Tag Archive | Martin Luther King Jr

The World Will Soon Be Right Again

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus and his righteousness.

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One of the many low points from this past Thursday's debate, with Donald Trump displaying his hands, hinting he has both large hands and a large penis.

One of the many low points from this past Thursday’s debate, with Donald Trump displaying his hands, hinting he has both large hands and a large penis.

This really is a truly frightening political season here in the United States. Let’s just get that out of the way. With the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, none of the candidates display any real Presidential qualities. The Republican field, in particular, is horrendous. While a whole lot of attention has focused on Donald Trump, the truth is none of the four remaining contenders for the Republican nomination for President are Presidential material. From Marco Rubio, who’s accomplished little beyond being elected Senator from Florida (and it shows) to John Kasich trying to pretend Thursday night he didn’t spend nearly 20 years as a member of Congress, the whole Republican race sinks lower and lower each day.

That Hillary Clinton will in all likelihood be the Democratic nominee doesn’t really bode well, either. Carrying way too much baggage, we really don’t need another four or eight years of a Clinton Administration. Despite his age, Bernie Sanders represents the future direction of the Democratic Party. That’s why the Party old-guard are terrified of him. It’s really quite disheartening.

Now, I could tremble in fear for what all this means for us as a people. There is much to fear, particularly if the Presidential contest comes down to a race between Clinton and Trump. I could lament the ugliness of the Republican nomination race. I could resent the underhandedness of the Democratic nomination race. I could wonder what’s happened to us as a people. I could decry everything from the lack of seriousness to the rising tide of violence at Trump rallies.

Except, I’m not going to. I mean, obviously I find the violence appalling. I am disgusted at the tone of the Republican nomination process. I’m unnerved at the thought of another Clinton Administration. All that being said, I’m not despairing for my country. Not at all.

Politics is about power, who has it, who uses it, and how they use it.  The fact is Presidential politics, for all the drama it presents us, isn’t what it was 30 years ago. The reassertion of Congress as primer inter pares in our divided system renders any Presidential agenda questionable, no matter who sits in the White House. While both Trump and Sanders attract excited crowds (in Trumps case, one might call them over-zealous), in a country of over 300 million people, the actual numbers of those who truly support these candidates whole-heartedly are really quite small. Time and again over the last eight years, we’ve seen examples of how the changing age and ethnic and population demographics have changed America from what it was even thirty years ago.

Because politics is about power; because of the changing dynamics of power in the United States federal government; because our country no longer has a voting let along governing majority; these aren’t the reasons I’m not truly fearful of the result of this year’s Presidential race. The truth is, politics isn’t a hopeful process. While it’s important to speak out, to vote, to work for your candidate of choice, there is no real hope in any of it. Never has been.

Real hope, the only hope that matters, the only hope that matters, is the hope that comes from the promise we’re offered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is certainly possible that Donald Trump could be elected President this November; that’s no reason to lose hope. It isn’t even outside the realm of possibility that a Trump Presidency could result in the unthinkable occurring; that’s no reason to lose hope. Not because these aren’t horrible things; the reason to continue to be hopeful is that, for all our world is a mess from Syria through global warming to the continual rise of racist violence here in the United States, our world is not yet complete. These things aren’t signs to despair. They are opportunities for us to work even harder, as Christians, to bring Good News in word and deed to a hurting world. In the face of hatred and violence, we need to bring love. In the face of arrogance and recklessness we need to bring humility and thoughtfulness.

In the midst of fear, we must bring the fearlessness that comes from knowing that nothing, not death, not life, not angels, not rules, not things present, not things to come, not powers, not height, not depth, nothing in creation can separate us from the love that comes from God in the name of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Ours is to be a life lived faithfully and lovingly, to be sure. It is also, as St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, to be lived hopefully because the promise we have is one of never-ending faithfulness and care. Martin Luther King said it best: “I’m not fearing anybody, for mine eyes have seen the glory of the Lord.”

People Get Ready: Advent With Curtis Mayfield IV

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ – Isaiah 40:3-5

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People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers
From coast to coast
Faith is the key
Open the doors and board them
There’s room for all
Among the loved the most – “People Get Ready”, music and lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
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The Impressions, the group Curtis Mayfield formed with his childhood friend the late Jerry Butler. They released the first recording of "People Get Ready" in 1965.  It is in Rolling Stone Magazine's top 10 of the 500 best rock songs of all time.

The Impressions, the group Curtis Mayfield formed with his childhood friend the late Jerry Butler. They released the first recording of “People Get Ready” in 1965. It is in Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 10 of the 500 best rock songs of all time.

