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King and the Cross

A reflection by Jim Douglass at the Holy Week Faith and Resistance in Washington DC, April 2007

When we realized that we were beginning this retreat on the 40th anniverary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church in NYC, and the thirty-ninth anniversary of King's assassination, there seemed no other choice for a resource person for this retreat than Jim Douglass, who has spent a good part of the last 12 years of his life understanding the connection between the speech and that assination. Jim and Shelly are long time activists, founders of the original Pacific Life Community and inspiration for the Atlantic Life Community.  

I can think of no better place to be this Holy Week than on this Faith and Resistance Retreat. What better way could there be to celebrate Holy Week than to reflect on and practice the way of nonviolence summed up by Jesus' death and resurrection – and re-enacted by Martin Luther King? I am deeply grateful to be here.

Forty years ago tonight at Riverside Church, Martin Luther King gave the speech of his life, “Beyond Vietnam,” that took him beyond civil rights, beyond political calculation, and in the eyes of our violent system, beyond redemption. With that speech that drew a prophetic line between real peace and our national security state, King went beyond his own security net as a civil rights leader. He became a national security threat. At Riverside Church he went not only beyond Vietnam but also beyond any hold he had on a future of his own. As we can see from the rest of his journey, and from the government's plot to kill him, that speech marked the beginning of his walk to Calvary that would end one year later, thirty-nine years ago tonight. After the Riverside Church Address, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memorandum to President Lyndon Johnson stating: “Based on King's recent activities and public utterances, it is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.” (David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross , p. 555) At Riverside Church, by going beyond Vietnam to identify “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government,” Martin Luther King became a target for assassination by that same government.

It has taken me a long time to see just how important the assassination of Martin Luther King was. When it happened, I was a thirty-year-old professor of religion at the University of Hawaii. I had a seminar on “The Theology of Peace” with a dozen students. At our first class after Dr. King was killed, several of the students failed to show up on time. When they came in, they made an announcement to the class. They said that in response to the assassination of King, who had given his life for peace and justice, they had held an impromptu rally on campus. At the rally they had burned their draft cards, thereby becoming liable to years in prison. They said they were now forming the Hawaii Resistance. They asked if I would like to join their group. It was a friendly invitation, but it bore the implication: “Put up or shut up, Mr. Professor of Nonviolence.” A month later, we sat in front of a convoy of trucks taking the members of the Hawaii National Guard to Oahu's Jungle Warfare Training Center, on their way to the jungles of Vietnam. I went to jail for two weeks – the beginning of the end of my academic career. Members of the Hawaii Resistance served from six months to two years in prison for their draft resistance, or wound up going into exile in Sweden or Canada.

Martin Luther King's martyrdom was our baptism into nonviolence as a way of life. But our beginning choice of nonviolence did not mean we recognized the deeper questions King's murder opened up. If one kept on probing his assassination, one would wind up at the cross, in spite of our government's efforts to bury that cross forever.

Martin Luther King's last book, The Trumpet of Conscience , published after his death, began to help me understand why he was killed. In his series of lectures delivered over the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in late 1967, Dr. King envisioned first a national, then a global nonviolent revolution against corporate wealth and military power. He wrote:

“Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level to correspond to heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This higher level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more that a statement to the larger society; there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point…It must be open and, above all, conducted by large masses without violence. If the jails are filled to thwart it, its meaning will become even clearer.

“Mass civil disobedience as a new stage of struggle can transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer-lasting, costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive. Finally, it is a device of social action that is more difficult for the government to quell by superior force.” (p. 15)

As the U.S. government knew well, King wasn't just talking about “dislocating the functioning of a city without destroying it.” That was a concrete plan he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had for the Poor People's Campaign here in Washington, DC, the following spring of 1968. They wanted to dislocate the functioning of Washington until the government took the steps necessary to abolish poverty in this country.

King's other goal, the other side of the abolition of poverty, was the abolition of war. That, too, was a goal for the Poor People's Campaign. King told his staff that what was important, “after we get [to Washington], and stay a few days,” was to “call the peace movement in, and let them go on the other side of the Potomac and try to close down the Pentagon, if that can be done.”

