Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’

I am a protestor. This is the first in a three part series outlining my thinking and position as it relates to racial injustice in our society and lamenting racial divisions within the Church. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last Thursday (1/15) and this weekend’s observance of the Holiday set apart in honor of his legacy, Part One highlights Dr. King’s own words from a half century ago that still ring loudly in their call for freedom today.

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth, who won’t accept deception instead of what is truth. It seems we lose the game before we even start to play. Who made these rules? We’re so confused, easily led astray.

Sometimes it seems, we’ll touch that dream, but things come slow or not at all. And the ones on top, won’t make it stop, So convinced that they might fall.

Lauryn Hill “Everything is Everything” (1998)

On September 1, 1958, writing from New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. publishes “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in the September issue of Fellowship, an abbreviated version of chapter six of his book Stride Toward Freedom. Citing Jesus in Luke chapter 4, Dr. King writes, “The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’s words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’”

The Reverend continues, expanding on his long held deep concerns about the gap between superfluous wealth and abject poverty. Dr. King notes, “Capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” These words would be exponentially prophetic, especially highlighted by the needless death of Eric Garner over sales of loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York on July 17, 2014 in which we became aware that the situation had escalated to one in which capitalism is now more concerned about protecting a living than taking a life.

Four and a half years later, on April 16, 1963, amidst an eight-day incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama for engaging in direct nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King Jr. pens an eloquent defense of work being done to advance Civil Rights and a stinging critique of the critical clergy who have failed to support the movement.

Dr. King gives the benefit of good will to his fellow clergy, but explains that their charges fall outside of the Biblical mission of Shalom, saying, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Dr. King’s appeal here lays the moral and ethical stare decisis for those listening to the Sprit’s prophetic voice to become involved in addressing injustice where they are able.

In his treatise from Birmingham, Dr. King expounds on the value of nonviolent protest explaining that the intent of such direct action is to create opportunity for negotiation, “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Is it possible that this is what theology looks like?

He continues, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

For Christ followers, especially those like me who enjoy asymmetrical power and unmerited privilege in our culture based on gender and race inequality, the challenge is to look to Jesus’ example of a King voluntarily stepping down from His throne and to ask myself if I am willing to pay the same severe price of such a costly interruption.

Mug shot of Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

After outlining a multitude of the inhuman offenses of the racism which he suffered, Dr. King makes a plea that, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”– then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait… One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Our brother and hero in the faith then shares his broken optimism lamenting the racial divisions in God’s church, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The temptation is to say that things have changed; that Dr. King’s “Dream” was eventually realized and that a post-racial society has been achieved over the course of the last half-century. That simple academic knowledge of the Bible is we need to make things right. This would make me feel better. Allow me to discount the narratives that do not fit my worldview. But if we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, to hear the minority report, we find an entirely different story altogether.

Is it possible, as comedian Chris Rock recently pointed out to Frank Rich of New York Magazine, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Is it possible some of us just discounted the above statement because it came from a comedian and used that as an excuse not to hear the experiences and wisdom that could be gleaned from hearing a black man out?

Regardless of what you have come to believe about the character of Michael Brown following the tragic untimely end to his young life, are we willing to hear the anger and distrust of the Ferguson community? Even if it costs us something?

After a sixth bullet struck Michael Brown he fell facedown onto the double-yellow lines of Canfield Drive. Mr. Brown’s blood began to run in a small river down the pitched road. His body lay prostrate in forced submission to the police where he remained, at least partially uncovered and in view of neighborhood residents and onlookers for four and a half hours. In the aftermath, a 21 year old Ferguson resident, Alexis Torregrossa, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you. To set an example, that’s how I see it.”

Do we have ears to hear Ms. Torregrossa? If so, we must acknowledge that we have more work to do. Work that starts with listening, not to why all lives matter, but to how and why for so long the lives of black people have been placed at such a grave discount.

Are we willing to listen?

Jan 2015 New Yorker Cover

Disclaimer: This account and the views and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author and are not necessarily reflective or representative of any State Employee Union in Connecticut or any other State of Connecticut employee.

All over the country Thursday night people stayed up into the early morning hours to witness the end of Harry Potter film saga. In Connecticut however, more than just the wizard fanatics had their sleep disrupted as thousands of state employees lay awake, wondering if their careers were destined to meet their own killing curse upon arriving to work Friday morning.

