Whitewashing King


Dr-Martin-Luther-King-Jr-600x459By now most of us have seen the video footage of a young African-American woman being pushed, harangued, and verbally abused at a Donald Trump Super Tuesday rally, with the candidate egging on the abusers. Unless you are a bigot, a misogynist, or a sociopath, you find this display of behavior disgustingly symptomatic of the jack-booted mentality that has swept up the GOP this election cycle. Fascism has come to America wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.

But there is a softer, more subtle racism that is emerging from this event.

I readily admit that I have become rather insufferable lately. I am earning a doctoral degree in the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so I spend most of my day, outside of church work, reading King’s writings, watching documentaries, consulting secondary sources and biographies, and praying about how I can follow boldly and confidently in Dr. King’s footsteps. The fact is, most of us who did not live through the Civil Rights Movement greatly misunderstand King. And I have been telling people this more and more often. We are whitewashing King more each year.

King’s legacy, as my mentor  Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt points out, has become caricatured. His work has been reduced to sound bytes and short quotations; he has been rendered a milquetoast, soft-spoken man who gently pushed for change in the cradle of the Confederacy without ever doing anything audacious or revolutionary. Because King never hit back, the assumption has become that he willingly accepted White supremacy (or perhaps just white superiority) and was just looking for African Americans to have a seat on the bus. The assumption is that King’s enemy was the KKK and other outliers, and once they were silenced racism as we knew it no longer existed. I mean, Blacks have the right to vote, Affirmative Action, and a whole host of other legal protections, right? So, everything is okay now. Any complaints about racism are made by rabble rousers and un-American troublemakers. Just look at the majority of White reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement.

King propelled himself into the lion’s den. During the Montgomery bus boycott when an arrest warrant was issued for him, King was in Atlanta visiting his parents. King Sr. was terrified that his son would be arrested and never be seen again. The death threats were a daily occurrence, with as many as 40 issued at a time. Their house had already been firebombed, as would be Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s and dozens of others, including people not directly involved with the movement, in the coming weeks. King insisted that he return home and be arrested, knowing that his actions would spark others to think about the conditions causing segregation. He was counting on a larger sense of moral shame enveloping White America.

But King also became frustrated by the lack of White help. When the busses finally were integrated, the Montgomery Improvement Association, of which King was president, prepared African Americans for the shift in culture. No White organizations did the same thing. The onus of change was, once again, placed on the oppressed. Of course, Whites helped in the movement. But those token few should not be elevated to represent the actions of Whites as a whole. The Silent Majority maintained a more nuanced and subtle racism that is growing in intensity today.

I have been engaging in conversations with others about the video, about what it represents. While I readily admit that I do not know the full context of the events outside of the basic facts—Donald Trump does not “own” his rallies; anyone with a ticket or who has been admitted through the doors has the right to be there—it is clear that the young woman was assaulted and verbally abused with horrible epithets directed at her race, gender, and politics. I don’t know if there was a precipitating event; I don’t really think it matters, unless someone can prove to me that she struck a person first, which I sincerely doubt. She, in a powerful display of nonviolent resistance, did not strike back. Dr. King would have been proud.

But I have read and heard people say that she should not have been there in the first place if the purpose of her presence was to antagonize. People even use Christian justification to say that we need to love these people (Trump supporters) and not rile them up, because we will then never change their minds that way. To this I say, hogwash. Utter and complete hogwash that once again places the responsibility on the victim. On the oppressed. And it attempts to recognize as legitimate their hatred and violence. It says that the problem is really just a difference of opinion and if we stay in our respective spaces there won’t be an issue. This implies that they have positions that are worthy of respect and tolerance because of their culture and heritage. It is the Confederate flag debate written on the bodies of abused and violated persons of color.

Yesterday I wrote of agapic love, the foundation of my faith and the motivation of my entire life. It is not easy. In fact, I sometimes wish that I were not a Christian because I take religion seriously and this ish is really difficult. It requires a deconstruction of ego and the ability to accept and direct love without particularity and conscious choice. It means that I love my enemy and pray for those who persecute me and others. I’m not persecuted much, so really it is others. I see and hear the fear and anger in the voices of my friends of color and my heart aches. Truly aches. And I feel rise up in me an anger that is at times overwhelming, an anger that others of my color and gender feel so entitled, act so violently, behave so ignorantly, that I am sometimes ashamed to be a White man.