King was thinking in Gospel terms. He said, “I don't know what Jesus had as his demands other than ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.' My demand in Washington is ‘repent, America.'” (Garrow, p. 593)

The expression of that demand would be “a new stage of massive, active nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system.” (p. 48) He took as a model for the Washington campaign the crisis the Civil Rights Movement had created in Birmingham in 1965. “Without violence,” he said, “we totally disrupted the system, the life style of Birmingham and then of Selma, with their unjust and unconstitutional laws. Our Birmingham struggle came to its dramatic climax when some 3,500 demonstrators virtually filled every jail in that city and surrounding communities, and some 4,000 more continued to march and demonstrate nonviolently. The city knew then in terms that were crystal-clear that Birmingham could no longer continue to function until the demands of the Negro community were met.” (p. 54)

When 1968 began, King was ready to take that model of creating a moral and political crisis, by nonviolently dislocating the functioning of a city, to a national level here in Washington – and finally to an international level in cities around the globe. He meant specifically and concretely a global nonviolent revolution to abolish war and poverty.

When I read The Trumpet of Conscience , I suspected Martin Luther King had not been killed by a lone assassin. King had the vision, the commitment, and the organization to pursue the reign of God in a global Beloved Community. That threatened both a national and an international power structure. The powers that be knew they had to kill Martin Luther King. But I would have no proof of that for 30 more years.

The Trumpet of Conscience repeated themes from King's Riverside Church Address. It included a description of how he came to take a radical stand against the war in Vietnam. He talked about his failure to stop the rioting in the ghettos of the North: “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion, while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But, they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” (p. 24)

King was creating a crisis of conscience in our national security state that went deeper than dislocating the functioning of our capital, Washington, DC. King was dislocating the functioning of our ideology. The deepest spiritual and democratic values that the U.S. claimed it stood for King drew upon to confront our contradictions, from the jungles of Vietnam to our city ghettos. He insisted that we walk our talk. If not, our government should be nonviolently disrupted and shut down. He would do all he could to accomplish that end, regardless of the consequences to himself.

I learned those consequences in detail in November-December 1999, when I attended the only trial ever held for the assassination of Martin Luther King. It took place in Memphis, only a few blocks from the Lorraine Motel where he was killed. In a wrongful death lawsuit initiated by the King family, 70 witnesses testified over a six-week period. They described a sophisticated government plot that involved the FBI and CIA, the Memphis Police, Mafia intermediaries, and an Army Special Forces sniper team. The twelve jurors, six black and six white, returned after two and one-half hours of deliberation with a verdict that King had been assassinated by a conspiracy that included agencies of his own government. For seven years now, the evidence and verdict of that trial have been public knowledge. The trial's entire transcript has been posted at It has been massively ignored. No one wants to deal with its implications. An understanding of the nature of King's assassination would threaten the roots of our systemic violence.

Martin Luther King was following the path of Jesus. King knew that unless he and we were willing to risk the cross, unless we chose the way of the nonviolent cross, there could be no transformation, no miracle of peace, no resurrection for us as a people. As a prophet of nonviolence, he chose the cross in his speech at Riverside Church. He was raised on it one year later in Memphis. The process of King's cross and resurrection, a personal transformation, has helped make possible our cross and resurrection, which would be a social transformation.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus tells us that his being raised on the cross is his resurrection – the resurrection of us all. “When I am lifted up from the earth,” Jesus says, “I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) The cross of nonviolent, suffering love of enemies, grounded in God's forgiveness, marks the beginning of the end of violence – the drawing of all people together in Love. As our retreat's theme statement puts it, “the spiral of violence is broken by those willing to absorb the violence in their own flesh,” as Jesus did, and as his follower, Martin Luther King did.

Our great obstacle to breaking the spiral of violence is fear of the power of systemic evil. Jesus' nonviolent cross replaces fear with love and unity: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Jesus' cross liberated the early Christians from fear of the empire's cross, whose purpose was to terrify and deter the empire's subjects from rebellion. To the Roman legions, Jesus and his followers of the Way were just another bunch of rebels who could be terrorized into submission by their fear of the cross. But for them the cross was transformed into a symbol of God's love. It became a way to absorb the enemy's violence in one's own flesh.