Those following the labor situation here in Connecticut may not have much sympathy, as the estimated 6,500 layoffs of state employees follows the rejection of a money-saving labor deal previously negotiated between rookie Governor Dannel P. Malloy and the unions. The tentative agreement that was being counted on to balance the budget called for wage freezes for two years, a raise in the retirement age, and slight changes to the pension and healthcare plans offered to state employees in exchange for no layoffs for four years. The health care changes mainly consisted of mandates for regular health checkups in an effort to offset the future cost of health care by addressing health issues before they metastasize.  Especially in light of the difficulty our neighbors and friends have experienced in the private sector in recent years, the proposed concession package was likened to a sweetheart deal and ought to have been an easy yes vote.

Ah, what ought to have been. Instead, despite some deft negotiating, the unions botched the communication of the proposed agreement to its members. First, it took far too long to respond to false claims about the deal being circulated via state employee email (i.e. taking all State employees of our current health insurance plans and placing us all on the Husky or SustiNet Medicaid plans). Second, the union reps then presented the tentative agreement at the same time they implored all members to vote for it, creating a perception that the union had removed all choice in the matter and that the vote was just a formality. Well, Americans and especially New Englanders don’t like to be told what to do (for proof Wikipedia the American Revolution). Finally, the union’s own bi-laws prevented a popular vote, requiring that 14 of the 15 state employee unions and 80 percent of all voters approve the deal in order to ratify it.

But enough about the union leaders, because as Kristen Chenowith sang so poignantly in Wicked, “I guess we know there’s blame to share.” I understand the “no” votes from those looking to retire soon after a lifetime of service and even some of the sentiments from workers who were around during the last layoffs nearly a decade ago and felt they had already sacrificed repeatedly, including our vote just two years ago to accept furlough days and wage freezes. But on the whole the 40 percent of workers who voted the deal down appear nearsighted and egocentric. Many of the more seasoned workers confidently voted no, believing that their seniority would prevent them from being laid off and that concessions on their part were not worth the positions of their younger co-workers. Of course, my bias is with the younger generation, being in my late twenties with a wife and three children ages three and under to care for.

Unfortunately for all of us, many of these folks who voted no did not consider that even if they were among those fortunate to keep their jobs, that the state’s fragile economy will not likely be able to avoid at least a double-dip recession with the loss of an additional 6,500 incomes and taxpayers. It seems they did not also consider that our already stressful and often unmanageable social services caseloads would be oversaturated due to the absence of our departed co-workers, ultimately disservicing the very folks we aim to help. Sadly, it seems we have forgotten the Biblical message behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Friday morning arrived and in a sad but not unexpected manner, the least senior workers in both front line and supervisory positions were the first to be let go, despite their previous votes in favor of the concession package. The death march began after nine and continued until noon, one dedicated worker after another being escorted to their pink slips. Despite reports indicating that the administrators gave the news with as much dignity, respect and professionalism as one could hope for in the face-to-face meetings, images of people sobbing and their distraught expressions are hard to shake. Some of these folks just closed on homes or condos, others are newly married, planning weddings or expecting newborns. Most have poured the remainder of their lives into the clients they serve, staying late into the evenings, skipping lunch breaks and fighting the inefficiency of bureaucracy for more hours than they could count to be paid for.

Around 10:30 am, I was visited by a co-worker and sister in Christ with messages of encouragement and notice of a prayer vigil on my behalf. Shortly thereafter, I received a message from another co-worker and sister in Christ who reported she had woken up in the middle of the night last night with a sudden urge to pray for me and my family. This was echoed by another co-worker, who did not know I was a Christ-follower but also woke up mid-sleep to pray on my behalf. Incredibly touching and encouraging.

To be perfectly honest, I gave up worrying about potentially being laid off mid-June when the union voting date was announced for a day when I was already scheduled to be out of the state working and it was confirmed there would be no absentee voting or alternate voting times. With my small slice of democratic voice denied, I felt God speak peace into my life that the ultimate results were in His hand. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing professionally and have been methodically working at a slow pace with Jaime to prepare for bi-vocational church planting. I began thinking maybe a forced layoff would be permission to pursue such paths at a greater clip and that otherwise would be confirmation that perhaps I have more to learn and more to offer as a social worker.