But this is not about my feelings. The persecution of others involves me but is not about me. This piece is a call to stop using Dr. King as some white-washed, sanitized House Negro who deferred to massa and did not radically and courageously give his own life, literally and figuratively, for the cause of justice. It is time to recognize that while Dr. King did not agree with the methods of Malcolm X, he understood the sentiment driving the Nation of Islam. He understood the anger. He felt it as well. He struggled with not hating those who oppressed him and others. He felt frustration with the lack of understanding within the White community about how and why racism is systemic and deeply-rooted in our culture. Before the end of his life, King had begun to emphasize even more the need for an economic revolution in the country. Rev. Billy Kyles, who was standing next to King when he was shot on April 4, 1968, said on the 40th anniversary that it was King’s work on economics that got him killed.

So there’s an irony here. I am a White guy trying to school others on Dr. King. I get that, on some level, this can be problematic. But I am a White voice that is screaming out against what is happening in our country. I try to have conversations with fellow Whites (and persons of color, when appropriate) about how color blindness is its own form of racism; that the “can’t we all just get along” mentality is much easier to adopt when you are in a position of power and can ignore slights both overt and covert; that nonviolent resistance is not weak or passive, but rather is a philosophy that requires a fearless dedication to exposing injustices no matter the cost to one’s bodily safety; and that Dr. King is not to be pulled out as an example of acquiescence (through the use of non-contextual quotes) in order to tell protesting persons of color that they are “doing it wrong.”

This young woman did not go to a Klan rally; she did not attend a meeting of the Aryan Brotherhood. She went to a political event led by a major party candidate for the presidency of the United States. If we are not uniformly disgusted by the events, and if we do not squarely put the responsibility for the violence and ugliness on the shoulders of those who perpetrated it, we are essentially back in 1955 Montgomery telling African Americans that the back of the bus is good enough. They should be glad to just be on the bus, we are saying. If a young African American woman cannot safely attend a political event without having her person assaulted in word and deed, she clearly is not free. No one is free. But White people, lets not make this about us and our freedom. Let’s make this about how a great number of us are now clamoring around a man who wants to dismantle the first amendment and has such a shoddy understanding of law he thinks that there are federal libel statutes that he can relax and then, as president of the United States, win a defamation suit. It is about us standing up and decrying his expressions of white supremacy consciousness, of calling out his base attempts to rile up racial fear and stoke the flames of growing resentment within White circles that feel that they need to “take back their country.” This is obviously code for “Make America White Again.”

We cannot sit silently and let the work be done only by the oppressed. We need to speak out, act out, provide our support in body and word. So many of us in Gen X have said, “Had I been alive during the Civil Rights era, I would have marched with Dr. King.” Well, another time of racial crisis is upon us. Have no doubt. A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for White supremacy. A vote for Trump is a vote for fascism and a society that greatly endangers the lives of non-White persons. We who have White skin may feel threatened by Trump, but not to the extent of our non-White counterparts. This is not hyperbole. This is not left-wing reactionary politics. This is not a chicken little moment. There are chickens alright, but they are roosting and growing more powerful by the day. Soon, they will be unleashed and begin pecking us all to death.


The Privilege of Christianity

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It is somewhat ironic to be writing about Christian privilege; the very basis of our religion is the abolition of earthly-based privileges that cause the oppression and stratification of persons because of their social class or bodily condition. Jesus taught that God’s love is more powerful than the stain of sin, and that while we humans cannot create a perfectly just society—which is what we confess as the Kin-dom of God—through the example of Christ we have a model for behavior and spiritual living that is enduring and perfect.

Along the way—and, really, an historical analysis would be long and somewhat pedantic—Christianity emerged as the de facto religion in the United States, especially for politicians post-Nixon. Carter was actually the first president to be endorsed by what came to be known as the Moral Majority, and the modern Evangelical political movement was such a huge force, they propelled George W. Bush to two terms, an accomplishment his more reserved Episcopalian father could not accomplish.  While this is not a nuanced explanation of Republican religio-politics, the facts are unquestionable and in the right order.

I consider myself an evangelical (small “e”) Christian; I’m ordained through the United Church of Christ, which has deep roots in the historic evangelical movement, and I currently serve a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. The Dean of United Theological Seminary, Dr. David Watson, has written a wonderful piece on what makes a person an evangelical. I don’t fit the category neatly, even though evangelical can be defined in a wide variety of ways; I don’t consider myself an evangelical Christian in the Republican model. For me, an evangelical is someone who focuses on issues of social justice as being central to the faith confession. Absolutely, the work of Christ on the cross is central, but I do not adhere to blood atonement theology. I do not think that Jesus had to pay a debt to God, and as God’s son was the only person who could provide atonement for all human persons through the spilling of blood. I do believe that humans are sinful, but that we are inherently created as “very good”; that we too often center ourselves on the wrong things, like a desire for material possessions and social standing; that the life of Jesus Christ is definitive in terms of exemplifying how we are to create what Dr. King called Beloved Community; that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross reveals the depths and power of God’s agapic love and that it is made available to us regardless of our works or failures; that the Holy Spirit animates the lives of those who commit themselves to a continued and rigorous self-examination and deconstruction of selfish motives; and that the most important thing for any Christian is to exist in a community that is radically inclusive and unwaveringly seeking of justice.

