I never realized Lyndon Johnson dropped “we shall overcome” in front of the combined session of Congress, for that matter.

The Moyers piece fascinated me because I couldn’t help but feel like I’d heard this story before. And, upon a quick review, I found that I had – on a much lower level.

What we hear from Jesus in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is radical demands, uncompromising standards, no accommodations to our preferences, or our opinions whatsoever. What we are hearing is from God, not from the latest public opinion poll. We are hearing the voice that doesn’t sound like any other voice – the voice of God telling the people of his kingdom what he expects of them.

Let me tell you a story. I got this story from a Christian law professor at Yale Law School named Stephen Carter. He wrote a great book on religion and politics called God’s Name In Vain. There was a hero of the Civil Rights Movement that many of you may not have ever heard of. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer was the founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In the summer of 1964 the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the credentials of the lily-white Mississippi slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party offered an integrated slate of delegates, many of whom, like Mrs. Hamer, tried to register to vote in Mississippi, but were punished for it. In fact, Fannie Lou Hamer was jailed on a number of occasions and tortured in jail for doing such outrageous things as trying to register to vote.

Well, this conflict between the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the white slate of delegates selected by the Mississippi Democratic Party was threatening the Democratic National Convention. President Johnson didn’t want the controversy so he sent his Vice President in waiting, Hubert Humphrey, to visit Mrs. Hamer and to try to get her to back off.

Humphrey went with his typical happy style thinking he would be talking to a normal human being. He asked Fannie Lou Hamer what she wanted. But Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman who had been taken hold of by Jesus Christ. And Fannie Lou Hamer responded by saying, “What I want is the beginning of a New Kingdom right here on earth.”

Humphrey didn’t know how to deal with that statement. So he tried to explain things in political terms. He wanted Fannie Lou Hamer to understand that if he and Johnson were nominated, that they would work hard for Civil Rights. So she should compromise now and not push her slate of delegates.

Here’s Fannie Lou Hamer’s response:

Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now, if you lose this job of Vice President because you do what is right, because you help MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take the nomination this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for Civil Rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk all the time about. Senator Humphrey, I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.

See, the scribes and the Pharisees spoke the language of Hubert Humphrey, reasonable, practical, in-touch with current political realities. Jesus always speaks the language of Fannie Lou Hamer – radical, uncompromising, prophetic – a voice unlike any other voice. Have you heard the radical voice of Jesus lately?

There are many claims in American politics to what God’s politics actually looks like. I’m not going to tell you whose are right or wrong (although, I will confess, the implication that I can’t vote my ideals of what I believe this country should look like because this candidate has one kind of experience or and that candidate has another and this guy doesn’t have at all, frankly is hacking me off). I will tell you that Jesus’ voice is not practical. It is prophetic. It demands a light that shines for the whole world to see, not a light buried under the basket of expedience or economics.

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