Wake Up to the Revolution

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Our reading this morning is from the Ware Lecture that Dr. King delivered in 1966 https://www.uua.org/ga/past/1966/ware. For some context, the Ware Lecture https://www.uua.org/ga/program/highlights/ware-lecture is a significant event each year at our UUA General Assembly. It was established back in the early- to mid-1800’s to honor three generations of distinguished individuals from the Ware family. And yes, Ed Ware (a long-time member of the Binghamton UU congregation) has a family connection in that line, you can ask him about it.

Each year, the UUA president invites a distinguished guest from outside Unitarian Universalism to speak. Over the years the we’ve heard from Jane Addams, Howard Thurman, Linus Pauling, Helen Caldicott, Krista Tippett, Van Jones, Eboo Patel, and Cornell West. It is an impressive list. In 1966, the speaker was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his title was “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution.” Dr. King was invited to speak to the gathered Unitarian Universalists and the message he chose to bring us was to wake up!  

Dr. King begin his speech to the Unitarian Universalists with the story of Rip van Winkle. In case the tale has fallen out of fashion; briefly, it is a short story by Washington Irving about a man who falls asleep up in the Catskill mountains for 20 years. Most cogently, he falls asleep while King George the third of England rules the land and wakes to find President George Washington in charge. Rip van Winkle slept through a revolution.

In drawing the parallel, King said to us,

“One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” (MLK Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution)

He then goes on to describe the demands of “the new situation” as well as what he means by “the new attitudes and outlooks” needed to face it.

He talked about the shift underway in how racism is experienced in America after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were signed into law. He talked about the ongoing pervasive attitude of racial superiority (or ‘white supremacy’ as we might say today.) He told us about the ongoing threats of violence and annihilation. King did not say it quite this baldly, but it was a time in which a black man could be killed with impunity, often because the police looked the other way or even participated in the lynching and murders. Dr. King warned us about the apathy of the church, the tragic sin of standing by while people were oppressed and degraded. He warned us against sleeping through the revolution.

And frankly, in all fairness, we Unitarian Universalists did fall asleep after we experienced an internal implosion over racial issues just a few years after King spoke with us. As a movement, we pretty much stopped talking about race through the 70’s and 80’s and much of the 90’s. Now, that’s a broad and un-nuanced way of putting it, but it is largely true.

But a new day has arrived. The current generation of young people faces much the same adversity folks faced the 60’s. This is true nationally, and in our faith specifically. There are remarkable similarities. There is an upswell in calls for civil rights and justice for marginalized identities. Young people are riled up and the older generation doesn’t quite understand why. We have ongoing foreign wars that are largely unsanctioned and unpopular. There is corruption throughout the government, including up at the highest level. Back in the ‘60’s, Dr. King would often cite three evils for us to deal with as a nation: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Are we not still facing these three evils today?

So, in 1966, Dr. King said, all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. And the great period of change he referred to then is strikingly similar to the great period of change we are now in today. We can add a few problems and difficulties that were not in play back then. Healthcare, for example, was not a ‘for-profit’ endeavor back then; we invented that problem in the 70’s. And the climate crisis has grown dramatically worse since King’s time. The need for human rights and civil rights for other marginalized groups has expanded and echoes the work King and others had done in their time.

Many people who were deeply involved in the hard work of justice-making in the 60’s may be rightly disheartened that we find ourselves in so similar a situation today. But I tell you the fires have not died and there are workers in the field today building for a better world.

Dr. King said we would need new attitudes and outlooks to address the situation. As you might suspect, the new attitudes and outlooks he called for over 50 years ago are applicable today. Indeed the ‘new’ attitudes and outlooks he called for back then, while radical, were not really new in the 60’s.

There were two particular ideas, theological ideas, that he mentioned in his speech to the Unitarian Universalists as the attitudes and outlooks needed for those times. They are theological ideas that resonant well with the various theologies we have here in Unitarian Universalism.

