April 4, 2018 — two years from now — will be the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
April 4, 2017 — one year from now — will be the 50th anniversary of his speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, at Riverside Church in New York. There he warned us of the “deadly triplets” of racism, militarism, and materialism that were endangering America. (And still are.)
This week marks 25 years since the horrific U.S. bombing of the Amiriyah shelter in Iraq. At least 408 women and children died.
As we consider what has helped fuel the rage and hostility of extremists like ISIS, we can point to concrete events like the bombing of Amiriyah. It clearly does not justify the evil done by ISIS, but it does help us explain it.
As the #BlackLivesMatter movement reminds us, the civil rights struggle is far from over. The blood, sweat, and tears of our 20th-century civil rights heroes must be followed up by the clear-eyed resolve of a new generation. Ideally, celebrations like Martin Luther King Day should help to sustain this resolve, energizing us for the hard work ahead.
That being said, I suspect that King would not be too thrilled about MLK Day.
The white ministers didn’t fly down to Alabama in January, when Sheriff Jim Clark clubbed Annie Lee Cooper outside of the county courthouse, nor in February when a state trooper fatally shot twenty-six-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson in the stomach for trying to protect his mother after a civil rights demonstration.
But on Bloody Sunday everything changed. At 9:30 p.m. on March 7, 1965, ABC news interrupted a broadcast to show hundreds of black men, women, and children peacefully crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery and a sea of blue uniforms blocking their way. The marchers were given two minutes to disperse, and then the screen filled with the smoke of tear gas, police on horseback charging the screaming crowd, burly troopers wielding billy clubs and bullwhips, a woman’s hem rising up over her legs as a fellow marcher attempted to drag her away to safety.
Overnight the nation’s eye turned toward Selma. Rev. Martin Luther King sent a telegram to hundreds of clergy that Monday, urging them to leave their pulpits and join him in Alabama to march for justice. Some supporters, like the reporter George Leonard, packed their things immediately after watching the newscast from Selma.
“I was not aware that at the same momemt ... hundreds of these people would drop whatever they were doing,” Leonard wrote later.
“... That some of them would leave home without changing clothes, borrow money, overdraw their checking accounts, board planes, buses, trains, cars, travel thousands of miles with no luggage, get speeding tickets, hitchhike, hire horse-drawn wagons, that these people, mostly unknown to one another, would move for a single purpose to place themselves alongside the Negroes they had watched on television.”
Selma changed the course of history by paving the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but its impact didn’t end there. The spirit of Selma rippled outward, forever changing those who made the long journey to Alabama — including a white minister from Washington, D.C., named Rev. Gordon Cosby.
Over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, protesters across the country sought to reclaim the radical, activist legacy of Dr. King by taking to the streets in protest of ongoing police brutality. Frustrated that his work has too often been softened and sanitized, protesters stressed that Dr. King’s original tactics, which were often direct and controversial, are desperately needed today if the United States is to effect lasting change.
“[Dr. King] has become more of a vague idea and people forget that he was a person that marched the streets,” one protester in Washington D.C., Caroline, said.
“They need to be talking about real activism and real change and not just having a day off work and saying the name.”
Another woman, Janelle, described Dr. King as “a great leader but also part of a larger movement that is still trying to combat the same injustices that he was fighting against.”
Marching with three children under the age of ten, Janelle explained their presence bluntly.
“This problem isn’t going to go away,” she said.
On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (Jan. 15), just as the civil rights drama Selma was nominated for best picture in the Oscar race, one fact of American life was little changed.
Sunday morning remains, as King once observed, the most segregated hour in America. And, against a backdrop of increased racial tensions, new research shows that most Americans are OK with that.
Two in three (66 percent) Americans have never regularly attended a place of worship where they were an ethnic minority, according to new polling analysis released by LifeWay Research.
“People like the idea of diversity. They just don’t like being around different people,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based research firm.
“Maybe their sense is that church is the space where they don’t have to worry about issues like this,” he said. But that could be a problem, because, Stetzer said, “If you don’t like diversity, you’re really not going to like heaven.”
