Rosa, We Hardly Knew Ye

Rosa Parks and Jeanne Theoharis, author of the first scholarly biography of the civil rights legend.

Nonviolence as a tool of social change has often been underestimated and misunderstood. The British thought Gandhi was nuts when he predicted they would simply pick up and leave India without the Indians firing a shot. Black militants sneered at Martin Luther King’s program of nonviolent direct action. And many southern whites assumed African Americans were too undisciplined to collectively turn the other cheek. Or they reasoned curiously that King’s approach was actually violent because it provoked violence in response.

During this Black History Month, new questions about nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement have bubbled up, thanks to an important new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press), by Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis. Her subject is the presumably quiet, unassuming seamstress who refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger because her feet were tired. But aside from her act of resistance, Parks was not that person, according to Theoharis.

For one thing, Parks often dismissed the fabled narrative about how she remained seated because of her tired feet. “I didn’t move, because I was tired of being pushed around,” she clarified. As Theoharis shows, black radicalism ran deeply in her family, and she came to sympathize with the Black Power movement that challenged King’s ethic of love and nonviolence.

This storied figure of nonviolent struggle always believed in what she called “self protection.” Like most blacks at the time (including King, very early in the movement), Parks and her husband owned guns. But once the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, she knew many whites were wishing it would turn violent. That would give them “an excuse to dramatically crush the protest,” Theoharis relates.

Parks took a both/and approach:

For her, collective power could be found in organized nonviolence, while self-respect, at times, required self-defense: “As far back as I remember, I could never think in terms of accepting physical abuse without some form of retaliation if possible”…. Parks saw nonviolent direct action and self-defense as interlinked, both key to achieving black rights and maintaining black dignity.

Still, she felt that nonviolent resistance during the bus boycott served as a rebuke to white citizens who regarded blacks as too feckless and “emotional” to carry out such a disciplined strategy. “Parks had delighted in the power of it,” her biographer writes.

The ultimate message about nonviolence is mixed, in the book. Both the author’s narrative and Parks’s own words years later (she died in 2005) suggest a historical revision—a sense that nonviolence was, in the end, not so effective. Here’s Parks:

Dr. King was criticized because he tried to bring about change through the nonviolent movement. It didn’t accomplish what it should have because the white establishment would not accept his philosophy of nonviolence and respond to it positively. When the resistance grew, it created a hostility and bitterness among the younger people, who worked with him in the early days, when there was some hope that change could be accomplished through his means.

This sounds just a little odd to me—as though all hope of racial justice and equality was quickly dashed. There certainly was and remains much unfinished work. But in view of the remarkable social change that took place during the King years, you have to wonder: If he wasn’t successful in effecting change, then who was?

From Montgomery to Cairo

In his Times column on the revised Rosa, Charles M. Blow treated her militancy as a stunning revelation. And it might well be, as far as her children’s-book image goes. Echoing Theoharis, he wrote on February 1, “The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr.”

But does this compelling biography demand a larger retelling of the role of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement? Not really.

What it does is throw light on the distinction between nonviolence as an absolute principle and nonviolence as a useful strategy. As his biographers make clear, King knew that African Americans (and people in general) were far more likely to embrace the tactic than the belief system. In King those two perspectives—the practical and the philosophical—merged. More recently they blended also in the witness of other moral and spiritual figures. These included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who convinced his fellow black South Africans that they and their country had “no future without forgiveness,” and Pope John Paul II, who inspired armless resistance in his native Poland and who spoke of war as an “adventure with no return.”

But it’s fair to say that most who have taken to the streets peacefully—in places ranging from the Philippines to Poland to Egypt—have not been true believers in the gospel of pure nonviolence. They’ve merely delighted “in the power of it.” …read more

When MLK was Old

King at Boston University

A new study published in Science magazine invites a fresh take on Bob Dylan’s refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The study of 19,000 adults found that most people realize how much they’ve changed in the past ten years but seriously underestimate how different they’ll be in the future. People of all ages think they’ll stay pretty much the same—incorrectly, according to the Harvard and University of Virginia researchers. They call it the “end of history illusion.”

