“The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Comments to the Cal Pac Methodist Federation for Social Action, by Ched Myers

Note:  Below are edited and excerpted comments from Ched’s keynote to the annual dinner of the Cal-Pac Chapters of the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries Network, at the University of Redlands,  CA on June 17, 2017.

It’s a formidable task to come up with 15 minutes of inspiration and exhortation to a group like this, given that your vocations have long been forged around the work of inspiring and exhorting.  So I’ll leave that task to one who inspired and exhorted all of us, and does so still: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the author of tonight’s thematic meme: “The fierce urgency of now.”

It is both relevant and poignant that this very phrase anchored two of Dr. King’s most famous public addresses, speeches that bracketed the second half of his public career as a civil rights leader.  It first appeared in his most well-known exhortation to the nation–you know, that one in front of the Lincoln memorial on Aug 27, 1963.  “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now,” intoned our greatest prophet.

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Less than four years later the phrase appears again in King’s Riverside Church sermon, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.”  “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today,” he said. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”

This signature phrase was both timely and timeless.  But I want to focus our attention here on what transpired in the years between those two addresses, which saw the greatest social movement in US history achieve some of the most significant systemic change in our history.

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer borrowed King’s phrase for the title of his 2015 book that re-examines the development and legacy of LBJ’s “Great Society” policies.  In The Fierce Urgency of Now, Zelizer recounts the astonishing achievements of that brief three-year window from 1963-1966: “The passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, the War on Poverty, national investments in education and infrastructure, and a series of groundbreaking environmental and consumer protection laws.”

One of Zelizer’s main arguments in this book is that these major structural shifts in U.S. life were accomplished not , as is so often asserted, primarily due to the political savvy of President Johnson, but rather due to the power and persistence of the Civil Rights movement.

This reminds us that social movements can effect major structural change.  And that such movements can be animated by communities of faith, because they have been before.  It happened when the gospel of justice spilled out from the sanctuary onto the streets; when the geography of prayer was changed from upper room piety to the public square, in the teeth of dogs and firehoses; when sermons were preached to the nation and hymns were sung in jails; and when the Bible was rediscovered as a tool of liberation rather than suppression.

To be sure, the MFSA is older than the Civil Rights movement, with roots in the social gospel of the turn of the last century, and in the labor struggles of the Depression.  But it’s also true that most of us here today are children of that nonviolent insurrection of the 1950s and 60s that was incubated and led by the prophetic wing of the black church—by people like our very own local hero Jim Lawson, who still offers monthly trainings in the arts of satyagraha at Holman United Methodist Church.  To acknowledge these roots is not to indulge in nostalgia, nor is it to ignore our faith based campaigns of more recent times, such as the Reconciling Ministries work of the LGBTQ community, or Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or the New Sanctuary movement.  Rather, it is to firmly ground our deep hope that systemic change is possible in the witness of actual historical accomplishments rather than in mere idealism.

Because it is still “a time to make real the promises of democracy.”  The truth is, the historic gains that were made by the advocacy and organizing of the Civil Rights movement in those years between King’s two speeches noted above, from voting rights to healthcare, are today either threatened or already in the process of being dismantled by the current regime in Washington.

Indeed, the “giant triplets” of American pathology that King famously diagnosed in his Riverside sermon confront us again today, a half century later, with renewed ferocity:

  • Poverty:  The growth of social and economic disparity didn’t begin with an Administration led by a billionaire, but its intensification is now unprecedented.
  • Racism: The domestic war on people of color through the new Jim Crow of the prison industrial complex, and on our streets under color of authority (underlined painfully yet again by yesterday’s acquittal of the officer who shot Philando Castile in Minneapolis)—these things did not start under Trump.  But violence against people of color, Muslims and immigrants has increased dramatically in the toxic atmosphere defined by what Van Jones dubbed on election night as “whitelash.”
  • Militarism: Certainly overt and covert interventions around the globe did not originate with these Republican hawks—but Trump is fattening up the Pentagon budget, and is clearly enamored with rattling his drone sabers, from Syria to North Korea.

Like apocalyptic horsemen, King’s triplets still gallop across the landscape of our world, joined now by a deadly fourth: Climate catastrophe and a host of other interlocking environmental crises.  To paraphrase King, the “tomorrow” of ecological payback is here today with a vengance, and unless we respond with all hands on deck, it is an end game.

This is why the MFSA team wanted to circle back to King’s notion of “the fierce urgency of now.”  Yet, as bad as these times are–and they are very bad–we can rebuild the capacity and courage to make great and lasting social change, because people of faith have before.

For Dr. King, this fierce urgency was, above all, a call to discipleship for the church.  He believed that in order to recover our faith as a movement for human healing and wholeness, Christians needed to recover three essential characteristics:

  •  First, our strategies need to be guided by what the Riverside sermon termed the “dictates of conscience and a careful reading of history,” which is to say, by critical social analysis.
  • Second, we to be not only engaged with, but also accountable to, marginalized communities, which is why King was organizing a Poor Peoples campaign at the time of his assassination–and why a “New Poor People’s Campaign” is in the works now.
  • And third, we must never forget that King’s vision was not just sociological, but theological.  He was a follower of the Jesus who embraced both the Jubilee and the Cross.

On this last point, it seems to me that as we look at Methodism today, we need to say to conservatives that decisionism and dogmatism are not adequate to the fierce urgency of now. Neither, however, is the denominationalism and theological diffidence of liberals.  The only future for the church in these times is discipleship.  Which is good news for you, because nothing is more at heart of Wesleyan tradition–if discipleship is recovered as both personal and political.

After all, already in 1739 John Wesley was critiquing the culture of early capitalism.  In Chapter 2 of his “General Rules for The United Societies” he famously asserted two great principles of practice.  First, Christians must seek to do no harm, and avoid evil.”  This included for Wesley, refusing

…the use of many words in buying or selling.
The giving or taking of things on usury…
…The putting on of gold and costly apparel…
…needless self-indulgence… and
Laying up treasure upon earth…

Now there’s a catechism of resistance to the idolatry of the market!

And second, Christians must “do good of every possible sort…to all persons.” Here Wesley emphasized the works of mercy: giving food to the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.  There’s a catechism of solidarity and justice.

Wesley and King’s visions invite and challenge us all to renew our commitment to a holistic faith and practice.  Before concluding, however, I want to recognize that for MFSA to keep living into this work, you will need to wholeheartedly embrace the generational shift that is underway.  Those of us who are over 55 need to turn our attention to the rising generation of activists.  Many of these young folks are evangelicals who are in the process of discovering the social justice tradition–and there are several examples in your midst.  There is so much energy out there among young activists of faith; so I urge you veteranos y veteranas to welcome them, join them, mentor them.  Tomorrow is today!

May you in MFSA, in your 111th year, renew your efforts to rebuild your church as a movement of personal and political discipleship that can respond to the fierce urgency of now.

I offer tomorrow’s gospel reading as a benediction:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers…”So Jesus summoned his disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease…”Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”(Mt 9:37f; 10:1f; 16f)