In the Gospel of John, which abounds in irony, the greatest irony of all is that it is the empire's raising up of Jesus, in its effort to kill and humiliate the Human One, that turns out to be his resurrection and exaltation. What was meant to terrify his followers becomes their symbol of faith and love. The revelation of Jesus' nonviolent cross turns his death into life, and our terror into love.

However, that didn't happen all at once. Most of his disciples fled in terror from his crucifixion. When they were in hiding behind locked doors, after Mary Magdalene had tried to tell them Jesus was really alive, he came to them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Then he breathed the Spirit of Love and Forgiveness into them. At that point they were liberated from terror of the empire's cross. It was transformed into their symbol of faith.

In all the Gospels, Jesus identifies that process of crucifixion/resurrection not for himself alone but for every human being willing to walk the Way he does. He re-names himself the Human Being, a new kind of humanity. What the Human Being Jesus does, what Martin Luther King does as a follower of that glorified, martyred Humanity, we can do – bear witness to the transforming reign of God, so that when we end up in prison and lifted up on the empire's cross, our brothers and sisters can be freed from fear, too, and lifted up as well. This is Gospel. This is Good News – that we can live the truth without fear of the system, that we can get lifted up together, in what Martin described as the Beloved Community.

However, what is Good News for a community of faith is bad news for the system. Jesus also says in John's Gospel that the lifting up of the Human Being “is the judgment of this system; now the ruler of this system will be driven out.” (John 12:31)

Following the exegesis of Walter Wink, who has shown that in John the Greek word kosmos usually means “system,” we can emphasize that meaning here: “Now [the lifting up of the Human Being] is the judgment of this system; now the ruler of this system will be driven out.”

Who or what is the ruler of this system?

While there is a sense in which Satan rules the system, Wes Howard-Brooks has pointed out that “we should not be too quick to assume such a meaning here.” (Howard-Brooks, Becoming Children of God , p. 283) Up to this point in John's Gospel, the word archon “ruler,” has been used exclusively to refer to Nicodemus and the rulers of Judea. Nor did rabbinical literature use the phrase “ruler of the system” to refer to Satan. (Ibid.)

“The ruler of this system” meant in a mundane sense exactly what it said: the ruler of the system at the time of Jesus. In a local frame of reference, that meant the Sanhedrin, the central council that ruled Jerusalem. More significantly, “the ruler of this system” meant the ruler of the overriding system, the Roman Empire, which crucified Jesus on behalf of Caesar. In terms of that reference, what this Gospel proclaims is that when the system lifts up the Human Being on the cross, then Caesar will be driven out. The empire will lose its legitimacy and power. By raising up the Human One in martyrdom, the system will fall. That was true for the system in Jesus' time. It is true of the system today.

The powers that rule our domination system are not stupid. They are aware that the public exaltation of humanity in suffering, nonviolent resistance would mean the system's end. They know that reality of power much better than we do. They fear that their lifting up the martyr on the cross may turn out to be the state's own judgment, the unmasking of its violence by love and truth. The system is petrified by fear of the nonviolent cross. It knew that when it had to crucify Martin Luther King, it had absolutely no credibility. So it took every possible precaution to disguise that execution. It had to crucify King anonymously. Otherwise the process Jesus revealed was going to happen, and keep on happening, right into our resurrection as a people – simultaneous with the death of our system of death. That process of crucifixion/resurrection of humanity, transforming us from fear to faith, is the judgment of this system. On that way of the cross, the rule of this domination system will be driven out. The system, as we have known it from one violent empire to another, will fall like a house of cards.

So we can see the dilemma for the system in its martyrdom of Martin Luther King. The system had to kill the prophet but conceal itself as the killer.