That’s to say, we think we’re so much older and wiser, but we’re younger than that now. There’s more growth to experience—different values, preferences, and personality traits to make our own. I don’t know if that’s necessarily comforting. Depends on how much you want to stay “just the way you are” (with apologies to Billy Joel). There were helpful summaries of the study and its methodology in Science Times and the Boston Globe, and at NPR online.

With Martin Luther King Day coming up, it’s worth asking how many of history’s great figures would have predicted how different they’d be, ten years out. I don’t think MLK, sprinting to his doctorate in theology at Boston University in 1953, had a clue.

Absorbed in Hegel, Tillich, Niebuhr, and others, King had what he saw as a clear picture of his future self. It involved standing at the front of a class in social ethics at a seminary or university, preferably a northern institution. As Stephen B. Oates recounted in his 1982 biography of King:

He hadn’t all the answers, by any means. He realized how much more he had to learn. But how he enjoyed intellectual inquiry. He would love to do this for the rest of his life, to become a scholar of personalism [the philosophical school that engaged his mind at B.U.], the Social Gospel, and Hegelian idealism, inspiring young people as his own mentors had inspired him. Yes, that would be a splendid and meaningful way to serve God and humanity.

King—on track to become a tweedy tenured theology professor—was so much older then.

A year later, he accepted what he assumed would be a sleepy temporary pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama. Newly married to Coretta, he took the job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a relatively affluent congregation, figuring he’d get a little pastoral experience and draw a paycheck while wrapping up his doctoral dissertation.

Coretta wanted to get out of the Deep South as soon as possible. But on December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, and was escorted to the police station. Uproar ensued, and King’s fellow clergy, a fairly timid bunch, drafted the 26-year-old into the leadership of what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was no turning back.

Postscript

Last week, the Bible that MLK used in his early ministry made news. It was announced that Barack Obama would take the oath of office with his hand on King’s Bible as well as Lincoln’s. That’ll come at the highpoint of the January 21 inauguration ceremony, which happens to fall on the King holiday.

On the inaugural platform, you won’t have to look far to find a living person whose identity changed in unexpected ways. Just keep an eye out for Barry Obama. …read more

Heschel’s Prophets, and Ours

Some forty years ago, in one of his last public appearances, the celebrated Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said in an NBC television interview that “one of the saddest things about contemporary life in America is that the prophets are unknown.” He was referring to the ancient Hebrew prophets, who proclaimed the divine truth and yet were often “grossly inaccurate” because they concerned themselves with meaning, not facts, as Heschel had written. The rabbi spoke prophetically in that interview—which is to say, not very accurately.

Heschel died a few months later on December 23, 1972. But he lived to see and help usher in what he surely knew was one of the most prophetic moments in American history.

His timeless study, The Prophets, was published in late 1962, and it ushered out the soothing spiritual happy talk of the ‘50s. The Polish-born mystic wrote admiringly that the biblical prophet is “strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.” Hypersensitive to social injustice, the prophet reminds us that “few are guilty, but all are responsible,” Heschel declared.

The book was read widely in civil rights circles. In his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the prophet Amos—“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a might stream.” King used a translation barely known at the time but common today—Heschel’s translation. The standard rendering had been “judgment” rather than “justice.”

King and Heschel had first met in January of that year at a conference on religion and race, in Chicago, and the two became fast friends. In 1965, they and others locked arms in the first row of the march from Selma to Montgomery—a lasting image of that whole struggle. Afterward, Heschel remarked, “I felt like my legs were praying.”

By then, with his surfeit of white, wavy hair and his conspicuous white beard, Heschel looked as well as sounded the part of an Old Testament prophet. And within a year he was waging prophesy on another front, as co-leader of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, a collection of kindred spirits emanating from New York City, where Heschel taught at the Jewish Theology Seminary.

