Second Thoughts on MLK Day

I wrote a post on Monday about how it feels to see Dr. King’s words, ideas, hopes, and dreams become so trite and meaningless in today’s world.

This isn’t titled “second thoughts” because I’ve changed my mind. That sense of mourning, of lamentation, is still present in my thoughts when I think of Dr. King.

But, something occurred to me after writing the post on Monday. It’s something that Dr. King said, something that’s so powerful, but that tends to get lost in the litany of inspirational quotes.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After a little bit of research, I found that this quote is not original to Dr. King (nor did he claim authorship.) The context in which he placed the quote bears repeating.

Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

Dr. King wrote those words in an article in 1958. He would be assassinated only 10 years later.

Did he believe those ideas as he struggled on through the next decade? Did he hold onto the hope that all things would eventually resolve into justice? As he and his friends and followers were beaten, imprisoned, defamed, and murdered, did he believe that “truth crushed to earth will rise again?”

I don’t know for certain that he held onto his hope, his faith, his optimism. But, a speech that he delivered shortly before his death suggests it.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

He gave that speech the night before his death.

So, if Dr. King could believe, after a decade of abuse and struggle, that progress would continue, that the arc of the moral universe really would bend towards justice, then a man as privileged as I am can believe the same.

Frustration has its place. Mourning and lamentation have their place. But, after all has passed away, faith, hope and love remain.

We live in such amazing times. Even though our times are sometime dark, there are thousands upon thousands of bright lights. We have groups like Black Lives Matter, who are willing to continue crying in the wilderness, regardless of the voices raised against them. We have ministers, actors, comedians, and all kinds of public figures who use their fame and fortunes as a platform to bring attention to injustice. We have a President who continues to eloquently and boldly speak to our national sins of racism and injustice.

And, we have millions of individuals on social media who are educating, advocating, and demanding that this generation be the last one to see the evils of racism and injustice in our country.

So, I’m more hopeful today than I was on Monday. Because, no matter how complacent we have become in America, we are still the Sleeping Giant that can be awakened to justice. We are still capable of progress.

But, I need to temper my optimism, my hope, with a little bit of a warning. I mentioned that the “arc of the moral universe” quote did not originate with Dr. King. The quote came from a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker. He was a 19th century Transcendentalist and abolitionist. In 1853, a book was published of 10 of his sermons. The third sermon, titled “Of Justice and the Conscience”, contains this passage:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

We must not be complacent for long. We must remember that God is just.

 

Michael Brian Woywood

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Blogging When You Don’t Want To: An MLK Post for 2016

Rachel Held Evans is much cooler than I am.

I don’t say that in jest, or sarcastically, or in any way other than true admiration (and a small bit of jealousy.) RHE has been publishing really stellar posts since she was… in the womb, probably. She’s really the reason that I started in the Christian blogosphere. In fact, if they are talking about early millenial Christian writing 50 years from now – when they’re reading RHE, Benjamin Corey, Sarah Bessey, and John Pavlovitz in churches and seminary classrooms – I just hope to be in the “Also Ran” category of Christian blogging of the decade.

Granted, you don’t get into Internet blogging – especially Christian blogging – for the money, fame, or beautiful women. You start writing a blog because you have always written stuff, and suddenly there’s a gigantic bullhorn called the Internet where you can post the stuff that you write. So, you get a website, you start pounding out posts, maybe you take a six month break and reevaluate your commitment to blogging… but, it’s always about the message, the ideas, not who reads them.

The problem is that you have days like today. Today is MLK Day in the United States.  And, while I personally love this day, and observe it as thoughtfully as I can, every blogger in the known universe has a post today.

And, as usual, RHE has said it better than me.

When I saw that she had posted, and the title of her post, I resisted reading it. I hadn’t decided if I was going to post anything today, and I didn’t want to be swayed by her elegant prose and incisive commentary – as I was pretty sure that my idea for an MLK post would be almost exactly the same as hers.

Which it was. Only she said it better.

Okay, I’ll go ahead and link it.

***************************************************************************************

Last year, at this time, I wrote a post about MLK and Chris Kyle, which was a post that I really wanted to write. It felt like it was really from my heart, because I think I’m at my best when I’m writing about issues relating to war and violence.