The first in the mindset of interconnectedness as a perspective of renewal. In the 1966 Ware Lecture he said simply, “All life is inter-related, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” In other speeches he talked about it as a “network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny,” in which we are all caught up together; and how “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s all inter-related. This theological premise that we are interconnected led King and it leads us today into the work of justice.

It becomes important to be in relationship with the poor and oppressed, that you understand the condition of the disenfranchised and dispossessed. Dr. King said “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” I am suggesting our interconnectedness calls us to have relationships with the people we would help. And what an opportunity we have while worshiping here at United Presbyterian downtown for the next few months!

The second theological perspective I’ll mention is that of the Beloved Community. Dr. King kept the vision of a Beloved Community fresh in the people’s minds, as a beacon toward which we were striving. The whole underpinning of the I Have a Dream speech is that the ‘dream’ was really a social vision of the Beloved Community. The dream is the goal. And here is the trick. This is what King came to say to us back in in 1966.  To achieve the dream, good people like you and me need to first wake up and stay awake through the revolution.

What are we going to do? What are you willing to do? It is all inter-related and our goal is nothing less than Beloved Community. What are we going to do?

Our congregation has been deep in the details of our renovation project and the capital campaign, the floor plans and possible mortgage senecios. What are we going to get and how much will it cost? This has been consuming us. And rightly so – it is big work. And, soon we will be on the other side of our part of that work. The contractors will get busy and we can return to other matters. Soon, maybe even next week, we will turn our attention more fully to the mission for which our congregation exists and for which we are making all this great effort at renovation.

And what will we do?

In the speech he gave to the Unitarian Universalists he quoted Victor Hugo who had once said there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. I would cautiously suggest that time is cyclical and the time has come again for the grand ideas of freedom and justice in our country. And it is the church that needs to herald these ideas, it is the church that must wake up and shout such things in the highways and byways of our nation.

In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote:

“The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation.  It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.”

This is the call for religion to recognize its role in ushering in a solution to national problems. 

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail he wrote that the church had been behaving like a thermometer of culture when it used to be like a thermostat! During Dr. King’s time, the church had an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of racism. Churches did so then and need to do so now. Will we? He called on churches to be champions once more for the poor, to cry out against the sin of economic inequality. Will we? King called on churches to raise their voices against the oppressive machinery of war and destruction. Will we? 

The message of Dr. King was not contained as only a message against racism. He spoke out against the triple threat of racism, militarism and economic disparity. A key demand in his I Have a Dream speech, for example, was for “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” (A line that often gets missed!)

Dr. King was killed while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN who were struggling for a living wage and for their dignity. Dr. King said,

“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American worker whether a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.”

Dr. King’s vision still serves for our current crisis, as there are still parts of that vision we have not fully realized. We can yet work against racism. We still can take part in speaking out against endless war. There is still more to do, right here in downtown Binghamton to change systems and support individuals struggling with poverty and economic inequality. Dr. King shared with us the dream but to achieve the dream we must first wake up. 

To achieve the dream of economic equality, we must wake up enough to recognize that nearly 40 million people in American living in poverty is unacceptable and that we can do something about it. To achieve the dream of a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” we need to first wake up to the fact that we have 15 million children living in poverty in this country, which is unacceptable and something we can address if we wanted to address it.

To achieve the dream of a day when increasing our teachers’ take-home pay will triumph over tax-breaks for tycoons; when providing for the poor pulls rank over putting them in prison; when we adjust our attitude as a society about the possibility of putting people of color into positions of power … then we must first wake up to the myth of meritocracy and the insidious reality of white supremacy culture.

I share the dream of a day when we put our great wisdom and wealth to work feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and caring for the sick. I share the dream of a day when our nation is once more recognized as the leader of the free world not by of the magnitude of our military but by the capacity of our compassion. I share the dream of a day when we wake up and realize that before we can be a great nation, we must first be a good nation. We Unitarian Universalists have a role in bringing that Dream to fruition. It is time for us to again wake up and join the work of building the Beloved Community for today.

In a world without end,

May it be so.