Martin 50 Years Later

Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago.   Murdered as he confronted systemic injustice fueled by racism.  His civil rights advocacy led to the end of legal segregation and enforced voter suppression. What hasn’t changed is the persistence of racism.

On March 18th Stephon Clark was shot by police in his grandparents backyard in Sacramento.  Police were called to the neighborhood because of reports of a man breaking car windows. Two officers saw Stephon and fired 22 shots, eight hitting and killing him.  They thought he had a gun.  What he actually had in his hand was a cell phone.  Initial autopsy reports that the first six shots struck Stephon in the back. https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/3/21/17149092/stephon-clark-police-shooting-sacramento

The shooting is currently under review.  If this is like most police shootings, no charges will be filed against the officers.  What this highlights is a racial bias in the so-called judicial system, against people of color, particularly against young men.  People of color make up a disproportionate percent of the prison population. People of color serve longer prison terms for the same offense as compared to a white person.

This was true in Dr. King’s day.  It’s true now.

Racism is also at work in our current political climate.  Scratch below the surface of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump and Jeff Sessions and you’ll find racism.  In Mr. Trump’s world view, Mexicans are ‘murderers, rapists and drug dealers’.  In this world view we need to militarize our border.  We need to fear ‘the other’.  In almost every case ‘the other’ is a person of color.

Dr. King was martyred because he stood over against the fear and hatred of his time.  He was demonized by his opponents.  The Black Lives Matter movement seeks to continue Dr. King’s principles.  They too are demonized by their opponents.

So why do we talk about Dr. King’s dream  5o years later after his death?  Why didn’t the dream die with him?

Simply put, because he offers truth.  The truth that ‘hate is to great a price to pay’.  The truth that ‘only selfless love can make an enemy into a friend’.

Racism is a shape shifter.  It takes many forms.

Yet it has no place in a healthy society.  No place in a healthy person.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man guided by a source of wisdom that is eternal.  That comes from the very presence of God.

On one occasion King received word that his home in Montgomery had been bombed.  After reassuring himself about the safety of his wife and baby he had to confront the rage of a crowd bent on retaliation.  Dr. King said:

We cannot solve this problem of racism through  retaliatory violence.  We must meet violence with nonviolence.  Remember the words of Jesus, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”…We must love our white brothers, our enemies,  no matter what they do to us.  We must  make them know that we loved them…We must meet hate with love.’

Martin King’s love was not passive.  It organized.  It confronted.  It persevered in the face of injustice.  His message offered a new way of being.

Dr. King didn’t believe in ‘us’ and them’.  For Martin there was only ‘us’.  May it be so.

 

 

 

Dancing with the Devil

The great sin of our nation is racism. It has been with us since the beginning.  Think of the subjugation of Native Americans, an economy built on slavery and legalized segregation into the 1960’s.   Think of reoccurring waves of anti-immigrant sentiment in our nations history.

Racism is sometimes tamped down but always reemerges.  The latest manifestation was Charlottesville on Saturday as hundreds of white supremacists, ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis strode through the streets of this small southern city.

 

 

That many carried Trump signs is concerning. That the President initially refused to specifically condemn the hate filled messages of the white supremacists is particularly alarming.  In response he offered a general condemnation of violence with an implication that the counter marchers were equally to blame.

Certainly people voted for Mr. Trump  for many reasons.  Many I’m sure condemn the message of those who marched with torches held high.

But what is apparent to me and many others is that Mr. Trump in his run up to the election and as president, has  played to a racist portion of his base.  He has regularly played the fear card:  ‘Mexicans crossing the border are murderers and rapists’….’Muslims are Islamic extremists’…’the undocumented are raising the crime rate and must be deported’….’Obama was not born in America’….and the list goes on.

In the midst of a society that is racially and ethnically more diverse and with a shifting economy that leaves more people behind, Mr. Trump has chosen the time-honored path of a demagogue… division and fear.   Division is easier than finding a positive way forward as a united people.

The crowd that marched through Charlottesville, for the most part were outsiders to that community.  They marched through this progressive college town with a message of hate.  Carrying torches they reminded us of the KKK in the days of Jim Crow.   They shouted ‘blood and soil’ as they marched, a fascist slogan of the Nazis in pre-World War II Germany.

President Trump’s response was muted and muddy.  He chose not to condemn those who helped him get elected.

It’s been said: ‘You can’t dance with the devil and not be tainted’.

In the Bible we hear:  ‘What good is it to gain the whole world but forfeit your soul?’ (Mark 8:36).  Mr. Trump has made his choice as to what kind of man and leader he will be.  He has chosen to align himself with those who promote bigotry and division.