This year? I feel like my heart is full of things to say, and yet so, so weary. I think the reason that I struggled with whether or not to write this post is less because my blogging heroes will say it better, and more because I am really afraid that none of these posts are going to matter one bit. Because in January of 2015, we all wrote about MLK Jr., while in the midst of the ongoing struggle in Ferguson. And, before even six months had passed, we were all writing about Eric Garner. And then the tragedy of Freddie Gray and a neighborhood in Baltimore. Then, a horrific hate crime at Emmanuel AME in Charleston.

Confederate flags. Sandra Bland. Samuel Dubose.

The list was endless.

We wrote. We cried out in the wilderness. And nothing changed.

Today, we’re living in the moment of Donald Trump, a walking joke that has turned into a living nightmare. As Mrs. Evans mentioned in her post, a candidate supported by white supremacist groups – a candidate who has risen to prominence by saying the most heinous, racist, and unjust things imaginable – is speaking at an MLK event at Liberty University, a university founded by a religious leader who rose to prominence by saying the most heinous, racist, and unjust things imaginable.

No irony here, folks. Move along.

We seem to have reached a point in our national history in which our capacity for self-criticism has reached such staggering depths that we are beginning to look like a parody of ourselves. Real news is starting to read like satire. Presidential politics plays like a farce.

And Christian blogging, our so-called “prophetic voice,” feels like an exercise in futility.

I mean, I saw a meme a couple of weeks ago – originating with Ted Nugent – that featured a picture of Rosa Parks with the words, “Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. But, she didn’t tear up the bus.”

We have made such an utter joke of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement – that a white kid from Texas writing about him today just seems… insincere? Insulting?

I know that it makes me feel amazingly self-conscious, and ridiculously self-critical. I grew up around family members who advocated “George Wallace Day” every year at this time. I have family members today who spew bile and hatred towards Black Lives Matter, who considered the shooting of Michael Brown to be just, who defended the cops who shot Tamir Rice. I love these people. I respect most of their opinions and insights. But, as I try to write a meaningful post on MLK Day, I can’t help but realize that I am part of that legacy. No matter how fast or how far I try to run from it, I am part of that community. I am part of the culture that beat the living sh*t out of marchers in Selma, who shouted at Ruby Bridges, who killed Dr. King.

So, when I write about Dr. King, when I think about a post that might give meaningful tribute to a man that I have been truly and deeply inspired by, I can’t help but feel a little disingenuous, a little bit like I’m co-opting a hero of the community of People of Color for my own purposes. I admire people like RHE and others who are willing to continue entering this fray, who are determined to be effective and sensitive white allies, who are internalizing the message of Dr. King and trying to preach it to those in the white world who don’t quite get it.

But, I’m having a hard time being one of them today, because all I can think about is how we’re the faces of white moderates who called for unity while Dr. King was in a Birmingham jail. All I can think is that we’re those white faces that abandoned our support of #BlackLivesMatter in droves when two women dared to interrupt a Bernie Sanders rally. We love Dr. King when he presents himself gently, when his oratory calls for unity and peace.

We’re not quite as fond of him when he appears in a disruptive, disorderly manner. We don’t like him when he interrupts us, when he calls us to self-criticism, when he demands that we repent and feel just a little bit of guilt for our sins and the sins of our fathers. We’re not crazy about him when he feels sympathy for rioters, when he speaks against the military-industrial complex, when he becomes what we stereotype as the “angry black man.”

So, I wasn’t sure about posting today, and I’ve now written close to 1200 words. Which, interestingly enough, makes me feel even more self-conscious and self-critical.

Let me end this by getting, finally, to the point. Here’s what I would like to say about Dr. King.

I’m sorry that his dream has yet to be realized, and that injustice and racism still rules the day. I’m sorry that I felt too tired and weary in my soul to write anything meaningful, when the black community is even more tired and weary from being the actual victims of injustice. I’m sorry that I have far too much of the white moderate in me, and that I have a hard time speaking to the legacy of racism and injustice in my own community. I’m sorry that we killed Dr. King, and that we continue to kill and defame black men, women, and children. I’m sorry that we have lost our capacity to understand, to look inward, to criticize and change what we see.

But, as I read what others have to say today, I have a little bit of hope. Maybe this is the year that we actually get it. Maybe this is the year that we’ll really understand every facet of the man that we honor today, that we’ll realize everything that he was trying to teach us. Maybe this is the year that we’ll actually listen to the black voices that are crying out for justice, and the white Christian blogging community can stop our very well-intentioned whitesplaining.

Michael Brian Woywood

 

PS – Here’s a fantastic article that I saw first thing this morning. It really set the tone for me today.

