In November 1967, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The sermon, titled, “But If Not,” starts with a parable from the Book of Daniel.
Three young men — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — refuse to bow before a golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar. “Our God whom we serve,” they tell the king, “is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace.” They believe God will save them, in the end, for disobeying the king’s immoral order to worship him instead.
“But if not,” they reason, “be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” In other words, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are pretty sure that God will reward them in the afterlife for rejecting this false idol. “But if not” — even if their refusal wouldn’t stamp their one-way ticket out of hell — it wouldn’t matter. They wouldn’t bow before the golden image anyway, because it would be wrong.
Dr. King interprets the story as a biblical portrayal of civil disobedience. The three men honor “a commitment to conscience” before honoring the law of the land because, as Dr. King says, “a moral man can’t obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust.” The men aren’t refusing conditionally, or positive that they will be saved in exchange. They’re refusing because they know, deep down, that it wouldn’t be right.
What does this mean? It means, in the final analysis, you do right not to avoid hell. If you’re doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called hell, then you aren’t doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called heaven, you aren’t doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain and to achieve happiness and pleasure, then you aren’t doing right.
Ultimately you must do right because it’s right to do right. And you got to say “But if not.” You must love ultimately because it’s lovely to love. You must be just because it’s right to be just. You must be honest because it’s right to be honest.
Fifty years after Dr. King delivered this sermon, Oprah Winfrey, the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, delivered another inspired speech that brought viewers to tears and attendees to their feet.
“For too long,” Oprah said, “women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of [brutally powerful] men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.”
“In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.
“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
Time and again, Oprah has proven her commitment to conscience. She used her platform at the Golden Globes to imagine a more just world — one where our collective conscience kicks in more often, protects more women from violence, and leads us more reliably to choices that are right, good, and safe.
Women in the audience rose to their feet. Men in the audience rose to their feet, too. But few of the men spoke up.
Were these the phenomenal men? Where were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Were the men whose time is up choosing to listen, just this once? Or was there fear in their silence — an aversion to risk, a conditional bargain, a negotiation of face?
As Martin McDonagh, the writer-director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri who won for best screenplay, put it to Cara Buckley in the New York Times, “I do feel it’s time for men to shut up and listen.” Oprah made sure to include men in her speech, too — “every man who chooses to listen” — by singling out listeners specifically.
Maybe the men really were listening. Maybe they still are.
But if not:
Time will not run out on men learning how to speak up for what is right, when the microphone makes its way back to them. There are ways to pass the mic even when given an opportunity to take it — as Oprah did, by telling Recy Taylor‘s story.
Recy Taylor is dead now, and so is Dr. King. No one who refused to hear them decades ago was dead at the time, though their spirits may have been. Maybe the men who hurt them are all gone now — those bygone souls that never listened. Maybe their fears and their toxicity and their influence all died with them.
Maybe all of mankind’s cowardly traits are in the past. Maybe their time is up.
But if not:
You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause — and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity; or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand.
Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.
Further reading, watching, and listening:
Audio: “But If Not” sermon delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Internet Archive, November 1967)
- The Exploitation Of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy By White Supremacy (Ijeoma Oluo, The Establishment, January 2016)
- Golden Globes: Men had little to say about harassment, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed (Abby Ohlheiser, Washington Post, January 2018)
- After Globes, Women Declare Success. But What About the Men? (Cara Buckley, The New York Times, January 2018)
- Recy Taylor, Who Fought for Justice After a 1944 Rape, Dies at 97 (Sewell Chan, The New York Times, January 2018)