Sing a New Song

Sing a New Song
1-20-08
Rev. Douglas Taylor

While I’ve always enjoyed the TV shows and made a point to never miss an episode, I don’t think it would be fair to claim I was a Trekkie.  I don’t own a Star Trek library, I’ve never been to a Star Trek Convention, I don’t speak Klingon or own a Star Fleet Uniform costume, although I know people who do.  But I have always enjoyed the show, especially the second series that came out in the early 90’s.  Science fiction has always appealed to me when the writers present ethical questions through their work.  They present an opportunity to ask, “What if …?” I have played with the idea of using Star Trek episodes for an Adult Religious education ethics discussion – indeed, it has been done before.

For example, there is one episode that has always been considered on of the best there the crew meet a race of people that communicate only through metaphor and image.  The “Universal Translator” that allows the crew to speak with any sentient species they come across fails them because what comes out is phrases in English referring to the local stories of this races; and as the crew discovers, without knowing the stories, the language is unintelligible.  The episode is called “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” and that is one of the phrases this race said when they were talking with the Star Trek crew.  But “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” was meaningless to them.  The names refer to people and places that the crew had never heard of.  It would be like someone saying “Romeo and Juliet at the balcony.”  If you know the Shakespeare play, you understand the romance and tragedy evoked by that phrase.  But without the context, the phrase is meaningless.

What would it be like to meet a race of people who spoke in a metaphorical language?  What would it be like to be such a race?  What stories would we use?  If I said, ‘Murray stuck on the sandbar’ or ‘Thoreau on Walden,’ or ‘Servetus at the stake,’ would you have a sense of the metaphor or image I was trying to evoke?    If I called on images beyond our Unitarian Universalist story and said, ‘Patriots at the Boston Tea Party,’ or ‘Battle of Wounded Knee,’ or ‘King at Lincoln Memorial’ would you understand?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke with rich imagery and power.  I won’t go so far as to say he spoke in an entirely metaphorical language, that would be not be possible for anyone to do so in our culture.  But this idea of using phrases that evoke deep stories and images as a sort of shorthand – this is what Dr. King did a lot.  Many people reflect on how Dr. King’s message was not only in the information and content of what he offered, it was also in the way he said it.  The way he spoke was as important to the message as what he said.  And so he and the people of his communities were like the race of people who spoke in deep metaphor.

Now, as a quick tangent I want to notice that when we say “a race of people” in connection to Martin Luther King it is generally understood that we are referring to African Americans (or Negroes as was the nomenclature of that decade.)  When we say “a race of people” in connection with science fiction and Star Trek it is generally understood that we are referring to a people who are not Earthlings.  Humans are the only race on Earth.  Science fiction is closer to the reality on this point than contemporary language that speaks of racism and race-relations.  Genetically speaking, we are more alike than we are different, we are one race and skin pigmentation makes no difference.  Now, culture makes a difference; geography and nationality seem to make a big difference.  But genetically we are all one race.  But, the word ‘race’ is not going to go away from our vocabulary because until we actually meet another human-like race from some other planet we will continue to use the word to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ That is what words like ‘race’ are for.

Returning to my point about the language of metaphor, Dr. King was an eloquent speaker who drew on phrases and images from the Bible, American history, hymns and poetry.  His work was so suffused with such phrases that he has been accused of being unoriginal.  A fringe of angry people have suggested King stole all his words from other people, that there was nothing all that special about King because he was just saying other people’s words.  People who level this critique against King not only laughably overstate their case; they also fail to see that he was evoking other people’s words on purpose.  So he didn’t footnote his speeches, he didn’t make little ‘air quotes’ whenever he was uttering another poet’s words.  King was a preacher!  Saying other people’s words is what we do.  To preach is to lift up powerful words in juxtaposition to life as we are experiencing it.  That’s what we do – and we do it with all the wisdom of the ages.

There is a story of a student who complains to the master composer saying, “The lesser musicians are stealing your work and calling it their own.  Everyone is copying you.  Should you not reveal them for the frauds they are?”  The master drew himself up proudly and said, “Any fool can steal from another person, the true genius steals from everyone.”  King quoted from the Bible, American history, hymns and poetry.  If we do not recognize the image being evoked, if we miss the context of the phrase then we fail to grasp the full implications of the metaphor.