As noon approached, the co-worker who sits closest to me was heart wrenchingly given notice and then news trickled in that workers and friends who were hired the same day I was in May 2007 were also being let go. It seemed my name was next on the list and I prepared to put on a smile, to accept a new direction from God. But ironically, I was called not by an administrator, but by a client in need of their immunization records from a health clinic faxed to their summer employment site by 2:00 pm or face the loss of their own position. So out into field I went to save a job while contemplating losing my own.

This sundial in New Haven's Edgewood Park was once a murder scene, but the daylight transforms a former place of darkness into a children's playground, giving hope to us all in times of adversity

While out in the community, I drove by New Haven’s Edgewood Park, where I had recently taken my three year old daughter Clara on Connecticut Trails Day in early June. Although we saw much of the park on our walking tour that day, I had not had an opportunity to visit the large sundial near the entrance to the park where Stanley Street meets the Boulevard. This particular location has come to mean a great deal to me since I read the remarkable story of Vicky Coward, whose 18 year old son Tyler was shot and murdered right next to this sundial just over four years ago on July 12, 2007. As I passed the park in my car, I pulled over to walk to the location of Tyler’s demise to pray over the spot, and to breathe peace into the lives of his family and the park; perhaps as a means of restoring peace to my own soul. But I was surprised to find that the sundial which had projected visions of darkness in my mind’s eye since reading of Tyler’s death, was now fully alive in the summer sun, a unique sculpture slash water park in which small children clad in bathing suits were frolicking in the streams shooting from the rock. I could not imagine that this space being shared by joyful families was the same location in which Ms. Coward lost her son to an act of senseless street violence. It was altogether stunning and beautiful to realize that a history of darkness tied to a location does not solely determine its prospects for light, and I envisioned the darkness surrounding the office layoffs as being transformed into a bright meeting place of joy in the not-too-distant future.

Upon my return to the office, I discovered Round One of the layoff notices had been completed. The list of pink slips stopped just before my level of seniority, as measured by the arbitrary nature of my being hired in a permanent position versus a durational one from day one. But please do not cease your prayers on our behalf and certainly for those who were not spared anxiety and anguish today. I pray that the union can resolve this issue and that jobs can be salvaged before the deadline in August. I pray that if I am eventually laid off that I will have the courage and humility to pursue the Spirit’s direction in revisioning the definition of vocation. I pray that if I am able to keep my position that God would use me to positively impact the lives of the young men and women I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with. Regardless of the outcome and the current uncertainty of this chapter of life, I am certain that just like the Harry Potter books, the last line of this series is destined to read “All was well.”

I once read a scholar who advocated that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” Speech” should be banned in the United States for at least a decade. The scholar argued that the power the civil rights movement led by King had been sterilized by the granting of a state holiday in King’s honor. Surely, there is no greater way to fundamentally alter a revolution than to sanction it with a government stamp of approval (see Constantine and Christianity). The scholar further made a case that King’s message had been distilled to a sound bite of the “Dream” speech and believed that if “I Have a Dream” was temporarily banned, perhaps Americans would actually listen to and read King’s other words. Perhaps the U.S would remember that King was not simply one day on the Washington mall and now a day off, but a prophet in the mold of the Hebrew Bible, standing in the gaps of social injustices affecting not only Black, but Brown, Red, Yellow and White citizens alike who were being oppressed due to their low socioeconomic status, suffering through poverty and losing their sons in Vietnam.

I felt the argument was compelling and had to reconcile my appreciation for Dr. King with the reality that my own awareness of MLK was his “Dream” speech and brief excerpts of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Wanting to read more of Dr. King, I tracked down a compilation of his sermons entitled “Strength to Love” copyrighted in 1963. The book quickly joined the ranks of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” as books I never can finish because the information and ideas contained within require copious amounts of time to process and incorporate.

One of the sections of Dr. King’s book I have read repeatedly is a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” Based on Jesus’ statement, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” in Matthew 10:16, the chapter begins the book and beautifully illustrates the plagues of mankind, both in the 60’s and today, while pointing to the character of God and Jesus’ third way teachings on nonviolence for the solution.

Dr. King opens by noting that a “strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites” and acknowledging that men rarely achieve such a balance of opposites, finding it difficult to be simultaneously a realist and an idealist, or humble and self-assertive at the same time. However, the truth remains that “life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony” and remarks that “truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.”