I’m asked pretty often what I see for the future of organized religion, and Christianity in the West in particular. Given the fact that I am in the process of completing a book called “ postChristian ,” some people make assumptions that I am convinced it’s all going away.
Granted, Christianity has experienced precipitous decline, and the drop-off likely is far from done. Before we see any leveling-off within the institutional church, there will be many more church closures, consolidation of shrinking denominations, and an increasing number of people called to, and already working in, ministry who supplement their income with some non-ministerial side vocation.
So what do we, who still operate within the system of a declining religion, do about our situation? Some of this has little or nothing to do with anything the church has done or can do. Our increasingly distributed, decentralized, and accelerated culture has forced churches out of the center of American social life. Also, changing cultural norms have made it much more socially acceptable not to go to church.
I’ve long suggested that many of the folks filling the pews during the so-called heyday of the Church some 40 to 60 years ago were there under some duress. They went because of community pressure to do so, because their spouses made them, or because it was a great place to do business networking. But honestly, were we any better off as a faith to have our buildings full if the folks who were there didn’t really want to be there?
Prophets are always asking questions. Tough questions. Unsettling questions. Questions that they pose to themselves, then try to answer by how they live.
Questions such as:
What’s in our hearts? Are we concerned too much about ourselves and too little about others? Do we believe in love? Why do we give in so readily to bitterness and hatred?
Why do so few have so much, while so many have so little? Aren’t we all diminished by the poverty, discrimination, violence, and the various injustices in our world? Why do we glamorize violence and weapons as solutions to our problems?
Are we waiting for another Dr. King? As I collect my thoughts to write these words, I’m mindful that I don’t honestly know what discrimination is. I have never (consciously) experienced discrimination because of my race, the color of my skin, or where I come from. I have never had to say, like Solomon Northup, “I don’t want to hear any more noise.” In the film, 12 Years a Slave, Solomon refers to the cry of those being beaten and separated from their children. I speak here with a profound sense of respect and fear. Who am I, or maybe even you who read, to speak about a tragedy and a pain that we have never experienced? I only speak out of a sense of duty and a calling from God.
Dr. King wrote, “So many of our forebears used to sing about freedom. And they dreamed of the day that they would be able to get out of the bosom of slavery, the long night of injustice … but so many died without having the dream fulfilled.” (A Knock at Midnight, p.194)
To this day, millions of African Americans in our country still dream about getting out of the bosom of slavery. Slavery today is masked behind the social, financial, political, and even religious systems that deny the dignity and full integration into these systems to people of color. Solomon Northup cries out in the film saying, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” The struggle of African Americans is a struggle to live. So far, they have only survived.
What’s happening in Syria is awful. You see the pictures and your heart breaks. It’s horrific. Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday that, “With what has happened on the 21st of August last week, it does seem that some kind of substance was used that killed a lot of people: hundreds, definitely more than a hundred, some people say 300, some people say 600, maybe 1,000, maybe more than 1,000.”
The Huffington Post has a slider with the title, Syria War In August (Warning: Graphic Images). Of course, every life matters, but as a father with three young children, seeing the picture of a Syrian man crying out in pain as he carries the body of a young girl – words fail.
Violence and Justice
My wife knows that we promote nonviolence at the Raven Foundation, and that I lean toward pacifism. Wednesday night, as we discussed Syria and Bashar al-Assad’s continued threats of violence, she asked me, “Well, what do we do if a government uses chemical weapons against its own people?”
The question haunts me. These are times that try the soul of anyone committed to nonviolence. We all want justice. We all want the violence to stop. We don’t want any more people to cry in pain as they carry the body of a lifeless child.
And so President Barack Obama seems to be ramping up the war machine. Ironically, as he plans for possible military strikes, on Wednesday he delivered a talk honoring the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream.” As we hear the drum beat of war, we are reminded of King’s dream of justice. In his speech King said:
We must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. … We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. … [We] will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Our popular understanding of “justice” is mired with violence. For King, true justice was always based on love and nonviolence, because violence always carries with it a fatal flaw. As he wrote in his book Strength to Love, “Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace” (18).