In the monumental speech, “I Have a Dream,” King evoked the concept of the American dream, lined out the American hymn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and recited from the declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.”)  He also brought out phrases from the biblical prophets such as Amos 5:24 “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” and Isaiah 40: 4-5 “Every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.”  And King also gave a nod to Shakespeare when he said this was the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.”  The play Richard III has the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

This was common in his rhetorical style.  He spoke this way each time he stepped up before the public.  There is another speech that captures this point remarkably.  King spoke at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in 1965.  600 people had tried to march earlier and had been beaten with bullwhips and nightsticks by the Alabama State Troopers.  That first attempt to march came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”  The next day King issued a nationwide call for clergy from the north to come march with them.  Two weeks later, ten thousand marched.  At the conclusion King spoke and during the speech quoted James Weldon Johnson’s hymn which we sang this morning:

         We have come over a way

         That with tears hath been watered.

         We have come treading our paths

         Through the blood of the slaughtered.

         Out of the gloomy past

         Till now we stand at last

         Where the white gleam

         Of our bright star is cast.

Johnson wrote those lyrics in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday 65 years earlier.  It had been dubbed the Negro National Anthem by the NAACP more than a generation before King and other civil Rights leaders called the hymn into deeper service.  Can you not the power of these words?

Later, working toward the climax of that speech, King builds the question, “How long will it take?”

Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?”  Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded injustice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?”

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to the earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, because: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

And he goes on to recite two full stanzas of the Battle Hymn of the Republic ending with, “Glory, Hallelujah!  His truth is marching on.”  Powerful way to end a march: our feet are tired from this march, but His truth is marching on.

But this piece of the speech is so full of imagery leading up to that powerful conclusion.  The rhythm of the question and answer, “How long, not long” is a poetic technique King known as Anaphora in which you repeat the beginning phrase over and over.  How long?  Not long.  And, that exact question is in the Bible no less than fifty times mostly on the lips of the psalmists and the prophets.

         How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? (Psalm 13:1)
How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:2)

         How long will ye judge unjustly, & accept the persons of the wicked?                                     (Psalm 82:2)

         How long, LORD? Wilt thou hide thyself for ever? (Psalm 89:46)

         LORD, how long shall the wicked triumph? (Psalm 94:3)
How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither,

                  for the wickedness of them that dwell therein? (Jeremiah 12:4)

         How long wilt thou not have mercy (Zechariah 1:12)

         O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! (Habakkuk 1:2)

How long?  Not long, because the truth crushed to the earth will rise again.  That line is from poet William Cullen Bryant who is more famous for his poem “Thanatopis.”  Bryant, I might add, became a Unitarian in later life, writing many Unitarian hymns.

How long?  Not long, because no lie can live forever.  That is from Thomas Carlyle, English poet and atheist.

How long?  Not long, because you shall reap what you sow.  St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians which is an echo of similar sentiment found in the Psalms.

How long?  Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote that in response to the issue of slavery and the hope of abolition.

How long? Not long, because Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic in response to the Civil War.  And yes, Julia Ward Howe also was a Unitarian.  But you see the point is not that King spoke lines that were written by atheists, or Unitarians, or even God herself!  The point is what King did with the lines, bringing them together and presenting them as he did at that moment in the lives of the people.  In so doing he sang a new song, a song of justice and peace for the whole nation to hear because the words were our words as Americans, as people of faith, as people of every color.

We Unitarian Universalists have had our part to play by both sending forth individuals in the service of bringing about the beloved community and as a movement sending forth our voice and our empowering theology of the human capacity for good.  There is yet more work to be done.  Never let us dwell only in the realm of words and ideas, but let us also not belittle the power available to us with the careful use of language and images.

King made powerful use of language and images to convey a message of justice and a call to conscience.  He used the language of image and metaphor to evoke a connection with people that could bridge the gap between our ideals and our practice, between our statements of who we say we are and what we say we stand for as a people and the reality of our practice and what we allow to be done in the our name.  King communicated through common phrases and images, transforming them into deep metaphors that tell us who we are.  In this way he sang a new song using our words – the words of democracy and freedom, truth and dignity.  He sang a new song with old words leading us toward a more just community.  We are the ones to take up that song now, if for no other reason than our recognition that the work is there to be done.  We are the ones to take up the song, because we are a people with resources and passion and the ability to effect positive change.  We are the ones to take up the song, because our theology and our fellowship are rooted in human dignity and justice.  We are the ones who have ears to hear; we and so many others with us see the need to call our nation to live out its promise of freedom, equality and justice.  With care and compassion we shall sing our world toward wholeness.

In a world without end

May it be so.