Opting for love
It’s no wonder Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to Psalm 118 as, “my own beloved Psalm.” Bringing to a close a collection known as the Hallel Psalms (Hallel meaning “praise” in Hebrew), Psalm 118 concludes a series of hymns recounting and celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. Considered an anthology of thanksgiving, this passage pulls from other Psalms and hymns of the Hebrew Scriptures all pointing to a praiseworthy God who disrupts oppression and liberates those in the clutches of bondage.
It is an important scripture for Judaism, read aloud during Passover to remember God’s saving action in the world. It is an important scripture for Christianity, referenced in all of the Gospels and in many epistles as a key for early Christians to understand the life and teachings of Jesus. And it is an important scripture for Dr. King, who is said to have had an excerpt of this Psalm pasted on his wall. This hymn has echoed through the centuries as a battlecry of resiliency and liberation, serving as inspiration for Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as well as for all who have ever felt the weight of oppression’s downward force.
Opening with thanksgiving, Psalm 118 is hopeful and triumphant — a first person account of victory over one’s enemies and fearlessness in the face of attack all thanks to a responsive God whose steadfast love endures forever. And the psalmist makes it clear that this last part is paramount. The phrase, “God’s steadfast love endures forever,” is used to open the Psalm and to conclude the Psalm in verse 29 and is repeated four times in the first four verses alone. There must be something to that.
On June 19, we celebrated Juneteenth — a day commemorating when the enslaved Americans of the last Confederate territory received news that they were free well over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. In light of Juneteenth and the legacy of Black liberationists, I invite us to consider what the psalmist means by God’s steadfast love endures forever and what love has to do with liberation.
What does God’s enduring love have to do with liberation?
What does God’s enduring love have to do with liberation?
- God is a responsive God
- God’s steadfast love models how we are called to love one another
- Stepping out of fear and into our own agency
- God is for us not against us
- Liberation as love in action
Though perhaps most famously known for being the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King was a force for peace and justice in her own right. Born in Alabama in 1927, Coretta Scott would graduate high school as valedictorian and go on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in the city of Boston, where she and Martin Luther King would first meet. The two were married in 1953 and by 1954, made a home in Montgomery, Alabama where Martin received an appointment as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Despite dedicating much of her time to raising their four children, Coretta Scott King was a fervent participant in the Civil Rights Movement alongside her husband until his assassination in 1968.
During her marriage to Martin, Coretta involved herself in strategic planning, offering constructive criticism of the movement (especially regarding the lack of inclusion of Black women). She organized concerts and events to further the cause and traveled around the globe, gaining perspective on poverty, injustice, and non-violent approaches to securing peace. But her involvement in justice efforts did not end with her husband’s murder, though. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Coretta Scott King would spend the remainder of her time on earth keeping her husband’s legacy alive.
Among a laundry list of accolades and involvements, Coretta Scott King helped form multiple coalitions for employment and human rights; organized and participated in protest efforts; conversed with countless dignitaries and national leaders (including advocating for South Africans in their struggle against Apartheid); and spoke on the world stage spreading the philosophy of the Beloved Community. Just a few days after her husband’s assassination, she was on the frontlines of a march on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and just two months after that, she founded what is now known as The King Center — a non-profit with the purpose of continuing Dr. King’s work by preserving his legacy through education and training in the philosophy of non-violent resistance.
In the preface of the 1993 revised edition of her autobiography, My Life With Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King responded to the criticism she heard from the younger generation, who critiqued the movement as a failure for not achieving all of its goals. Addressing the critics and educating the public on the reality of the fight for liberation, she remarks, “But we also need to remember that the struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” From her own experience of being a Black woman living in twentieth century America, Coretta Scott King knew in the marrow of her bones that the cause of liberation has no real conclusion. It does not stop with one leader, one movement, one piece of legislation. It is a struggle requiring a posture of attentiveness in perpetuity and a constant remembrance of that which came before.
When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, Union troops (including a great many Black soldiers) traversed plantations and cities of the Confederate territories declaring all those enslaved to be free. It was a momentous day in history, but for the quarter of a million enslaved persons in the westernmost Confederate controlled state of Texas, news of freedom would not reach their ears for another 901 days. On June 19, 1865, two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee, a detachment of 2000 Union soldiers led by Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, freeing the last enslaved Americans who had been living under the brutality of bondage for an additional two and a half years. This day would come to be known as Juneteenth and regarded as America’s second Independence Day, even though it would not be established as a federal holiday until 2021.
In addition to celebrating Black liberation and Black resiliency, Juneteenth is a stark reminder that there is always more to be done — that freedom and equity is an ever ever expanding line that we must tend to or else see its shriveling. Freedom was declared in 1863, and yet Black Americans were still enslaved. Freedom was announced to those enslaved in Texas in 1865, and yet it would be half a decade before those same (male) individuals could vote. More individuals could vote, but the Reconstruction Era would fail to protect Black citizens from continued violence and suppression of rights. Reconstruction would make its attempt at equity, but racial segregation would persist under Jim Crow America until the latter half of the 20th century. Jim Crow would cease, but Martin Luther King would still be assassinated. Civil Rights would gain ground, but George Floyd and Breonna Taylor would still be lynched by the noose of a choke hold and barrel of a gun. There is always more to be done.
The world said goodbye to Coretta Scott King in 2006, and etched on her crypt is a inscription of 1 Corinthians 13:13: “And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Why? — because it is love, not hate, that endures.
God’s steadfast, enduring love is not a blanket excuse for passivity but is an ever available source that we are called to draw from and act upon in every moment, every place, every generation — for liberation requires us to choose love again and again. God’s steadfast love enduring forever means love will forever be an option. Love is here, persistently willing and able to be acted upon, but we must choose it. We must claim it for ourselves and for one another over and over because liberation is an endurance race with an ever moving finish line that we must run hand in hand together. And love is the next stride forward — an ever available, often uncomfortable, vulnerable step in faith if only we choose to take it. So let us march onward, for the race is not finished yet.