Extremes are rarely useful and most truth cannot be categorized in black and white despite our frequent attempts to do so. This is not to say that absolute truth does not exist, but that from our limited perspective truth is usually discovered in the messy gray of life, even should we refuse to acknowledge it. This is not because God is not clear, but because our own judgment is so frequently clouded. We all readily testify that our enemies are not completely in the right, but often miss that neither are we. Therefore, we also miss the truths that can be learned when we allow our enemies to become our teacher.

Dr. King noted that “Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world… He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” And he gave them a formula for action, ‘Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.’ It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects.” Dr. King added we must “combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.”

Speaking of the need to embody the tough minded characteristics of the snake, Dr. King stated, “Who doubts that this toughness of mind is one of man’s greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” I believe King’s insights nearly fifty years ago remain true as our families, organizations and churches are largely vacant of leaders demonstrating strong critical thinking skills.

In yet another glimpse of the future, Dr. King pointed out that man’s tendency toward being soft minded is seen in the way we cower before and obey the advertising industry, purchasing products based on exposure and perceived status over quality. Dr. King also implicated the press in taking advantage of the gullibility of the public and recognized the sad reality that “Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction.” I shudder to think what the Reverend may have said about our current entertainment-driven “news” media and the ease with which most of us have been herded into opposing political pens and taught to hate the other side without ever evaluating the shepherd’s motives.

Dr. King observed this same lack of serpent tough-mindedness manifests in people’s submission to baseless superstitions and pointed out the root of the soft mind is the fear of change. “The softminded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.” King acknowledged that this soft minded fear of change often invades religion and causes the church to sometimes reject truth “with a dogmatic passion.” Reverend King noted that some in the church view any historical or literary criticism of the Bible as blasphemous and that such members have revised the Beatitudes to read, “Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.” Dr. King further argued such ignorance has led to a perceived conflict between science and religion instead of viewing the respective methods as complimentary of each other.

Always advocating for equal rights, Reverend King commented it is the toughminded who examine facts before reaching conclusions and the softminded who are prone to believe that minorities are inferior because they frequently “lag behind in academic, health, and moral standards” rather than recognizing such symptoms as products of discrimination. While Dr. King faced an overt racism in the South, an institutional racism continues to pervade our society, bureaucracy and economy offering different opportunities to folks based on their “pedigree” and appearance.

Dr. King declared that a “nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.” But the success of a nation is not solely based on the “cultivation of a tough mind” as King reminded us that the Gospel “also demands a tender heart.” Dr. King reflected that to be toughminded but hard hearted leaves one “cold and detached” never truly loving and never experiencing the “beauty of friendship, because he is too cold to feel affection for another and is too self-centered to share another’s joy and sorrow. He is an isolated island.” King continued that this tough minded but compassionless soul “gives dollars to a worthwhile charity, but he gives not of his spirit.”

Jesus frequently condemned men of such character and I am ashamed to find myself in this group, perhaps able to think critically, but frequently without an intimate relationship and showing little desire and effort in developing such. Dr. King wrote that to “have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish” and I have certainly spent a large amount of time in this state. But God is infinitely good and is helping me to move toward the dovelike, slowly but steadily growing in the pattern of a tree, toward combining and bearing these “strongly marked antitheses.” In part, this is why I majored in and now work in social work, hoping that through practice I could become a more empathetic son of the King.

Dr. King pleaded that tough minds and tender hearts must be brought together “if we are to move toward the goal of freedom and justice.” While speaking specifically of racial division a half-century ago, King’s words remain relevant today as he stated we cannot “trade the future of our children for our personal safety and comfort. Moreover, we must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”

However, for MLK, the means and methods in which Christians stand against injustice is just as important as the stand. He did not condone violence but pointed to Christ’s teachings for the motivation to build a non-violent resistance. “Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace.”

Dr. King continued, “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as citizens, but may it never be said, my friends, that to gain it we used the inferior methods of falsehood, malice, hate, and violence.”

The Reverend begins to wrap up his sermon by noting that “The greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both toughminded and tenderhearted… God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace.” This word imagery reminds me of Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son” in which Rembrandt illustrated the Kingdom’s duality of strength and compassion by depicting the Father with one masculine hand and one feminine hand.

Dr. King proceeded by saying God “is toughminded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality.”

King ends by proclaiming, “When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.”

Amen.