Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s warning to the churches

Over this past weekend, in anticipation of the Dr. King holiday, I pulled out my aging copy of the collection of his writings, entitled, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed., James M. Washington, 1986). I wanted to read again the entire "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," written in April 1963. It had been a couple of decades, actually, since I had read the whole amazing document all the way through. As I had anticipated, I was struck by its fierce relevance to this moment when we face what feels at times like an existential crisis in this country, a watershed moment, a time of truly consequential moral, social, personal, and political decisions.

I turned to the Letter because of the moment that brought it about. Dr. King had been arrested for his participation in civil rights protests in Birmingham and was in jail serving a sentence. Eight Alabama clergymen, who considered themselves to be supportive of the ultimate goal of ending segregation, published an open letter criticizing his strategy of non-violent resistance to segregation laws and asking him to allow the struggle to proceed in the courts, in the legal process. They warned of further civil disturbance (rather insulting, one might say, in the face of the civil disturbance to the lives of disenfranchised African-Americans suffering the indignities and violence of Alabama's deeply embedded segregation culture).

They advised caution. They didn't want to see the boat rocked too hard. Chaos scared them. Profound change to the social structures of southern segregation made everyone feel uncomfortable. It's what they knew. It's how they knew to be. Let change come, but gradually, slowly, without those disturbances. Let us kinda get used to it a little at a time.

Of course, profound change to structures of injustice never seems to come about politely. Even when courts and other institutions finally act, it's because of the intensity of movements that finally forced the change to come about.

What made this relevant to me now were some comments I have heard from a few religious and other cultural leaders advising caution, avoiding "a rush to judgment" about the new administration, about not doing to the president-elect what GOP leaders did to Barack Obama, which was to commit to doing everything they possibly could to cause his administration to fail, to wait and see what he does, to wait, to wait, to wait and see.

The comparison itself is deeply disturbing, as if the nature of the political crisis in this country, the existential threat to the functioning of government, democratic institutions, constitutional order, was comparable in any way to the racist refusal on the part of many GOP leaders and their constituents to accept the leadership of our first African-American president. They would sacrifice the function of government itself, they would undermine the credibility of government agencies and institutions, they would be happy to more deeply divide this already-polarized nation, in that cause. And we all know how much racism had everything to do with this.
Credit: Venice Williams

As if there had not been a long and exhausting election season in which the character of the new president was fully revealed for all to see. As if we don't know exactly what he thinks about immigrants and refugees, Muslims and Black Lives Matter, about climate change and fossil fuel corporations, about women and his right to abuse them, about pipelines and environmental regulations, about lowering taxes even more on the obscene wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and billionaires over the past couple of decades, and on and on.

We know. The president-elect and the leaders of Congress have made their intentions abundantly clear. Patience and caution are not very helpful tools right now. Now is the time for fierce, clear, witness. Now is a time for prophetic denunciation and annunciation - denouncing what is bringing our Earth and the human community to a very bad end and announcing the kind of world we actually want, even if that upsets people, even if that disrupts, even if church donations go down and you have to sell the buildings (a form of liberation and freedom), even if it causes tensions among denominations or within them.

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The urgency of the time called for a response like this to a message of patience and caution, of avoiding disruption. Are we living in less urgent times? 
[see, for example: Earth Sets a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year.  "The data show that politicians cannot wish the problem away. The Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization."]
There is some powerful witness going on right now from faith communities and other crucial cultural leaders, from groups defending immigrant rights and reproductive rights, labor and environmental rights, science (imagine - science needs defending!!), press freedom and voter rights, and the work to tear down remaining walls of segregation and racism. It's not 1963, and we have learned a lot. The struggles across the nation against pipeline infrastructure and fracking are among those where we can expect a whole lot of disruption in days to come. When the new government starts trying to drill for oil and gas on public lands and near national parks, this will not go unanswered. The insistence of sanctuary cities that they will remain sanctuary cities, even if the federal government becomes punitive, is invigorating and hopeful.

And the witness of the Standing Rock Sioux remains a source of powerful witness and example for us all about how to proceed in the face of these growing threats to life, dignity, the well-being of all.
Credit: David Goldtooth

So I want to say to the cautious, find your prophetic voice. Our "existential" struggles need the support of all of us. A lot of institutions that have held up this U.S. culture (for good and ill) over our lifetimes have been falling into increasing irrelevance because of huge shifts in human consciousness that are challenging, altering, even collapsing old belief systems. Let them go, if they no longer serve. They are collapsing for a reason and trying to preserve them is a tremendous waste of energy.

And, in any case, it would be good to strip some of those old belief systems of the structures and hierarchies and overly spiritualized rituals that have distanced people from the original insights (revelations) that gave birth to them and from which they have long strayed. Religion has too often served to protect and defend those hierarchies and their claims to ultimate truth and special spiritual powers, rather than taking seriously the searing witness of their "founders." The incarnate God of Christianity was not in the temple, he was out in the streets, healing, comforting, denouncing oppression, announcing the new life coming into the world. And, I would argue rather strongly that when Gautama Siddhartha got up from under the Bodhi tree, enlightened, he was not envisioning gold statues of himself in the centuries to come.

What "gods" do we serve? What cause, in these times, feels worthy of our dignity as humans? What gifts do we have to offer in the cause of bringing down a social, political, economic order that is ruining the planet, gravely harming the human community, and in its place beginning to construct right where we are what Dr. King called, "the beloved community?"
...[time] can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative realm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human decency.
And the quicksand of unraveling eco-systems, and the quicksand of drilling and fracking, and the quicksand of white privilege and refusal of inevitable diversity, the quicksand of the industrial growth model, the quicksand of economic privilege, and the quicksand of "American exceptionalism" - seems everywhere we look these days there is danger of stepping into some serious quicksand.

As for the urgency of time - well, we're running out of it if our aim is to preserve a rich and abundant life on this planet, one built on new social, cultural, and economic models in balance with the ecological reality of Mother Earth.
Workshop on environmental justice, Body & Soil Healing Arts Center,  Milwaukee

So what I would say to religious institutions and their leaders as we enter this extremely dangerous time, echoing the Letter from Birmingham City Jail, is that caution as Dr. King describes in his letter is related to how much stake these institutions have in the system that needs dismantling. This truly is the crux of the matter, what constricts our freedom to act. This is true not only of religious institutions, of course. It's true wherever the stability of an institution is tied to the cultural status quo.

And so the need to start building a more solid foundation based on that moral revolution that Dr. King spoke about so eloquently throughout his short life.
So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.
You can't preach this if you're not living it. The moral contradiction is too glaring to be sustained. Right now, we desperately need a new vision, and a new path toward it. Constructs that held up a culture for centuries are in a state of collapse because that is where they are leading us - to collapse. The new president is not cause, but manifestation of some deeper crisis embedded within a failing paradigm. Some are trying desperately to hold on to the paradigm because it made sense of their world for a very long time. So what happens when it no longer makes sense, no longer describes the world accurately?

Dr. King called the faith community to risk, to witness, to courage, to moral clarity. He called on all of us to imagine the beloved community in a time of great violence and upheaval. In this time of ecological crisis, that beloved community is the "resilient community" I talk about so often in workshops and presentations. We have a work of witness, and we have a work of community-building. We face some incredibly difficult times now. That can either depress us or call out the best in us. We can see it as a time of devastation and suffering or an an incredible opportunity for "new creation."

So, yes, it could be, absolutely, the worst of times. It could also be the best. Depends on how we decide to use our time.

~ Margaret Swedis

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