The choice is ours.  Who will we dance with? What kind of America do we believe in and seek to be?  Being silent or complacent is a choice with consequences too.  Who will you stand with?

On Sunday evening I gathered with approx. 200 of my neighbors.  We were brought together by a woman named Jena Beers who decided to act. Jena was horrified by the images of violence in Charlottesville.  Her heart broke as she saw a racist drive his car into a crowd of peaceful marchers, killing a young woman and injuring many more.   She decided to act.

On Sunday morning via social media she invited her community to gather that very evening,  to say no to hate and yes to love, no to racism and yes to diversity.   200 plus neighbors gathered to speak to the best part of who we are as a people. Hundreds of such groups took place in villages, towns and cities across our nation.

President Lincoln said it is incumbent upon each generation to ‘become a more perfect Union’.  Our time has come.  Who will you dance with?  What message will you add your voice to?  Who will you stand and march with?

 

 

Stories from the March: We Belong to One Another

The Women’s March https://www.womensmarch.com on the day following President Trump’s Inauguration was a grassroots movement that brought millions into the streets (in cities across the nation and world).  Each person who marched has their own story. 

This is the second of two ‘guest blog’ installments by my friend and pastoral colleague, Julie Flowers https://www.fbcbeverly.org/ In the week since the March, President Trump has already written a flurry of executive orders and signaled plans for new laws.  Changes that I believe will erode our core values as a nation. 

Democracy is a fragile enterprise and requires that each generation give voice to and protect those core values that define who we want to be.  I invite you to read Julie’s story, reflect on what you hold dear and get involved.  

Installment 2: In Which We March

(Intersectionality, Connection, Anti-Racism, Feminism, and a Moment That Could be a Movement)

 We followed the crush of people up the stairs and out of the Metro station, stepping out into the overcast Washington, D.C. morning. Elisabeth and I paused, trying to get our bearings. There were people everywhere. There were street vendors calling to us, selling hats, shirts, and buttons; there were crowds moving in a throng toward the National Mall; there were Women’s March volunteers in orange mesh vests, answering questions and pointing the way toward where the marchers were gathering: down toward the Mall, past the vast island of port-a-potties, a chanting, cheering, sign-holding crowded that already, even at this early morning hour, stretched for city blocks. Taking it all in, Elisabeth and I set out toward the Mall, as chants of “Fired up! Ready to go!” echoed just beyond us.

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We made our way, merging into the crowd we had seen in the distance. Now we were not outsiders looking in – we were one with this mass of people, closely packed into the streets. The crowd was mostly women, although there were certainly a large number of men – of all ages, all races, and with varied stories. Some were there in wheelchairs. Others walked with a walker or a cane. Some clutched the hands of young children or wore babies in carriers, securely strapped to their bodies. And we were a part of it.

All around us, we saw signs – “Look at that one!” we would call out to one another, as we noticed a favorite. We took pictures. Everyone was talking, strangers in the crowd becoming friends, even if only for those few moments. We were united in a common cause – resisting hate and standing up for women, for our POC sisters and brothers, for immigrants, for Muslims, for the environment, for education, for freedom.

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Something happened, there in that place. For those moments, in that unique time, in a crowd that could have been pushy and angry with one another, annoyed at being packed in too tight and too close, annoyed at being hungry and thirsty and tired, the opposite happened. People saw one another. People worked together to make sure a wheelchair could easily pass through. Young people stopped to help older people down a curb or over a low fence. A middle-aged woman led a young woman who looked faint out of the tightest part of the crowd by the hand. They had only met moments before when the older woman noticed the younger one was struggling, and now, in this place, they were friends – and more than that – they belonged to one another.

There was an attention to and a care for the mutual well-being of those in that crowd. I saw people look one another in the eye. I heard people offer words of care, kindness, and support. I saw countless people in one area open bags and produce a wide array of snacks for a little boy who was hungry.

Lilla Watson, an Indigenous woman and artist from Australia, said:

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.”

In those moments, crowded together there on the National Mall, spilling over onto city street upon city street, there was the spark of the realization that our liberation is, indeed, bound up with one another. We were a sea of stories; a sea of backgrounds; a sea of experiences, and we could not – and we cannot – rise without one another.

Feminism – and make no mistake, the feminist movement has room for women and men – must be an intersectional endeavor if we truly want to bring about our shared liberation. Intersectionality, a term first coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw is a means to express the reality that women experience oppression in varying configurations and degrees of intensity.

There is no one-size-fits-all type of feminism. For example, black women face both sexism and racism as they navigate their day-to-day lives. Or a black lesbian woman faces racism, sexism, and homophobia. Intersectionality is the term given to acknowledging those layers and unique lived experiences of women.

