The world was messed up on April 4, 1969, the night the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke these words in his last speech. America was sick. It was troubled, confused and confusing, shrouded in darkness. Is it less messed up now? Is America in 2023 healthier now? Are we less troubled? Less confused, and less confusing? Do we agree that it is only in deep darkness that we can see the stars?
The Plumb-line and the bob
“Let justice roll down like waters,” implored Amos in the 8th Century BCE, “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos’s imagery became a poetic plumb-line of Martin Luther King, Jr, and the civil rights movement. The plumb-line, kept taut by the heavy bob of righteousness and justice, was the moral standard in a crooked world.
Martin Luther King, Jr called America to stay true to the plumb-line of justice and righteousness that keeps a society aligned with its better self. Just as gravity pulls a weighted string taut, straight and vertical from top to bottom, the plumb-line of Amos and Martin is the moral plumb-line that sets the standard for a just society.
What is the plumb-line in America? Is there any plumb-line left by which to assess the world and America? What worth is a plumb-line if it stays hidden, is pushed to the side, stored in a museum of artifacts from another time? What happens to a society when the national plumb-line is hung by the hand of greed and weighted at the bottom with a bob of material wealth that moths consume and thieves break in and steal? What happens to the soul of a person or a society that builds a house without a plumb-line?
To the civil rights movement, justice meant following Jesus in turning over the tables of the money-changers with non-violent action that would recognize the intrinsic structural connection of love and justice. “Justice,” ways Cornel West, “is Love made public.” The movement of non-violent social transformation was a movement of faithful souls willing to pay the price. Though the great host of those who honored the plumb-line never stood in the limelight, the names of Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, C. T. Vivian, Ruby Bridges, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Fannie Lou Hamer, Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Jessie Jackson, and John Lewis will never be forgotten.
Most of the freedom riders of the 1950s and ’60 are dead and buried, but America’s original sin is not. Neither is the plumb-line of righteousness and justice.
Though we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the darkness, we are not without light. The darkness is the same. The darkness is White, as it has been since the genocide of America’s First Peoples and the day White kidnappers loaded African hostages on slave ships as cargo to be bought and sold on the slave market.
America’s original sin and its darkness remain the same, but so does the light of blackness. Amos’s plumb-line calls us to our better selves. Congressmen Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, Jim Clyburn, Hakim Jeffries, and Bennie Thompson still insist that a better America can only be built with a weighted plumb-line, not a pendulum, or a string without a bob.
Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, January 18, 2023.