By Kay Hart
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. (Mt. 23: 29-31)
Granted that’s a strange passage for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Still, I didn’t choose it; it chose me. Back in May I began working my way through a modified version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. So, when I read this passage Friday morning, eagerly anticipating the coming three day weekend, it was because this was the assigned reading for the day. Still, the impact of this verse on a day when thoughts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech were near at hand was much greater than it likely would have been on another day. That is one of the things that so often surprises me about this kind of spiritual exercise. Five hundred years ago, St. Ignatius wrote a series of exercises, three years ago Larry Warner revised the exercises for a contemporary audience, and in May my husband gave Larry’s book to me. Since May, I’ve been mostly faithful in spending time with the exercises, but have missed many days. Somehow, on this particular Friday, I open my Bible and read about “decorating the graves of the righteous.” Calling it a coincidence requires no less faith than believing that somehow God brought these things together to further my spiritual journey (and maybe a reader’s).
This weekend is filled with people celebrating the life of a true American hero. That’s appropriate, right? Yet, these verses suggest that Jesus would not be so impressed with our proclamations. Why not? Was he upset with the building of monuments and decorating the graves the righteous? He explains the heart of his criticism in verse 30, “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”
I am a child of the American south. My ancestors fought to protect slavery. In my school the Civil War was referred to as “the War Between the States” by the liberal teachers and “the War of Northern Aggression” by the conservative ones. My father used the “n-word” with abandon and my mother explained to me, with all of her southern gentility, the value of “separate but equal.” Though I loved my mother dearly, I rejected her racism and the racism of her generation.
I have long hated the legacy of slavery and racism that is the cancer of Southern culture. I remember conversations as a teenager, where I declared “If I had lived in the days of my ancestors, I would not have taken part in slavery or segregation.” My friends and I would adamantly declare our innocence of our fathers’ sins and insist that we should not be held responsible for them. These declarations often occurred in the context of discussing Affirmative Action and reverse discrimination. The unwillingness to identify with the sins of my fathers is what sets me up to repeat them and this is what Jesus spoke of to the Pharisees.
To that end, I hear the voice of Jesus speaking to my teenage self… to my forty-something self. I hear the challenge in his voice. “Really, you would not have participated? You would have been among the abolitionists who faced death to stand against slavery? Really? You would have been among the white people who joined the protests marches and paid with their lives? Really?”
Suddenly, under His unflinching gaze the folly of my declarations becomes clear. The fact that I see myself as above those who committed these atrocities condemns me as one of them. Their sin rose from their arrogance. Like me, and like the Pharisees, they saw themselves as ethically and morally superior to prior generations and they closed themselves off to the dream of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven in their own day.
It is in self-righteous posturing that I become one of the blind guides Jesus describes in verse 16 of the same chapter and it is in this attitude that I miss what God is doing in my generation. Later, in verse 37, Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” I cannot be gathered under those wings until I admit that I am in need of protection.
So, as I enter this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I ask God to gather me under His wings. I do not join in these celebrations as if I were one of the “righteous ones.” I join the celebrations as an act of repentance. I identify with the sins of my ancestors, admitting that I am far more likely to have gone along with my culture than to have challenged it. I ask God to give me the grace to imitate the great ones across time who saw through the lies of culture to discern the injustices of their day and the courage to act accordingly.
Amen. So be it.
Thank you, Dr. King.
Kay Hart — Married to Brett, Kay raised four children before embracing a call to enter the public sector. Her work in government gives Kay the chance to explore the opportunities and challenges of living in the Kingdom of God in the secular workplace. Kay experiences thin places most often in early morning prayers as she works through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.