To forge a way forward, to truly resist the hateful rhetoric and damaging and dangerous actions of Donald Trump’s administration, we must acknowledge that our liberation is bound up in one another’s. As a white woman, too, I am committed to acknowledging and checking the privilege that the system affords me for nothing more than the color of the skin into which I was born, and to inviting the voices and the experiences and the leadership of my sisters of color to come forward. Women and men of color in this nation have been fighting and marching and chanting and organizing against a system that oppresses and disenfranchises them for hundreds of years.

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For many of us, waking up in despair on November 9th and all that has unfolded since, has been but a small taste of what it’s been like to stand in their shoes in this nation. Respect for their voices, their experiences, and their struggle is imperative if we wish to move ahead and win liberation against tyranny and hate for all of us. If we wish to move ahead and save our planet. If we wish to move ahead and protect women’s rights to make choices about their own bodies. If we wish to move ahead and fight for equal rights and dignity and justice for all people.

Our liberation is bound up with each other. Divided, we will fall. There is no question.

The women’s marches – not only in Washington, D.C. but all across the nation and around the world – were a moment. But there is, within that moment, the power and the potential to unleash a movement. A beautiful, powerful, intersectional, anti-racist, feminist, justice-seeking, movement.

The chants of the march echo still in my ears: “The people, united, will never be defeated!”

May it be so.

If you want to read more about feminism, intersectionality, and the Women’s March, here are a few resources (not intended to exhaustive in any way!) to get you started:

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/why-our-feminism-must-be-intersectional/

http://www.vox.com/identities/2017/1/17/14267766/womens-march-on-washington-inauguration-trump-feminism-intersectionaltiy-race-class

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/intersectionality-womens-march-on-washington_us_5883e2bce4b096b4a23248bb

Muhammad Ali, Conscience of America

Muhammad Ali died this week.  He is remembered as a boxing legend.  More than that he is remembered around the world as a man of conscience.

Born Cassius Clay in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, he refused to abide by the rules of segregation and Jim Crow.  He refused to be quiet and go along to get along.

As a boxer he showed himself to be an athlete who fought with his own brand of theater and skill.  He stretched the comfort zone of a society that liked to keep ‘black folk in their place’.  Rather, he stated  recklessly, ‘I am the greatest’!  He inspired a generation of young blacks and in equal measure unsettled many whites.

Later, he changed his name of Muhammad Ali and embraced the Nation of Islam.

The backdrop for Ali’s emergence as a public figure was the fight for Civil Rights,  the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War.  In this volatile setting Ali emerged as a voice of conscience demanding to be treated with dignity.   He refused to be quiet and complicit in the face of injustice.

Ali rose to international prominence when he refused to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam.

He said:  “Who is the descendant of the slave masters to order a descendant of the slaves to fight other people in their own country?”

He paid a price.  He was stripped of his standing as Heavyweight Champion.  For three years at the height of his career  he was barred from boxing.  Yet his defiance in the face of racism and injustice inspired millions of oppressed people in the United States and around the world.

photo of Muhammad Ali

Even when Parkinson disease slurred his words and bowed his body, he remained a symbol for dignity and justice.

Over time society tried to domesticate Muhammad Ali, to make him yet another celebrity in popular culture.  But Ali refused to be domesticated.  For the rest of his life he spoke truth to power.

Ali’s witness reminds me of the recent book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’.  We hear the words of a black father to his twelve your old son.   Telling him about how to survive in racist America.

For me the book was a slap upside the head.  Coates confronts me with the racism in America and within me.  As a white man I discover I have much work to do.

Such has been the work of Muhammad Ali all these years.  He’s refused to go along with the majority white culture.  He’s refused to be complicit with those in power.  He’s challenged the health of our minds and hearts.

Ali is lionized as a great boxer.  More than that, he was a great man.

 

 

 

Channeling Martin

Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_editWhat would Martin say if he were alive today? Maybe: ‘It’s deja vu all over again?’ On this the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are mindful that as a nation we are in the midst of a curious political season. The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump a demagogue who plays upon the ignorance and fears of many. His almost exclusively white followers seem enamored by his ‘us against them’ mentality.

In addition, the great sin of racism continues to be at work. We see it in the prison system where 60 plus % of inmates are black, while comprising only 12% of the population. Thanks to camera phones, we have citizens capturing rogue cops using excessive force and even murder against young black males. While I have no doubt that most police officers conduct themselves admirably, it is hard to deny that the judicial system doesn’t have a bias against people of color, particularly young black men.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his powerful book, ‘Between the World and Me’, writes to his fifteen year old son. As an African-American father he wants his son to understand that built into the psyche of the American story, is a bias against people of color. Coates believes that most white folk don’t understand it or see it. He wants his son to understand this dynamic and learn to navigate within in it. Those that don’t, points out Coates, ‘too often die young or find themselves in jail’.

