Shabbat Tzedek: Sample Sermon for MLK Day

Deb Kadin

Deb Kadin is a member of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and a member of Oak Park Temple in Illinois. She delievered this sermon in observance of Shabbat Tzedek and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 17, 2014.

Monday we will remember one of America’s greatest leaders: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Time has not diminished the power or the urgency of his words. His vision and message are as timely and vital to the causes of social and economic justice today as they were half a century ago.

I’d like to tell you a story - so let’s go back to the 1960s.

Some of you may be too young to recall this period of history. For those of us who were there - and I know there are a few of you who were - or wished they were - it was a time of violence, transition - and hope.

Many of us “got” the importance that Reform Judaism placed on questions of social justice - it was and continues to be one of our fundamental tenets. The issue that consumed many of us was civil rights. We weren’t just outraged by the treatment of African-Americans in the Deep South and parts of the North - we empathized with them because we knew what it meant to be ostracized and marginalized - and killed for who we were.

Jews were front and center in the struggle. Landmark civil rights laws were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center, our Washington, DC headquarters. Our religious and civic leaders and others advanced the cause in a myriad of ways.

I did my part, and - no surprise here - that was the start of my social justice activism. I campaigned in ultra-conservative Orange County to preserve California fair housing laws; I picketed against Safeway’s discriminatory hiring practices. One aim of my early activism was to march with Dr. King. I wanted to hear him in person and never thought I’d be able to.

That changed on Oct. 16, 1967. I was a sophomore at UC Davis when Dr. King came to Sacramento State College - just 20 miles away - to speak during a convocation. So I cut my morning classes - who wouldn’t - and joined more than 7,000 others in the football stadium for his address, which focused on how America had to reorder its priorities to bring about genuine equality.

The Nobel Laureate’s words that Monday morning galvanized my beliefs - I knew we had to bring home the troops from Vietnam and focus our attention on ending poverty.

In 1964, 36 million Americans lived below the poverty line; 16 million of them were children under the age of 18, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The impact was widespread.

There was, however, a bit of hope. The Federal Government, as it did during the Great Depression, had the power to be THE driving force behind improving the human condition. In his State of the Union Address on Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty," outlining what would become a 1960s version of the New Deal, the War on Poverty. Initiatives springing out of that speech included Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, VISTA and Pell Grants.

Poverty rates started declining. However, around the same time a debate flared over "guns versus butter." The government’s focus - and funding - turned from the progressive domestic programs Johnson championed to a war overseas that would grow all the more unpopular.

The controversy – and its impact on society – troubled us - it troubled Dr. King, and he started speaking out more openly and forcefully against a conflict that he increasingly saw as an enemy of the poor.

On April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in NYC, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of our social justice champions seated by him, Dr. King broke publicly with President Johnson. In his seminal anti-war address “Beyond Vietnam,” Dr. King, before national media, declared that Vietnam had undermined LBJ’s War on Poverty.

“I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam…. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours,” Dr. King said.

That summer, while rioting brought on by poverty, frustration and despair, struck major cities, Dr. King began outlining a radical approach that would bring the plight of the poor to the steps of the nation’s Capitol. That would be the Poor People’s Campaign; it would include a “Domestic Marshall Plan” a multi-faceted approach to grapple with root causes of poverty.

His address in Sacramento that October focused on why reordering this country’s priorities was imperative.

“Injurious, spiritual psychological violence was taking place every day in this country. Negroes continued to live in deteriorating, dilapidated housing, children were going to schools that were so overcrowded...and so devoid of quality that the best in these minds can never come out,” he said.

These conditions and this kind of violence created a major depression, that people “were making incomes so low that they could not begin to function in the mainstream of economic life of our nation...leaving the Negro perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” Dr. King said.

Resolving these conditions would be more difficult because it would cost the nation. It is much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to eradicate slums, he said. It is much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to create jobs or guarantee an annual income, Dr. King said.

Massive action programs would be needed; the country’s priorities would have to be reset. The gulf between funding Vietnam and the War on Poverty, he said, was stark: $500,000 was spent to kill every enemy soldier in Vietnam while $53 was allocated per person to aid every American who was poverty stricken.

Some political leaders, including then-California governor Ronald Reagan, said that legislation had no role in resolving societal ills.

Dr. King disagreed, saying that "some say morals can’t be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. And when you begin to change the habits of people pretty soon you will see attitudinal changes and even hearts may eventually change in the process. I submit that there is still a need all over our country, for legislation in order to make civil rights a reality.”

Mainstream civil rights groups like the NAACP said his position hurt the movement and criticized Dr. King for moving in this direction.

Dr. King disputed that, saying he’d been working too long and too hard against segregated public accommodations “to end up segregating my moral concern. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

My remarks come at an opportune time as the nation has re-focused attention on the War on Poverty, which just last week observed its 50th anniversary.

Discussion has centered not just on the success of LBJ’s initiatives but also what we need to do to tackle the issue altogether. The public, according to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, strongly supports policies that reduce poverty, especially in the areas of jobs, education and wages. The public also backs traditional safety net programs such as food stamps. But in Congress, there’s a debate - not the guns versus butter variety but an ideological one. Should the Federal Government play a strong role? Some feel self-reliance is the best approach. Some believe fighting poverty should be left up to the states. And there are those who feel there’s no need to restart the War on Poverty at all. How do we get our leaders to lay aside the vitriol and get this done? Does this country have the political will? I don’t have the answers; I don’t know if anyone does.

Eradicating poverty is a matter of national security. The issue is complex - there are many inter-related parts. Dr. King's vision remains unfulfilled, and it is high time we renew our commitment so we can leave a legacy of progress and hope for future generations. We have a lot of work to do. The Great Recession of 2007 drove the poverty rate to numbers unseen since the mid 1960s, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Nearly 50 million Americans are disadvantaged, 16 million are children. The slow-to-recover economy has made it all the more difficult for families to keep their heads above water. Income inequality has risen to its highest level in nearly a century, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

We cannot - we must not- put up the self-imposed barriers that keep us from affecting the kind of change Dr. King and others envisioned. We only have to look to Torah for guidance and inspiration. Proverbs Chapter 31, Verse 9 notes the obligation to "speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy." And in Deuteronomy Chapter 16, Verse 20, we are called to action by the watchwords of social justice in the Reform Movement: Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice Shall we Pursue.

Said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference," that "in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

I can only surmise that Dr. King would be in the middle of this with us, but who am I to know? So the journalist in me reached out to one of his allies: Marian Wright Edelman, the counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign who later went on to found and lead the Children’s Defense Fund.

Edelman said in a statement, which reads in part: "I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Dr. King would be mounting a nonviolent Poor People’s Campaign to end rampant hunger, homelessness, and poverty. Dr. King is not coming back. He told us what to do. Let’s do it."

Securing the social safety net will be near the top of the Religious Action Center’s agenda this winter and I will post alerts on our Facebook page and elsewhere as they arise to encourage you to take action.

In a recent Parshah for the American Jewish World Service, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels wrote true freedom is not only attained at the Exodus but also at Sinai. This was where Moses received the 10 Commandments, a focus of today’s Torah portion.

Freedom, such as that attained by our forefathers, is only a first step. Sinai is the logical end because there can be no freedom without law. The law that Dr. King envisioned is legislation - broad, long-term, systemic change. That would lead to true equality, true economic justice, true economic independence.

At the end of his Sacramento speech, Dr. King said Americans would win their freedom because the sacred heritage of this country and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in their echoing demands.

"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice…. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children, believers, and non-believers, Black man and White man, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last."

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