Because we have a national security state pretending to be a democracy, our intelligence agencies have been given the power to murder anonymously. They have the power to create scapegoats and cover up their assassinations. They have the power to re-write the past, which is identical with the power to dictate the future. As George Orwell said in 1984 , “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

So it came to pass, in our mass media, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was said to have been killed not by the national security state he denounced forty years ago tonight but instead by a poor, white, escaped convict. The system chose as its scapegoat a lifetime loser, a petty criminal who seemed to embody the classist pejorative “poor white trash,” James Earl Ray. On April 23, 1967, two and a half weeks after Dr. King's Riverside Church Address, James Earl Ray, with the probable assistance of government officials, escaped – or was allowed to escape – from Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri. Ray would soon be taken under the wing of an intelligence agent, Raul, who would use Ray as a gunrunner, holding him in readiness until he was needed as the King assassination scapegoat. As an escaped convict, Ray was easily controlled and manipulated. The state had constructed a conspiracy of cowardice. The state had to hide behind James Earl Ray, a poor white man, to kill Martin Luther King, a prophetic black man. Otherwise our system would have been caught in the predicament described by Jesus in John – exposed, judged, and driven out of this country and the world as a system of death.

One can sympathize with the rulers of our system. They did only what they thought they had to do. They defended themselves covertly from a force they could not possibly overcome openly. The system was forced by its own kind of force to kill the prophet of nonviolent force anonymously. It very consistently covered up the evidence in Memphis. Then the system (and we along with it) went on to other wars and other business, just as King said it (and we) would do “beyond Vietnam.” We can recall the prophecy he delivered to the crowd at Riverside Church forty years ago:

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing Clergy and Laity Concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as children of the living God.”

Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam to Iraq and an endless war of terror, but not beyond our calling as children of the living God.

We need to know how Martin was killed.

He was, first of all, set up.

When Martin Luther King went to Memphis on March 28, 1968, to march with the striking sanitation workers, government provocateurs infiltrated the march. The provocateurs broke windows, disrupted the march, and provoked a police riot. The violence made it necessary for King to return to Memphis on April 3, to prepare for a truly nonviolent march that would prove SCLC could carry out a nonviolent Poor People's Campaign in Washington. By being forced to return to Memphis, King was being set up for his assassination.

He was also channeled into registering at the Lorraine Motel. On the day after the disrupted march, an FBI-authored article was passed to news media that read:

“The fine Hotel Lorraine in Memphis is owned and patronized exclusively by Negroes but King didn't go there from his hasty exit [form the march]. Instead King decided the plush Holiday Inn Motel, white owned, operated and almost exclusively white patronized, was the place to ‘cool it.' There will be no boycott of white merchants for King, only for his followers.”

Although the Lorraine Motel posed security problems, those making King's arrangements booked him there beginning April 3, just as the FBI wanted.

The Lorraine's owners, Walter and Lorraine Bailey, initially gave King a more secure inner courtroom behind the motel's office. However, Martin's SCLC staff had been infiltrated by the government. On the night before King's arrival in Memphis, an unidentified male member of King's staff in Atlanta phoned the Baileys at the Lorraine. The man insisted that King's room be changed from the (more secure) inside location to an outside balcony room completely exposed to public view. The change was made. The scene was set for April 4.

Martin's assassination was also preceded by a withdrawal of police security. His ordinary security in Memphis included a special unit of black officers commanded by Memphis Police Captain Jerry Williams. However, for King's April 3 arrival, Williams was disturbed that he was not asked to form the special black bodyguard.

Moreover, two black firefighters at Fire Station 2, across the street from the Lorraine Motel, were inexplicably transferred early on April 4 to fire stations where they were not needed. In addition, a black Memphis Police Department detective, Ed Redditt, who was watching King's room from a Fire Station 2 surveillance post, was suddenly removed from his post two hours before King's murder. The order was given by Memphis Police and Fire Director Frank Holloman, who had recently retired from 25 years with the FBI, seven of them as the supervisor of J. Edgar Hoover's office. Holloman ordered detective Redditt to go home because, Holloman claimed, Redditt's life had been threatened. Redditt protested, obeyed the order, and arrived home just as King was shot.

Finally, also on April 4, by order of Frank Holloman's subordinate, Inspector Sam Evans, the four tactical police units patrolling the Lorraine Motel area were all pulled back, thereby allowing an assassin to escape more easily.