What would Martin say if he were alive today? I think he’d call people of all races, religions and backgrounds to come together for the common good. I think he’d call us to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, which will not let us forget that systemic inequality persists (in the judiciary, economically and politically).

He’d persist in his commitment to non-violent resistance against injustice. He’d challenge our government spending more on the military than the next eight nations collectively, while social services go under-funded. He’d say the answer to terrorism is understanding and addressing the root causes of terrorism, most often rooted in poverty and despair.

And, I think he’d call us to continue to believe in the restorative power of love. “We cannot solve our problems through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus, “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” We must love those we fear no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. WE must meet hate with love.”

45 plus years since his assassination Dr. King’s words may seem hopelessly idealistic. But has violence, retaliation and demagoguery made things any better? No, the wisdom of Martin King remains. His Dream still inspires. It is a dream based in the wisdom of ancient sages, with names like Jesus, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Ruth. Are we listening?

Mother Emanuel’s Open Door

The door was open for a Wednesday night Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. It had been a busy day at this historic African-American church with several lay members being ordained to preach the Gospel. Once the festivities were over approx. twelve leaders of that church remained to listen for God’s leading from the ancient scripture.

A young white male, age 21 walked in. This was his first time and he received a warm welcome and listened as the small group shared, sang and prayed. At the conclusion when the benediction was given, he took out a handgun and murdered nine people. Each time he reloaded he uttered racist oaths.

The shooter fled and left behind a devastated church who had lost nine well-loved members including their pastor. The city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina which has a long and painful history with slavery, segregation and racism struggled to make sense of such blatant racist hatred.

This tragedy adds to the conversation on racial tension that we as a nation are being forced to have in the wake of recent police shootings of unarmed blacks and abuses of ‘stand your ground laws’ in Florida and elsewhere. It also highlights the desperate need we have to restrict access to guns.

In the midst of the heightened emotions and debate the people of Emmanuel AME Church continue to show us the way to live. Drawing upon their faith in the teachings of Jesus they offer us a way beyond hatred, beyond violence, beyond revenge.

The day after the killings, the families of the murdered stood before the now captured accused and offered forgiveness. Said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance: ‘You took something very precious away from me. But I forgive you. And may God have mercy on your soul.’ One after another, each family member bore that same witness.

In Charleston, the church is known with affection as ‘Mother Emmanuel’. Since its founding as a church for slaves in 1820, this community has witnessed to the Good News that each person is created in the image of God and has inherent worth and beauty. It was a belief that made this church a beacon of hope during the painful days of slavery and Jim Crow. It was this belief that empowered Mother Emmanuel to be a leader for Civil Rights. And, it was this belief that enabled those victimized by an act of racist hatred, to see even their assailant as a fellow child of God, worthy of mercy and forgiveness.

On Sunday morning, just days following the mass murder, the doors to Mother Emmanuel were open. Open doorAn elderly African-American usher welcomed a little black girl to worship. He wanted her and all of us to know, that love always win. His faith was rooted in the belief that we are loved and cherished by our Creator, that there is no ‘them’ but only ‘us’.

Being Gay in Outer Space

Mr Sulu 2Growing up I was a fan of TV’s Star Trek. Star Trek a mixture of drama and ‘campy’ fun unfolded on the starship Enterprise. With Captain Kirk at the helm he was ably served by his helmsman Hikaru Sulu, played by actor George Takei. Star Trek which ran from 1966 – 1969 brought together a multicultural cast that addressed issues of the day such as racism and war. One issue the series didn’t address were gay rights.

George Takei was a closeted gay man during the series. Living in a particularly homophobic period in American life he picked his battles and chose to work against Asian stereotypes prevalent in Hollywood. At a time when most Asian actors could only get limited work, Takei portrayed his character (Hikaru Sulu) with intelligence and dignity.

In 2005 Takei watched as California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a marriage-equality bill. At age 68 he turned to his life partner Brad Altman and decided that now was the time to go public and use his celebrity status to advocate for marriage equality and gay rights.

Now at age 77 George Takei continues to take on homophobia and racism with humor and persistence. He advocates for a society where we can each be that unique person God created us to be. A friend who happens to be gay, says this: ‘It is simply a matter of justice to allow people to authentically be who they are’.

And so we look to George Takei, Captain Kirk’s able helmsman, to boldly take us where we should have been all along. To Mr. Takei we say ‘live long and prosper’.