This prophetic club included, among others, the otherworldly Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and the swashbuckling liberal Protestant minister William Sloane Coffin, and the group persuaded King to ramp up his antiwar activism. Heschel struck the spiritual high notes when he preached at a 1968 mobilization in Washington about “the agony of God in Vietnam.” He declared: “God’s voice is shaking heaven and earth, and man does not hear the faintest sound.”

Devolving Prophecy

In the late ‘60s, young radicals imitated this style of prophetic denunciation; leaders of the secular New Left often spoke self-referentially of a “prophetic minority.” The counter-cultural stance took on a conservative hue in the late ‘70s, with the ascending religious New Right. Fundamentalist leader Jerry Falwell often credited King with his conversion to a political and confrontational faith.

In a way, much of politics today has gone prophetic. The vilification of one’s opponents, the overstatements about a “war on religion” or a “war on women,” the jeremiads against the one percent or the 47 percent, have come to be expected. (Outside of the religious right, it is largely in secular politics that one sees this skewing of prophetic discourse.) Do we really need more prophets uttering their “strange certainties” and speaking “one octave too high,” as Heschel affectionately wrote of the biblical prophets?

The rabbi would say yes, but he’d have in mind a different prophetic style.

He, King, and company usually found a way to join prophecy with civility, denunciation with doubt. This isn’t like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s much harder. Heschel said in his old-world way (as related by his biographer, Edward K. Kaplan), “Better to throw oneself alive into a burning furnace than to embarrass a human being in public.” King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, pleaded with his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth.”

They did sail over the top at times, as when King, appearing with Heschel at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in 1967, branded America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” But that’s what prophets do. In their realm, unreasonableness is no vice, particularly when seeking to “strengthen the weak hands,” as the prophet Isaiah said in regard to the lowly and oppressed.

And that was Heschel’s prophetic calling—not so much to take the right stands, but to stand in the right places. …read more

Can You Hear Me Now, God?

T.M. Luhrmann, author of "When God Talks Back"

In my prayer life, which waxes and wanes, I’ve paid a bit of heed to the old psychiatry joke that when you talk to God, you’re praying, but when God talks to you, you’re nuts. It’s not that I brush off the idea of human beings conversing in a meaningful way with ultimate reality. It’s that the communication lines are more static-ridden than many would like to believe. At times they’re down completely, it seems.

Admittedly, I have tendentious thoughts when I hear people say that God sent them a sign—to pull up stakes and move to Alaska, or turn left at the corner where they found an exceptional parking space. I’m prone to assign such belief to an incredible category that includes George W. Bush supposedly claiming that God told him to invade Iraq. (Was God also wrong about the WMDs?) Somehow I leave out of this dubious category the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on a sleepless night in the winter of 1956, nervously clutching a cup of coffee at his kitchen table, gripped by fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At that moment (as he often recalled), he heard the voice of Jesus promising: “I will be with you” in the struggle.

But I do think this whole question warrants a serious and thoughtful handling. That’s what T. M. Luhrmann offers in her recently published and highly readable book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf).

A psychological anthropologist now at Stanford, Luhrmann spent two years attending services at an evangelical church in Chicago and interviewing members of that congregation. With admirable scholarly detachment, she tackles basic questions like how “sensible people” are able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being. One of her hypotheses is that some people are able to train their minds in such a way that they “learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness.”

Saw God

Surprisingly for a book about evangelicals, Ignatian spirituality comes up frequently. A number of the congregants interviewed by Luhrmann borrowed freely from the prayer and discernment practices of Jesuits, who, as these men like to say, seek to “find God in all things.” This past spring, while on assignment for Boston College Magazine, I was privileged to sit in on two small groups of undergraduate students as they reflected in this fashion on their lives and encounters with the divine.

The students belong to a campus faith-sharing network called Cura, which derives its name from the Jesuit expression cura personalis (Latin for “care of the person”). One of their favorite exercises is the “Highs and Lows,” which involves conversation about their ups and downs of recent days. Each member of the group also talks about where he or she “saw God.” For one young woman, it was in the warm and relieved smile of a driver who might have gestured differently after having to slam the brakes near Boston Common as the student jogged inattentively into the street, plugged into her iPod.