Depending on when you counted the real start of the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement in America, by 1965 great legal strides had been made while socially and culturally things were hardly changed at all. The movement really peaked in 1963 with the March on Washington. Thousands still marched, still organized, still protested, still got arrested, still pushed and pushed the social and cultural boundaries.

That year The Impressions, a vocal group from Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project, released a song called “People Get Ready”. Similar to a slave spiritual lyrically, using the metaphor of a “train to Jordan” to talk about the need to continue to fight for African-American equality, it featured Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto reassuring people they “don’t need no baggage/Just get on board.”

Instantly this song became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. King would play it at rallies. The Impressions were invited to sing at various Civil Rights meetings, protests, and marches. The song’s greatness, usually missed, lies in the mixture of a sweet, easy-going melody, Mayfield’s clear falsetto, both of which mask the militant insistence of the lyrics. This is no “nice” song. This is a song for people facing cops with guns, dogs, and fire-hoses, people who won’t stop because they can’t stop. This isn’t a movement. This is a locomotive that will run over anyone who gets in the way, trying to prevent people from reaching their destination.

This fourth week of Advent is a time we recognize our waiting is coming to an end. There is still preparation needed, of course – isn’t there always? – but we should remember that when the moment comes, when the Day to remember the birth of Christ; the day to celebrate the presence of the Savior; the day to look forward to our fulfilled hope of the promised return; that day comes as a thief in the night. Whether we are fully ready, the Christ-child comes, God enfleshed and living among us.

This Christ is the one who travels the straight highway in the desert. This Christ is the God With Us who makes all things new. This Christ is the one who insists we need bring nothing with us except our faith and being along with Him, who can oppose us? At Christmas we do so much more than consider a babe being held by his loving mother and father. At Christmas we do more than welcome the risen Christ in to our homes yet again. At Christmas, we renew our pledge to climb aboard the train and head to the promised land.

And that promised land, like the one at the end of the desert highway; like the one King spoke of his last night; the destination of that train is the promised land of peace, where the wolf shall lie down with the kid, the child shall play over the adder’s den and not be afraid, and swords shall be beaten in to plowshares. We are on a train not just to racial equality. We are on the train that delivers us to the Kingdom, a place where the infinite worth of each and all is more than recognized; it is celebrated. We are on the train that delivers us to freedom, real freedom, the only freedom that matters: The freedom to be fully human, to be the people God created us to be.

This Christmas, as you sit and watch your children and grandchildren unwrap gifts; as you sip a glass of wine in the evening; as you hug your family; remember that baby whose birth we celebrate isn’t just “some baby”. This baby is the engineer on the greatest ride of all time, the Train to The Promised Land. We’ve been getting ready for three weeks, and here it is. You don’t need a ticket, so just hop on board.

A God Who Does Not Countenance Abuse Or Oppression

The unfolding of the fight for freedom leads to cries of horror from the Egyptians, and it is a difficult challenge to say how a God who hears the cries of the suffering responded to those cries, especially when those cries were of Egypt’s own innocent children slain on the historic night of the Passover, . . . . I canno resolve the crisis of meeting God as both compassionate and violent in this story. At the very least it requires nothing that the Israelites’ escape – a tale of their cries of terror turned to shouts of joy – comes at an incredible cost. Egypt’s loss inspires a “lament such as has never been and never will be again” (Exod. 11:6). Here we come face-to-face with the complexity of Yahweh, something I will return to below with the lens Jesus gives us to see God as both hearer of cries and present in the midst of the suffering itself, crying out. – Christian Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters To Those Seeking God, p.86

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[D]itch your superior, smug attitude and 1) stop hairsplitting (“non-approval” vs “judgement” or “condemnation”) and 2) renounce the gospel of Jesus as you refuse to accept His way of non-violence. – A comment directed at me in a discussion in a private group on Facebook, Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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The angel of death on the night of the first Passover. It is God's action that killed first born, children and adults, across Egypt.

The angel of death on the night of the first Passover. It is God’s action that killed first born, children and adults, across Egypt.

Being the good white liberal young man I was, I had all sorts of untested and unexamined assumptions in my head. Among those were that social change through non-violence was both (a) the only really acceptable Christian approach; and (b) advocates of violence only continued a cycle of violence that would leave more and more people dead. There is an insistent logic to this position that is so attractive. It is the balm in Gilead that soothes the sin-sick soul.

When I arrived at Wesley Theological Seminary, among the first things I read that challenged all the things I thought I knew were true was the black liberation theology of James Cone. In his powerful, prophetic denunciations of the religion of white supremacy, he offered a vision of Christianity that denounced every comfortable middle-class platitude I believed to be true.