 

Discipleship is not a math problem

I have been reading through The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was given to me about a year and a half ago by my best friend, as a gift after joining him in youth ministry. He swears by the book, and I have heard much about it. Thus, I accepted the gift with excitement and anticipation.

I dove in almost immediately, pouring through the first two chapters in a single night. I had never seen this kind of message. Costly grace? Those two words redefined my theology. I had asked that question for a long time, but Bonhoeffer really clarified it for me. While we celebrate the free gift of grace, do we remember how costly it was? While we know that we can never repay the cost, do we voluntarily attempt to share in that cost as disciples?

I read those first two chapters, and my life was changed. And, then, I put the book down, and didn’t pick it up again until about a week ago.

It wasn’t any conscious decision. Like with so many other books, I just got absorbed in something else, and never came back to it. But, I felt like I had the essence of the book down: costly grace. Grace that was freely given, but still had a price. Armed with my first two chapters, I went out and formulated my own theology. So many messages that I preached and wrote were based off that little bit of Bonhoeffer: The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday was probably the sermon most closely related to my experience with Bonhoeffer.

But, after reading a little more over the past week, I realized that I have only skimmed the surface. The more I dug in, the more I realized that there was so much more to this theology of discipleship than I had initially realized. The acceptance of costly grace is only the beginning. You have to dig deeper, into what Bonhoeffer has to say about the everyday path of following Jesus, in order to really appreciate the impact this man has had on so many different people.

There were times when I felt encouraged while reading, because I thought, I’m already on this path. But, there were also times when my spirit was sorely convicted, because I realize how far off the path I am in some areas. And, the more I read, the more I thought, Nobody can do this. This is too heavy a burden.

It really hit me yesterday. I had an opportunity to put a conviction into action, and I sat there arguing myself. What was the most Christian thing to do? How far did I have to go in order to prove myself worthy of the mantle of true discipleship?

That’s when it hit me. I was reading Bonhoeffer the wrong way. I was reading Jesus the wrong way. I was looking at discipleship like a math problem.

We have this problem in progressive Christianity, where we tend to reduce our faith down to a kinder, gentler legalism.  We don’t want to put rules on people when it comes to sex, or drinking, or any of the other traditional legalist rules. But, when it comes to social morality, public justice, we definitely have some rules for each other.

You can only consider yourself a progressive Christian in some circles if you believe and do x, y, and z. God help you if you consider yourself any kind of Christian without following the formula.

I’m not criticizing the deeds of progressive Christians (or Christians who do good works, regardless of what kind of Christian they consider themselves.) It’s the spirit of the thing that gets me, because it’s a spirit that I’ve found myself infected by. We’ve reduced discipleship to the sum of its parts, into something that we can measure up to, something that we can rate on a sliding scale of moral goodness. And, ultimately, we’ll never get there, and so we’ll have to fall back on the cheap grace that allows us to be “imperfect, but forgiven.”

When I help the poor, I can’t do it in order to be a disciple. I do it because I am already a disciple. When I stand up for racial justice, or for gender equality, or for religious tolerance, I can’t do it so that Jesus will save me. I do it because Jesus has saved me. When I claim to love and forgive my enemies, I can’t do it because it’s what Jesus told me to do (and thus, the “right thing”). I must do it because I was His enemy, and He forgave me.

The difference might seem minute, or a matter of semantics, but I swear that it’s the difference between the easy yoke and light burden of discipleship, and the unbearable mantle of legalism.

I love and forgive my enemies, because He has loved and forgiven me.

I feed the hungry, because He feeds me.

I clothe the naked, because He has clothed me.

I serve, because He has served me.

I kneel down and wash my neighbors feet, because He has washed me clean.

In the end, discipleship isn’t about action, but reaction. I can only do the things that I do, because He has shown me how. He has enabled me. I can pantomime on my own. I can do things that look like good works and righteousness, but at the end of the day, I’m doing them to add to my own moral scorecard. I’m only doing x+y=z.

Thank God that we have so many people in the world who are willing to do these things, regardless of their reasons. This is a work that needs to be done, and I believe that people do the work of Christ in the name of Allah, of enlightenment, of simple compassion, and they should be praised for, and encouraged in, that work. But, for the disciple, for the follower of Jesus, we do these things because we know Him, because He has done these things for us.

To do them for other reasons is good and proper. But, it’s not discipleship.

I could still be reading it wrong. I could have come to the entirely wrong conclusion. But, let us pause, calmly, and think on this.

Grace and peace to you.