There’s a stick of dynamite sitting on your bookshelf. There’s a flamethrower in your desk drawer. Beneath the statues and federal holidays, there lies buried the raw power of men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, women like Rosa Parks and Ida B. Wells. The lives of the prophets are still with us, entombed under layers of Nobel prizes, eulogies, and commemorative plaques. The spirit that animated their struggle for justice and dangerous truthfulness remains among us, ready to break out again if we have the courage to embrace it.
If we don’t embrace it, the 1% certainly will. We see this every time an ambitious politician claims the legacy of Martin Luther King, as if the prophetic fire of the black church were compatible with power struggles of the elite. We saw it when President Barack Obama laid his hand on MLK’s Bible at his second inauguration. The very power structures that killed the prophets have no compunction about using the prophetic mantle as a towel for their blood-stained hands.
The prophets are more dangerous than we think. Don’t kid yourself. MLK’s Bible is no mere piece of Americana to be brought out like some holy relic and used at high religious festivals like a presidential inauguration. That little book represents a prophetic tradition that is absolutely thermonuclear. It’s ready to explode the comfort of the privileged people who hold it up proudly, who tell us: If we had been in charge in the 60s, we never would have firebombed his house. We never would have tapped his phone. We never would have threatened his life. We never would have shot him in the head.
That little black Bible, representing the faith life of a revolutionary – an American prophet if there ever was one – now lies embalmed in a sterile glass case. It’s an historical artifact that we keep as a touchstone of national memory. It reminds us of what is possible when we are baptized into the courage of Moses, of the Hebrew prophets, of Jesus and the first disciples. It lies waiting for a time of emergency, when we will once again become desperate and courageous enough to break the glass.
Are we there yet? Are we ready to see the leaders who use MLK’s Bible as an accoutrement of power for who they really are – servants of the very structures that murdered King, and so many other prophets? Are there women and men today who are ready to face that beast, awake with the knowledge that it is more than capable of killing again?
We are invited into the same dangerous path that Martin and Malcolm and Rosa and Ida and César and so many others have walked. We are invited, in the words of Ched Myers, to exhume the dynamite of our shared prophetic heritage and to embrace it as our common work in our own historical moment. And through this blood-soaked inheritance of prophetic fire, Jesus is inviting us to come and die.
Is it finally time to break the glass on that little black book?