Later, reading Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, I was intrigued by its final chapter, “Exodus Church”, in which Moltmann offered the Exodus story as a paradigm for the church’s existence and ministry. Part of that paradigm includes the affirmation that ours is a God who chooses sides, whose loving action is directed at particular persons, particular groups, and toward particular ends. While never taking a stand on any particular social practice, it was clear that these particular theologies, protest and political, demonstrated a particular Biblical reality that white liberals like me would prefer to skate past as quickly as possible.

To say that political and social non-violence are articles of faith – dare I call them idols? – among mainstream white Christians is not going too far. We elevate the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. to some kind of Gospel, as noted by a commenter above during a discussion on this very issue. Apparently, even after decades during which the equivocal nature of King’s “victories” have been analyzed, criticized and then re-evaluated again, it remains a capital “T” Truth that, by refusing to respond with violence to the violence of white supremacy, King showed the world change through non-violence is possible. Few things get white liberals all tingly like quoting verses from The Sermon On The Mount to proof-text their stance. The warmth of moral superiority is the best blanket.

Yet, how do we understand the Exodus story? The killing of Egypt’s first-born wasn’t the first time violence had been visited upon them. Flies – that bite and sting, preventing work; frogs – that can kill and eat fowl, eggs; locusts – to devour crops; boils – to leave people ill, unable to work, to exile themselves from the rest of society; turning the river to blood – no potable, usable water in a desert land means death. God’s actions against the Egyptians – including hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he refused to allow the people to leave, despite the cries of his people to do so – try any comforting vision of the white liberal God. This founding story of the Israelites demands we stare in the face the reality not only that God chooses sides, but is ruthless with those who oppose God’s divine plan. Even when that opposition is prompted by God’s action (“the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .”).

I’m not suggesting something like the old and heretical notion that the God of the two Testaments is somehow two distinct entities, or that who God is undergoes a fundamental change at some point between the Testaments. On the contrary, using a reading of Scripture that is both old and new, ancient and post-modern – placing the Christ-event at the heart of the Biblical testimony, stretching back to creation and ahead to the final consummation – we see, again, that God chooses sides. The issue isn’t whether God has somehow changed; the issue, rather, is the odd western insistence on the universality of the Biblical testimony. That temptation to universality, yet another idol best dispensed with, creates a blindness to something I learned from one of my theology professors, Dr. John Godsey: The Scriptural testimony does not move from the general to the specific; rather, it moves from the specific – the Incarnation is nothing if not the Glory of God present in a single person, at a particular place and time – to the potentially universal (“go preach the Gospel to all nations, starting in Judea and Samaria”). I say “potential” because while the promise of world-wide witness is offered, it is a task that continues to this day.

The Passion narrative, like the Passover narrative, is one no less filled with violence and death, betrayal and heartbreak, with that final Easter shout of joy only possible because we have all traveled the via dolorosa with Christ. The way of salvation is not around the horrors and pain of this life. Redemption, Divine acceptance, only comes through blood. That the pain and blood is brought about by God’s actions we too often set to one side, so quick are we to get to the end of the story. We who read the Exodus story, identifying with the Hebrew people and their suffering all the while living as the Egyptians, our national wealth extracted through the toil stolen from slaves and share-croppers, have an obligation first and foremost to remember this story is not our story. When we are confronted by the Passion narrative, living as we do in a great imperial nation, we should remember that death is on our hands. Wanting to identify with the bleeding dying Jesus, or the oppressed and worn-down Hebrews, forgetful of our complicity with ongoing injustice, death-dealing, and oppression does violence to the text; we cannot hear the condemnation of our arrogance, the rejection of our comfort with violence as a tool of national and international policy, and our smug satisfaction that a commitment to non-violence somehow wipes away centuries of genocidal policies toward our Native peoples, African slaves, and others. Unless we recognize that the heart both of the Passion and Exodus stories – related from beginning to end – is a story of God living out preferential treatment. Part of that preferential treatment is the active rejection of those who would thwart God’s designs.

The most potent counter-argument are the words of Jesus from the Cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Doesn’t that, it is argued, offer redemption to those who kill Jesus? By extension, doesn’t that offer redemption to all of us? Doesn’t the whole notion of God’s preference ignore the reality that salvation is offered to all? The only answer to this valid point is that no redemption, no salvation, no conversion is possible without acknowledging, in the words of Bishop Cranmer, our manifold sins and wickedness. We can only do that if we allow the Divine violence of the Passion/Exodus stories to convict us of our complicity in injustice and violence against those whose cries God hears.