Government agencies facilitated Martin's murder by the systematic withdrawal of all his normal security. They also plotted his assassination in such a way as to involve the Mafia as intermediaries, providing another layer of cover for the powers that be. The scapegoat was James Earl Ray. If one probed behind him, one could discover a Mafia contract with police connections. Behind the Mafia, in the shadows, were the FBI and CIA. And behind them were the invisible minds and hands ruling the system, fearful of exposure to the light.

Everything was in place on April 4, 1968. The Mafia's Frank Liberto, a Memphis produce dealer, had sent a courier to deliver $100,000 to Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim's Grill whose back door opened onto the dense bushes across the street from the Lorraine Motel. Jowers then received a rifle in a box on April 3 from a man named Raul. It was Raul who also brought the scapegoat, James Earl Ray, into Memphis on April 4, after Raul had shepherded Ray in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico since the previous summer.

We know Loyd Jowers' role in the King assassination because he confessed to Martin's son, Dexter King, and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young in a fall 1998 meeting that was tape-recorded. The audiotape was played for the jury at the 1999 trial I attended. In his confession, Jowers said that meetings to plan the assassination took place at Jim's Grill. The planners included undercover Memphis Police Department Officer Marrell McCollough (who went on to a career with the CIA), Police Lieutenant Earl Clark, a third police officer, and two men who Jowers thought were federal agents.

At 6:00 p.m. on April 4, James Earl Ray was several blocks away at a service station, trying to get a flat spare tire fixed. Unknown to Ray, the fake evidence to scapegoat him had already been left near the entrance to the boarding house where he had rented a room, as we learned from the King trial testimony of Judge Arthur Hanes Jr., Ray's former attorney. At ten minutes before the assassination, the rifle Ray had bought at Raul's orders was dropped in the doorway of the Canipe Amusement Company. In the King trial, witness Judge Joe Brown, who had the planted rifle tested, said that because its scope had not been sited, “this weapon literally could not have hit the broad side of a barn.”

At 6:00 p.m., the hired shooter was in the thick brush and bushes directly across from the Lorraine, aiming the real rifle at Martin Luther King, who was standing on the balcony in front of his room. Early the next morning, as established by trial testimony, those same bushes were cut down by order of Police Inspector Sam Evans, thus destroying the crime scene.

Also at 6:00 p.m., an Army Special Forces sniper team had been deployed as a contingency force on two buildings and a water tower overlooking the Lorraine. The snipers' deployment was described in what a King trial juror called “awesome” testimony by Jack Terrell, a CIA operative. Terrell was a close friend of one of the snipers, J. D. Hill (who was later shot to death himself). While the shooter in the bushes began to squeeze his trigger, the three Army snipers were training their sights on both Martin Luther King and his presumed successor, Andrew Young. The snipers waited for a radio command to fire. It never came.

Instead a shot from the bushes killed Martin.

Investigating the assassination of Martin Luther King over the past decade has been a pilgrimage into martyrdom. From that journey I have learned, first of all, how naïve I was about systemic evil. While there is nothing new about prophets being murdered by the system, I was not aware of how well our own system carries out such murders – and why.

I said such murders. Plural. I discovered Martin's assassination was intertwined with that of Malcolm X, who was also set up and murdered by our national security state. In his case, U.S. intelligence agencies manipulated National of Islam intermediaries for Malcolm's execution on February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan.

Two and one half weeks before his assassination, Malcolm was in Selma, Alabama, hoping to meet with Martin. The paths of the two prophets were converging. After leaving the Nation of Islam the year before, Malcolm had embraced a universal vision of peace at Mecca. He had also spent four months in Africa meeting with the heads of its newly liberated states to organize a human rights campaign to put the United States on trial in the United Nations for its racist policies toward its own black citizens. By moving from civil rights to human rights, Malcolm was a step ahead of Martin, who was watching his work closely. However, they were unable to meet in Selma, because Martin had been arrested and jailed, and Malcolm had to leave for speaking in Europe before a jail visit with Martin could be arranged.

It is well documented that both Malcolm and Martin had been placed under exhaustive government surveillance. The FBI and CIA were monitoring their every move. The government knew it was only a matter of time before they would get together. That would not be allowed to happen. The long-simmering plot to kill Malcolm was heated up, resulting in his murder at the Audubon Ballroom after his return from Europe.

