Thinking about Justice

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin on September 12, 1964;  PhotoquestGetty Images

Coffee, aloneness and silence. A perfect time to think! It’s what I need in the morning. I may be running around the rest of the day doing those tasks that most of us have to do. But in the morning, I crave the quiet time that allows me to think.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Since yesterday when we remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have been pondering a very intriguing article I read about him yesterday in Time Magazine. It was about Dr. King’s 1964 visit to West Berlin.

Now you need to understand this: being a lifelong student of Dr. King’s life and legacy, I should have known about this visit. I did not! According to Time, West Berlin’s Mayor Willy Brandt invited Dr. King to participate in a memorial ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated the year before. Simultaneously, Dr. King also received an invitation to speak in East Berlin from Heinrich Grüber, who had been a pastor at a church there and a prisoner in a concentration camp for three years during World War II for openly criticizing the Nazi Party. So it would seem that Dr. King was in the company of leaders who, like him, challenged systemic injustice.

Historian Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson wrote that Grüber had been driven out because of his “anti-government views.” In a letter to Dr. King, Grüber wrote, “I write in the bond of the same faith and hope, knowing your experiences are the same as ours were. During the time of Hitler, I was often ashamed of being a German, as today I am ashamed of being white,” Grüber wrote. “I am grateful to you, dear brother, and to all who stand with you in this fight for justice, which you are conducting in the spirit of Jesus Christ.”

The Time article reported that on Sept. 13, 1964 — two months after the Civil Rights Act was enacted and a month before he won the Nobel Peace Prize — King addressed 20,000 people at a rally at the outdoor stadium Waldbühne in West Berlin. Later, King delivered the same sermon at St. Mary’s Church in East Berlin, which was over its 2,000-person capacity, and then gave another, unscheduled speech to the overflow crowd at Sophia Church, similarly over its 2,000-person capacity.

It is interesting to me, in light of the demagoguery of our day, that standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Dr. King said, “While I am no expert in German politics, I know about walls.”

As always, Dr. King’s eloquence was evident in the words he spoke to East Berliners:

It is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth. For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.

As you might expect, the U.S. State Department nervously monitored this visit. Historian Michael P. Steinberg explained the nervousness: “King is determined to cross the wall and see East Berlin, and it’s very clear, at this point, that the U.S. embassy does not want him to do this. They do not want the press.” American officials were particularly concerned as racial violence in the United States was frequently held up within East Germany and the Soviet Union as “an indication of the failure of American society.”

The embassy did confiscate Dr. King’s U.S. passport, hoping that doing so would deter him from crossing into East Berlin. But Dr. King managed to get into East Berlin by flashing his American Express card. 

German scholars have written that the visit was key, not only to raising the Germans’ awareness of the American civil-rights struggle, but also to sow the seeds of non-violent resistance there. Some say it inspired participants in the Prague Spring four years later, as well as the activists who campaigned for the Berlin Wall to be torn down in 1989. 

A final interesting historical fact from Waldschmidt-Nelson: East German opposition movements marched to “We Shall Overcome” in the 1980s.

So there you have it: a little-known story about a very well-known man! And thanks to him for a lasting legacy that continues to inspire us toward justice.

Troubled Waters and Miracles

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I love the words and the melody of the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”

Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God’s gonna’ trouble the water.

There is just something about it that is moving to me. It digs down into my spirit and stops me in my tracks. I don’t know why I react so deeply to that simple bit of music. It could be that what draws me to it is its strong reference to healing as it recalls the miracle story recorded in the Gospel of John.

After a feast of the Jews, Jesus went to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda. It has five porches, and lying in these porches are many sick people who are blind, lame, paralyzed, each waiting for the moving of the water.

For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

Now a certain man was there who suffered from an infirmity for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is troubled. Before I can get into the water, someone else gets in before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

— John 5:1-8 NKJV (paraphrased)

Or what inspires me about the song could be the stories that surround it. Some folk claim that “Wade in the Water” contained secret coded instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture as they followed the route to take them to freedom. The website Pathways to Freedom: Maryland & the Underground Railroad explains how Harriet Tubman used the song to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure that the dogs employed by the slavers lost their scent. “Wade in the Water” was one of their most inspiring freedom songs.

Those moving stories remind me of the many ways music touches my life with inspiration, courage, and hope, how it reaches the depths of my soul during the times when nothing else can reach me, how it lifts me up when I have fallen into despair, how it fills my heart with just the melody I need to give voice to my sorrow and then gives me a way to express my moments of greatest joy.

Most of us can recall times in our lives when we needed a dose of Divine healing. We can remember times of sorrow and despair and fear when only an encounter with God could move us toward peace, times when we needed to be made whole again, times when we hoped beyond hope that God would trouble the water. Read it again.

 . . . An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

So in John’s Gospel story, a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years was healed. He was too ill to make it into the troubled waters of the pool no matter how many times he tried. But Jesus was there and asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered that there was no one to put him into the pool when the water was troubled. “Before I can get into the water,” he said, “someone else gets in before me.”

But Jesus said those extraordinary words to him: “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 

Immediately it happened. The man was healed, and he picked up his bed and walked. Maybe the man rushed off to tell friends about the wonderful thing that had happened to him. Or maybe could only stand there in awe, not moving at all because the moment was just too overwhelming.

It was a miracle. Actually, the story tells of at least two miracles: that Jesus healed the suffering man and that an angel descended from above and troubled the water in that otherwise ordinary pool.

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a pool of healing water, troubled and swirling, I want to get in. I want my faith to be big enough to expect a miracle from ordinary water, in an ordinary pool, on an ordinary day.

 

Please visit this link to hear a stunning arrangement of “Wade in the Water” featuring an excellent soloist and choir from the A Cappella Academy from Los Angeles.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uiqQKZZo-Uc