Some of my Christian brothers and sisters may disagree with my definition, and that’s fine. Great, even. I love discussions of theology and faith; I’m not saying that I am correct, and I have no need for others to believe as do I. It works for me. I’m far from perfect, but I can look you squarely in the eyes and tell you that the most important person in my life is Jesus Christ. Period. End of sentence. No doubt. No hesitation. I’m a Christian in everything I do, even my sinning. At the end of the day, I think that most Christians would say that, even if they disagree with my theological hermeneutics, my faith confession is in line with what we define as Christianity, and those who know me can attest that I am serious about matching my actions to my words.

But Trump. Oh my sweet blessed Jesus suffering on the cross, Trump. That brother tests me, friends. He really does. I know that hate is the tool of the enemy; I know that, as Booker T. Washington said, I should not allow myself to be brought so low as to hate. I know that Dr. King would tell me that I can love Trump in a disinterested way; that I cannot allow his actions to create a rise in me of anger and frustration that mutes my love. That love we receive from God. That love that does not belong to us. It is not ours to hoard or to redirect. It must flow through and from us in a disinterested fashion. No matter what you do, that love is not going to wane. Whatever you do, that love is not going to go away. Agape.

But it is hard, friends. It is hard to do this with a man who not only claims to be Christian, but also claims to be Presbyterian. He is not, at least the latter. There is no record of Trump holding membership where he claims, and the Presbytery National Office has made it clear that he is not a member in good standing. And let’s also get out of the way that the man doesn’t know scripture, he doesn’t understand Communion, and he doesn’t know the difference between Eucharist and the Offertory.

But he claims Christian persecution and Christian pride. This fucking pisses me off. And, yes. Pastor just dropped the “f-bomb.” Because how dare he. How. Dare. He. Our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt and Syria are dying. Being slaughtered. Targeted for their faith. And I know that Christians across time and space have committed terrible atrocities. That’s not this discussion. All lives matter, yes. But right now we are talking about Christian ones. How dare Donald Trump assume the mantle of martyr when he does not have the first idea about what it means to follow the Prince of Peace. He has the audacity to say that he has no need for repentance, essentially putting himself on par with Christ.

But let’s also be honest. For too long, Christian privilege has allowed people to rise up through social ranks and corporations. Christianity has been the litmus test for politicians. And it is a rank Christianity. It is one that envisions a muscle-bound, gun-toting, liberal-hating, white-skinned Messiah who kicks Muslims in the teeth and no longer condemns Jerusalem. Christian privilege has been paired with white skin and a penis in an unholy trinity that postulates everything else as an “other.” So the American obsession with Evangelical Christianity is now a roosting chicken. Christianity has become such a malleable plaything that Evangelicals are voting for Trump in droves despite him representing nothing that is important to the faith. And we’ve let it happen.

It would be easy for me as a Progressive evangelical Christian to point the fingers to the other side of the tent and say, See?! See?! We told you that you were playing with fire! It would be easy, but it would be wrong. We in the Progressive movement are just as culpable. We have—rightly, in the main—been pushing hard for the doors to never close on those who wish to enter. We have marched and prayed and advocated and protested for the rights of GLBTQ persons in the Church. Many of us continue to work for the full equality of women within the Church. And a great number of us who are pastors oversee congregations with people who identify as atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, Buddhist, Wiccan, and a whole host of other identities, but who feel comfortable within our communities for a wide variety of reasons. And we love these people, care for them, and pastor to them as we are able; it is an increasing reality of contemporary Christianity.

So we don’t often draw the line. We try to focus on the things we have in common rather than the things that separate us. But we have gone too far, I think. We have ceased to have standards for which we will stand up and say, Being a Christian is a privilege. And you don’t qualify. You don’t get to use the label if you display the sort of beliefs that we see.  We haven’t drawn that line because we loathe these types of statements and actions. It goes against our very fiber as loving, accepting people. It does not feel good to have one’s faith questioned.

But we have to now. Here. Immediately. And with force. We have to cry out that Donald Trump is a loathsome demagogue who will not and cannot use the name of our Lord and Savior for his own gain. In order to garner the respect of those outside of the faith, we need to be loud right now. We need to dig in our heels and say no more. If we don’t, if we do not get ourselves on record, we deserve that we get: more declining numbers in our congregations and the total loss of respect from the rest of our country.

We’re really good at telling Muslim leaders that they need to decry the extremists within their traditions. It is time for us to do the same, to such an extent that the only way Donald Trump will ever call himself a Christian again is after he has truly accepted Jesus Christ into his heart.