A key to the untold history of our domestic assassinations is the fact that our government was the first to develop and use nuclear weapons. The democratic principles this country professes were, from the beginning, in conflict with such weapons and our refusal to submit them to international control. Nuclear weapons and civil liberties don't go together. Nuclear weapons and life don't go together. The rise of our national security state after World War Two, as justified by the Cold War that our nuclear weapons created, was the effective end of democracy in the USA. That history of a national security state replacing a democracy was climaxed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an event that foreshadows the martyrdom of Malcolm and Martin.

A nuclear weapons state that maintains the myth of being a democracy requires what our newspeak language calls “intelligence agencies,” which specialize in covert action, assassinations, and propaganda whose targets include U.S. citizens. The CIA and its related covert action/propaganda agencies have evolved into what we today, with more newspeak (and a verbal surrender to our former World War Two enemies), call “Homeland Security.” I believe the reason why Malcolm's and Martin's assassinations by our own government can still shock many of us is that we are in denial of the fact that our government, by embracing nuclear weapons, became a national security state.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, each in his own unique way, challenged that system to be true to its democratic origins, as did John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert. The four of them offered a combined witness to a process of Justice, peace, and nuclear disarmament through which the people of this country could achieve a truly democratic government. Until we turn in that direction, I believe what Martin said remains true in a more terrible sense than ever: The greatest purveyor of terrorism in the world today is my own government.

I want to conclude by sharing an exchange of letters with Walter Wink on the question why Jesus identified himself as the Human Being. Before Jesus chose the way of the cross, he chose to call himself the Human Being. Why?

If one wants to know more about Jesus as the Human Being, Walter Wink, your Holy Week 2004 Faith and Resistance Retreat speaker, is the person to ask. Walter's book, The Human Being , is the classic work on the subject. I have been asking Walter questions about Jesus as the Human Being since the 1980's. He keeps taking me to new perspectives.

On July 3, 2000, after I read his draft manuscript of The Human Being , I wrote Walter Wink the following question:

“I know some Greek but no Hebrew, so I ask you (who know both well): Do you think Jesus/ Yeshua was named after Joshua?

“Though nobody I know of says so (except a late friend Ben Edmonson in an unpublished manuscript), I have assumed that Joshua was Jesus' given namesake. Is that just plain wrong?

“If it is possible or likely (in spite of the huge silence on the issue) that Jesus was named after Joshua, then the whole ‘son of man' question takes on new meaning. His choice of the human being as his name is a choice of humanity over war. It is a refusal to be identified with a much-admired warrior who thought – with his followers, scribes, and violent imitators – that God commanded genocide as his will.”

On July 14, 2000, Walter wrote back to me:

“The linguistic issue is strong for your argument. In the only two places in the New Testament that refer to Joshua, Iesous is used. Apparently it was a very popular name, since Joshua was a great hero. However, I am puzzled that the Septuagint [a pre-Christian Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures]– woops, correction of what I almost said -- yes, the Septuagint agrees – has Iesous [for Joshua]. So no question about it – Jesus is Joshua in Hebrew. Your theory is, of course, more speculative, and can't be settled either way, though I naturally like it.”

So with some linguistic support from Walter Wink, who likes the idea, here is a little meditation on Jesus' real name:


A word lying like a skull in the desert of our understanding.


It was Jesus' name for himself.

Humanity. To be literal, “the son of the man,” in Greek ho huios tou anthropou . But, as John McKenzie points out, the excessively literal translation “the son of the man” for Jesus' Aramaic phrase was as meaningless in Greek as it is in English. The Aramaic idiom Jesus uses 82 times in the Gospels to identify himself, bar nasha , means humanity, personally and collectively.


Gaze at that 2,000-year-old skull of Jesus' real name, lying in the desert of our comprehension of the Gospels. Finger that human skull. Turn over slowly its implications. Hold it up as a question in our minds, sensing the sun of meaning behind it.


Why don't you call yourself by your own name, Jesus? Not once in all four Gospels. Instead you insist again and again that you're the human being, humanity.

Why not just say you're Jesus? Yeshua. Named after the one we know as Joshua. But no.


The skull of that word gazes back, blocking out the sun. Suddenly the sun breaks through.