The real truth is so simple: White liberals love non-violence because we are terrified that all the violence visited upon God’s enemies will be directed at us. God chooses sides. We need to remember whose side we’re really on.

The Non-Violence Pose

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community. – Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Nonviolence As Compliance”, The Atlantic, April 27, 2015

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[D]itch your superior, smug attitude and 1) stop hairsplitting (“non-approval” vs “judgement” or “condemnation”) and 2) renounce the gospel of Jesus as you refuse to accept His way of non-violence. – A comment directed at me in a discussion in a private group on Facebook, Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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Other: You know what they say about opinions….

Me: Wow. Really? History tells us over and over that the only truly effective, long-term social change comes through violence. Whether or not this is what anyone would prefer is beside the point. And rather than offer something counter to this reality, you decide to call me an asshole? Good job. – Exchange on Facebook in a private group, Wed., April 29, 2015

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Joan Baez leading Berkeley protesters in yet another chorus of Kumbayah.

Joan Baez leading Berkeley protesters in yet another chorus of Kumbayah.

The week has been interesting, to say the least. Lots of us have had a lot to say about the death of Freddie Gray, the police, the protests, and the riots. Lots to say, yet so little time to listen to the voices that matter: The folks in Baltimore; African-Americans who understand the simmering rage, fear, and frustration that prompts protests to turn to violence; the demands that national media either cover the actual events and talk to the people on the ground or get out of Baltimore. Everyone (and I’d include myself in this, obviously) has so much to say, yet never enough time to listen, to think, and for us Christians, to pray. It’s so much easier to find a picture or meme online, post it, and offer predigested opinions rather than engage with the reality that confronts us, challenges us, and has certainly disturbed us, yet again.

Which leads me to one of the sillier things, thankfully highlighted by Jon Stewart, showing Wolf Blitzer expressing incredulity at the protests in Baltimore; then showing him using the exact same words during the protests in Ferguson, MO. A national correspondent for a major media outlet finds it unbelievable that poor and minority communities might act out their anger and frustration because . . . because of the number of the year? And uses this schtick over and over? Then again, it is Wolf Blitzer who may well be one of the more clueless TV “journalists” around.

In expressing his incredulity, Blitzer brought up Martin Luther King, Jr., whose name and words have been invoked a whole lot this week, particularly by well-meaning white people of faith. While I understand the sentiments, I just wasn’t ready to be yet another white person far removed from the immediate circumstance and ignorant of the specific realities of African-American and police relations in the city of Baltimore (it turns out over the past few years, there have been 100 police-related fatalities, and the city has paid out $5.7 million to victims of police brutality; meanwhile, the city administration privileges the police over the victims, even as police actions cost the city needed money, money that could improve the neighborhoods and lives that are now rising up in protest). That kind of silence, however, was too often taken for consent to and approval of the violence. When I said that white folk, particularly those not in or around the neighborhoods in question might well benefit from silence, from some knee-jerk response calling for non-violence, and should perhaps wait to be invited to the conversation, I was accused of rejecting the Gospel and called an asshole. Because, you know, humility from people in positions of privilege and power is the anti-Christ, and Jesus did say, “Blessed are you who sit and sing ‘Kumbayah’, for you shall be called children of God.”

I do believe I demonstrated a bit more contempt for these folks than might have been warranted. After all, my own preference of course was that the vastly larger groups of people staging completely peaceful marches and protests, calling for an in-depth investigation of Freddie Gray’s death and accountability for the police department should receive far more coverage than the rioters; that white folk should withhold judgments about those engaging in violent confrontations with police precisely because we aren’t there or those people; and that too often those folks quoting King and demanding peace, no matter how much I might agree with them and desire much the same thing, come across no different from all the white folk who’ve been telling black folk how best to live and act in society for 400 years. It is far better that we, no matter our personal preferences, remain silent than continue to participate in social practices that privilege white voices.

The voices, however, continue. For some reason, white people appropriating the words of an African-American (like we’ve been doing with their art for centuries) seems to offer them a sense of moral authority, a pedestal from which to demand attention and agreement from all around. That the sentiments on offer are admirable is beyond doubt; their relevance, however, is certainly in doubt, as is their recent provenance. It isn’t right or good, and certainly not Christian, to take words from the mouth of a reluctant national leader against oppression and state-sanctioned violence and use them against those same people. To equate non-violence with the Gospel is a contemporary conceit, especially beloved by those in positions of power, privilege, and authority. Which is not to say it is necessarily wrong. It is only to note the current social and cultural milieu in which it seems to be so popular. For some reason, asking folks who certainly have their hearts in the right place nevertheless to refrain from the kinds of statements that come across as patronizing, judgmental, and dismissive of the real voices of the people on the ground is, in the eyes of these same people, approving of violence and a rejection of the Gospel.

