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A homily for the annual MLK observance

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley         January 22, 2017

Delivered at Corpus Christi Church
Jan. 14, 2017

This Sunday marks the return of the liturgical season we call Ordinary Time. In today’s Gospel (Jn. 1:29-34), we are introduced to John the Baptist. In the Fourth Gospel, John’s primary mission is to give testimony to Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” “He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

A witness testifies to the truth based on personal experiences of that truth. In some mysterious fashion, God had revealed to John that the one upon whom he saw the Spirit descend is God’s chosen and anointed One. The very reason John was sent to baptize with water was ultimately to make known to Israel the One that God would send to baptize with the Holy Spirit. And, so he bears witness: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

Bearing witness and giving testimony is an important aspect of our discipleship too. Each of us have had some personal experience of Jesus, and so each of us is called to give our personal witness to who Jesus has been for us in the particular circumstances of our very different lives.

How have we known him? Did we come to know him as healer when we were suffering some illness? Or do we know him most concretely as savior when we are in the depths of distress? As our brother or friend when we are need of companionship? As shepherd when we are lost and confused? In advancing the Church’s mission of evangelization, teachers of the faith are certainly very important. But, even prior to teachers, what the Church and the world need today are witnesses, credible witnesses.

What we have seen and known, the mysterious, concrete ways through which God has touched and transformed our lives we are called to share with others. The testimony of witnesses has an authority that is hard to resist!

This evening we are honoring the memory of one such credible witness: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a prophetic witness, Dr. King awakened the conscience of our country to the injustices of racial inequality that have been the persistent and scandalous heritage of our great nation since its birth amidst the sins of slavery, and its subsequent bitter fruit even to our present day.

Martin Luther King’s personal witness and skillful oratory had a galvanizing effect on an entire nation. Like Jesus, he became a sign of contradiction because one simply could not listen to his powerful testimony and remain indifferent to the challenge and the vision that he proposed.

The high water mark of the Civil Rights movement in America was certainly the March on Washington in August 1963 during which Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The fulfillment of his beautiful dream of racial equality has been elusive.

There have been strides forward and steps backward. One certain sign of progress that even Dr. King might have found difficult to imagine a mere 50 years ago has been the election of our nation’s first African American president, who completes his second term of office this week.

But, undeniably, there are still huge challenges to overcome before King’s dream of racial equality, justice and brotherhood is realized: the challenge of greater access to real educational and economic opportunity for all, the challenge of spiraling violence in our communities, the challenge of desperately needed criminal justice reform, of restoring respect, strengthening families and breaking down the crippling fear that continues to plague our nation and our communities.

As Dr. King once said, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children!”

Dr. King often described his hope for the future in terms of his dream of a better day for our children: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” His was a dream of reconciliation and harmony based on justice for all.

One area of racial inequality and injustice that is rarely spoken of is the way these little children are targeted by powerful folks who promote abortion. Our black and Hispanic populations are disproportionately targeted through the placement of abortion facilities and propaganda in their communities.

This week, the nation also will mark the infamous Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in our nation. Every abortion is a tragedy. It has at least two victims: both mother and child. But, the assault that this industry, including Planned Parenthood and its founder Margaret Sanger, has waged on the African American community from the beginning could be fairly described as a genocide.

Dr. King was no supporter of abortion, neither were many of his chief collaborators in the civil rights movement, including Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King’s brother A.D. King. Dick Gregory, an associate of Dr. King as well as an author, comedian and one-time presidential candidate said in an interview with Ebony magazine: “Government family programs designed for poor blacks that emphasize birth control and abortion with the intent of limiting the black population is genocide. The deliberate killing of black babies by abortion is genocide-perhaps the most overt of all.” This is a hard truth.

Dr. Martin Luther King bore witness to the truth and paid the price by laying down his life. Prophetic witness can be costly. But, until we are willing to bear witness to the truth about the corrosive effects of racial inequality and the devastating effects of abortion upon the black population and our entire nation, we will continue to be enslaved by the lie. Only the truth can set us free!

“When we allow freedom to ring we will speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to sing ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”