Nangle_Joeby Rev. Joe Nangle, ofm
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

The following is a homily delivered by Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace Rev. Joe Nangle, ofm.

The coincidence of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the 2013 inauguration of America’s first African-American president for a second term must be seen as truly historic. Just 150 years ago, another president issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all people of African descent from slavery; and fully ninety-one years later in 1954, the courts finally decided that segregating black children from others in America’s schools was against the law.

Our country has come a long, long way in overcoming its national “original sin” of racism. We have, also, taken a long, long time for the day to dawn, when a Black man has the privilege and the right to take the oath of office as our country’s chief executive, swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” – the same Constitution which for seventy-four years allowed for his people to be bought and sold as property.


With reason, therefore, we celebrate today that long and as yet unfinished journey toward “liberty and justice FOR ALL”. We celebrate, too, the towering influence which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had on that process during his short 39 years of life. In the midst of “Hail to the Chief” and the “Star Spangled Banner” on this inauguration weekend, we shall hear echoes of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech given at the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago this August. And we shall rightfully rejoice and marvel at how far we have come as a nation.

And yet – and yet…

Many, including myself, say that this wonderful coincidence of Barack Obama’s second inauguration and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on the same weekend must serve to push us still further in the great cause of equality and non-violence which Dr. King spoke about, lived out and, yes, died for. They say that we need more than “I have a dream” rhetoric. In a word, they insist, we need today the same kind of prophetic voice which the black pastor from Atlanta, Georgia hurled at the powerful of his day. We need the words that this black clergyman would say to this black president.

So for a moment this weekend let us move beyond the familiar and soothing words of “I Have A Dream” and listen to other prophetic utterances of Dr. King, applying them to our time and place in history:

  • “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty” [Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community?, 1967]
  • “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” [Ibid.]
  • “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam – [Iraq, Afghanistan].  It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of people the world over.” [Beyond Vietnam, 1968]

In preparing for today’s homily, I spoke with an African-American Jesuit theologian and asked him what Dr. King might say to Barack Obama today. His answer was immediate and clear: “This president needs the kind of prophet speaking to him that President Lyndon Johnson had in Martin Luther King, Jr.” The priest went on to detail several areas which Dr. King would point out to Mr. Obama as needing urgent and radical attention: immigration, Afghanistan, torture, poverty, and bombing civilian population with drones.

Taking our brother Jesuit’s observations a few steps further, I believe that our Catholic Church – and other Christian churches, as well as synagogues and mosques in this country – also need to hear the Prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr., today. Listen to his words directed at the churches 50 years ago and again apply them to the Church of our time and place:

  • “So often the contemporary Church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.” [Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963]
  • “The Church must be reminded that it is not the master or the slave of the State, but rather the conscience of the State. It must be the guide and the critic of the State, and never its tool.” [Strength To Love, 1963]
  • “Called to be the moral guardian of the community, the Church at times has preserved that which is immoral and unethical. Called to combat social evils, it has remained silent behind stained glass windows.” [Ibid.]

Our Catholic Church in America has become what Dr. King called a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound”. We are known primarily for our opposition to abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. At the same time the enormous issues of national and global poverty, war making, and the destruction of our planet go unnoticed or surely unaddressed by most of our bishops, especially in the exercise of their diocesan pastoral ministries. We are known as a Church of the Republican Party, when we should stand over against all political parties as their conscience.

I believe that the Catholic Church – that is, all of us who are the Church in the United States – together with our Protestant, Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers, are called at this time in history to be the kind of prophetic presence we celebrate on this inauguration and M.L. King Jr. holiday weekend. Let us pray fervently that we might bring to life, as Dr. King did in his life, the words of the great New Testament hymn, the Benedictus: “You shall be called the prophet of the Most High to go before the Lord to prepare his ways”.

We can be no less at this moment in our national life if we wish to receive a favorable judgment from history, and ever more importantly, a merciful judgment from God.

7 thoughts on “MLK DAY 2013: Witnessing today to the prophetic presence of Dr. King

  1. Thank you Rev. Nangle for your prophetic words for our time and place.
    Dr. King’s words are still as timely, relevant and challenging as the ancient biblical words: “Let justice roll down as waters and rightness like an ever flowing stream!”

    The following “news” & prayer (along with action) feel appropriate:

    The largest “state” in the United States is PovertyUSA. Nearly one in six Americans (46 million people), and one in four children, live there. The government’s official poverty threshold for a family of four is $22,314. Trying to live on this number are people working at minimum wage (often with more than one job), seniors on fixed incomes, unemployed people, those suffering from illnesses, and others. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has designated January as Poverty Awareness Month.
    And so we pray this news . . .
    Holding the Poor in Our Hearts 

by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

    We hold in our hearts 
all those who have 
lost their homes 
and have no shelter 
from the storms of life. 

We hold in our hearts 
all those who do not 
have enough food to 
feed their loved ones. 

We hold in our hearts 
the increasing number 
of children showing up at 
soup kitchens and shelters. 

We hold in our hearts 
all those who have no 
medical insurance 
and are at the mercy 
of illness and dread. 

We hold in our hearts 
all those who have to 
make hard choices 
about which bills to pay 
in a constant battle 
against financial disaster. 

We hold in our hearts 
all those who have 
been forced into 
bankruptcy and 
engulfed in feelings 
of failure and shame. 

We hold in our hearts 
all those who have 
lost their jobs and feel 
useless and depressed 
in the face of a faltering 
economy and an 
uncertain future. 

We hold in our hearts 
all those low-income 
families that due to 
circumstances beyond 
their control are one-step 
away from life on the streets. 

And we hold in our hearts 
with esteem all those 
who have defended the poor, 
stood by them, and pleaded 
their cause in the name of 
justice, freedom, peace, 
and hope.

  2. It is my understanding that the use of cannibalism was not to assuage hunger but, among other things, to axquire the courage and strength of the cinquered. That does not mean that early man did or did not know hunger nor where to search for sustinence.

    We Catholics are so used to talking to each pther that we sometomes forget that others are listening. Therefore I think we shoild say that religion’s’ function in government is to be prophetic. That would allow the MLKs and prophetic from many of other faiths to be included in the statement.

  3. Amen, amen, amen … I say to you what you do to least among you, you do unto me… Thank you brother Nangle.

  4. Thank you for these insights and the call to commit ourselves to the dream of peace, truth and justice.

  5. When the church truly stands for the poor-God’s People-we will see the kingdom come and not before. Jesus said it was already here spread out upon the earth but we just don’t see it. The church must take a stand against the forces of greed and war and declare war as important as abortion to stop. Why worry about the unborn and not the born. Why bring them forth if only to send them to be fodder for destruction? War is the enemy of all and it makes a lot of money for a few. When will the true church take a stand?

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