Do I get this? Of course not. Do I wish more folks like me might restrain themselves from speaking with assumed authority, using words appropriated from a white-approved black man to tell black folk what’s good for them? Of course. I suppose, however, I shouldn’t be surprised that even people of faith have blind spots. Acknowledging this isn’t rejection of the Gospel or approving violence. It is, rather, to be humble in the face of so much social unrest; to be aware of one’s own limited perspective and one’s own position of social, political, and cultural privilege; and to be in prayer that from all the unrest, peaceful and otherwise, something constructive will emerge, some effort to patch together and reweave bonds of community, including between the city of Baltimore and its police department and communities of color in that city. We who are outside, however, would demonstrate the best solidarity by remaining silent.

Honest Confusion

Help me understand some things.  Help me understand why I should condemn the violence committed by a relatively few African-Americans in Baltimore when it’s hard to hear anyone complaining about systemic violence against African-Americans by the Baltimore Police Department.  Help me understand why I, or we, as a Christian or Christians, should speak out against people we understand are exhausted, frustrated, enraged, and see no other way to respond to a system that arrests, beats, jails, and kills young African-American men out of any proportion to their likelihood of their propensity for violence against police. Help me understand how it’s possible not to see a nationwide pattern of utter disregard for the life, health, and safety of African-Americans, their communities, and their needs by municipal police forces. Help me, please.

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Privileged Boys Will Be Boys

Privileged Boys Will Be Boys

Scenes like this are commonplace now when a sports team either wins or loses an important game. For some reason, it’s perfectly acceptable for white folks to block streets, burn cars, loot stores, and attack police when a hockey team or basketball team wins. Even during the Renaissance, British children of privilege at Oxford University would riot on a pretty regular basis; and these were not only sons of privilege but destined for a life in the priesthood. Nothing stinks of privilege like white college students thinking they can do whatever they want and be left alone.

Not a peep about social pathology. Not a word about the cost, the lost revenue, the police who are injured, or defendants who end up beaten or bloody. It’s almost as if we allow some folks to riot, destroy public property, even attack the police, and figure it’s part of our social contract. When the poor and minorities react to years, decades, centuries of systemic dehumanization, the imposition of poverty and social dislocation, and patterns of official abuse and neglect by standing up and, filled with rage, act out, so many people seem to believe this is a mark of some kind of social pathology. I remember reading something, years ago, in a book on post-WWII America, in which an otherwise “liberal” white American expressed frustration at the race riots of the long, hot summers in the second half of that decade. Why would these people do this to their own neighborhoods? Why would the people of Watts, of Southside Chicago, of Detroit, Newark, Harlem, take to the streets after a police officer wounded or killed a young African-American man? Apparently their “liberalism” only went so far as a kind of noblesse oblige, allowing some African-Americans the privilege of full acceptance, while the rest – particularly the poor and those still trapped in racist ghettos because of racist housing policies – just had to accept their lot.

Help me understand this.

Most of all, help me understand why it is we Christians seem so intent on pushing non-violence as a response to systemic violence. It was and is a nice idea, but what no one (except perhaps experts in South Asian history) will tell you is that Mahatma Ghandi’s campaign of non-violence was a dismal failure. It was serious political pressure from Jawaharlal Nehru, including threats of violence against British troops (as well as the fact that the Indian colony was bankrupting Britain) that brought about Indian independence. Martin Luther King was a beautiful, brilliant human being. Segregation, however, was ended both by non-violence in some places, while in others the demands for equal rights and justice could come through legislative fiat and vocal demands that always threatened violence (“Violence is as American as cherry pie.”). Tell me why I should elevate one particular political strategy above others, particularly when its success rate is . . . well, mixed.

Before you help me, though, I think it’s important to help our brothers and sisters around the country who face hostile municipal power, hostile state power, even hostile federal police power. African-American, Latino, Native American – all face official violence, state-sponsored discrimination in law enforcement and education, and private social and economic discrimination in employment, hiring, and advancement opportunities. More than my desire to understand our systemic evil and injustice, I want it to end. If understanding means I get inside the mind of someone who can’t empathize or sympathize with our fellow Americans denied full participation, assumed to be the criminal element, and targeted for poverty and death – I don’t want to understand.

I just want it to end.