No, I am not Jesus. I do not identify myself with Joshua, a warrior who committed genocide in the name of God.

I am humanity.

I am all of you.

Gaze through the skull into the sun.

For about twelve years now, I have known with constantly increasing detail how Martin Luther King was killed. I keep learning more all the time. However, I am also aware that what I know about this systemic murder is very little, compared to what there is to know.

I have met extraordinary people on this pilgrimage into darkness, witnesses to the truth who have great courage, like Dr. King's. The witnesses who have seen the unspeakable truth of his martyrdom, and who have dared to speak its truth, are themselves martyrs – witnesses who have been threatened, persecuted, committed by the government to mental institutions, and killed.

The truth of the assassination of Martin Luther King is one issue on which the system will never retreat, any more than it would retreat from its lies on the interrelated assassinations of Malcolm X and the Kennedys.

Just as Jesus says in John, that truth of the cross would destroy it. That truth of the cross, absorbed by us in widening circles of nonviolent commitment, would drive our evil system out of this country and the world. The transforming truth of King's martyrdom is the truth of our cross and resurrection as a people. It is not beyond our reach, but the system would be driven out if we did reach it.

My hardest task in learning the beginning truth about King's cross has to do with what Jesus, and Martin as his disciple, have taught us to do to be truly human – love the enemy. I have had to realize how profoundly naïve I have been about evil, even when living with Shelley and our son Tom for years in a house at the end of the line where our extended Agape Community would regularly block trains carrying enough nuclear weapons to destroy whole continents, perhaps all life on earth. But as terrible as that concrete realization of evil was and is, it was less overwhelming for me than what I feel now from Dr. King's murder. The systemic way in which this prophet of compassion and transformation for our world was stalked, set up, and executed by our government takes my breath away. The cover-up to this day is no less elaborate.

So I have a hard time loving the enemies who are most responsible for this crime against us all, this attempt to assassinate hope that has succeeded to the extent we as a people have allowed it to do so. Our scene has become more desperate in many ways since April 4, 1968, or on that previous April 4 at Riverside Church. The terrible widening of evil that King envisioned beyond Vietnam forty years ago tonight, we have seen happen.

So it is hard to love the unseen enemies who work so feverishly and systematically to murder voices of hope, as they continue to do, covering their tracks all the way.

In the summer of 1961, a white student from Union Theological Seminary named Gurdon Brewster worked with Dr. King and his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Brewster was forced to confront a racist system made flesh for him in a group of white men who, in a parking lot one night, almost took his life for working with the Kings. The morning after that encounter, Brewster marched into Dr. King's office and demanded of the prophet of nonviolence, “How do you love those people, anyway? How do you love the enemy, when all those people do such violent things to you? How do you still love them?”

Martin Luther King looked at him, sat still, and thought. King's phone was ringing, and his secretary was rapping on his door, calling out that the Justice Department wanted to talk to him. Brewster waited for an answer to his question.

Finally King said softly, “You've got to reach deeper until you are transformed by your suffering. With your suffering and your love, you must cut the chains of hate. You've got to reach down deeper until your suffering and your love draw you closer to God.” (Gurdon Brewster, No Turning Back , page 209. Scheduled for publication by Orbis Books in October 2007.)

At the trial held in Memphis for King's assassination, one of his assassins was present in the courtroom as a defendant – Loyd Jowers. Mr. Jowers was old and feeble at that point. He was hardly a major player in the conspiracy. Those men of great power would never be defendants in any earthly courtroom. Yet the King family knew well from Loyd Jowers' confession that he had passed the rifle to the man who fired it from the bushes. Or perhaps more likely, though he denied it, Loyd Jowers had himself been the man who actually pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Dr. King.

I watched from a few feet away from Jowers when Coretta Scott King entered the courtroom to be a witness in the trial. She walked up to Loyd Jowers, who in a state of confusion rose from his chair. She looked into his eyes and shook his hand.

Yes, we can cut the chains of hate.

But we must reach down deeper until our suffering and our love draw us closer to God.


Further reading:

King Center

The Martin Luther King Conspiracy Exposed in Memphis by Jim Douglass, Probe Magazine