The Highs and Lows echo an Ignatian exercise called “the Examen” (from the Latin word for examination). It’s a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way. “You’re asking God for light, and letting your mind roam over your day. And you’re looking forward to tomorrow, planting that seed,” Jesuit Father Michael Boughton, SJ, who directs Boston College’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, told me. “Planting that seed” might mean deepening a friendship, reaching out to the poor, or strengthening one’s prayer life, the priest noted.

This is the mode of prayer that I most readily embrace. It has its roots not only in the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, but also in the spiritual practices of the ancient Stoics, according to a number of authorities. What I like about the five-step Examen is that it leads the pray-er to focus on segments of time (a day, preferably) and to recall how he or she felt during specific moments. Only then can people adequately reflect on the meaning of those experiences and perhaps what God (or the collective unconscious?) was communicating to them.

I also like one of the premises of the daily Examen, which is that such discernment requires continual reflection and reevaluation, because understanding the divine intent is an iffy business. You might get mixed signals or no signals at all. You could be just plain wrong about what God (or the Truth) is bidding you to do, but at least you’ll be engaged in a thoughtful spiritual exercise that is notably free of nuttiness. …read more

Playing the Birmingham Jail Card

Of all the claims made by U.S. Catholic bishops about their alleged victimization at the hands of Barack Obama, perhaps the most daring has to do with the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement. As they left church this past Sunday, Catholics nationwide were handed parish bulletins with inserts promoting the hierarchy’s “Fortnight for Freedom,” two weeks of public events and protests against purported attacks on religious liberty in America, leading up to the Fourth of July. The one-page message from the bishops was wrapped within the timeless story of African American struggles for racial justice.

The Catholic leaders called special attention to King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he quoted St. Augustine—“An unjust law is no law at all.” They elaborated: “When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties.”

Their April 12 statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” started the bishops on this path toward calling for unspecified civil disobedience if that’s what it takes. At the time, the prelates announced their Fortnight for Freedom, hastening to add that it would coincide with the feast days of several Christian martyrs.

This 12-page exhortation was not penned in a squalid prison cell. It was probably drafted in the splendid headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in northeast Washington, D.C., or in a cardinal’s mansion. That aside, the bishops appear to be making an astonishing claim. They’re suggesting a sort of moral equivalence between their grievances under Obama and those of the Negro under segregation.

In the bulletin insert, the hierarchs did not even get around to talking about their campaign until halfway through the message, after mingling their gripes with the “dark history” of racial oppression.

The litany of complaints begins with the Obama administration’s ruling in January that employees of Catholic hospitals and universities must have access to contraception coverage through their healthcare plans. And it extends to other disputes including whether local Catholic Charities should receive government money for adoption services if they refuse to place children with gay couples. (This past spring I covered a refreshingly civil debate on these matters for Boston College Magazine, and the article is available here.)

Consider a few juxtapositions between the April 12 letter from a distressed hierarchy and the epistle from a Birmingham jail.

Lynching and Licenses

The bishops: “Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services—by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.”

King: “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity …”

The bishops: “New York City enacted a rule that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses. While this would not frequently affect Catholic parishes, which generally own their own buildings, it would be devastating to many smaller congregations. It is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.”

King: “ … when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) … when your wife and mother are never given the respect title ‘Mrs.’; 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 plagued with inner fears and outer resentments … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Just and Unjust Laws

The bishops: “An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought … Catholics in America must have the courage not to obey [unjust laws].” And, the bishops, quoting directly from King’s letter: “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

King: “Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” (Note: By this standard, the contraception mandate is not unjust because it applies equally to everyone.)

There are fair contentions on both sides of the debate over whether government is going too far in one or more of the cases exhibited by the Catholic hierarchy. The matter of the bishops and Obama is not a simple one. But the question of their campaign and the historic struggle for civil rights is plain enough: there’s no comparison. The issue of segregation was black and white morally as well as racially, a simple matter of decency and justice. The fight that the bishops have engaged has little of that clarity.

The bishops would do us all a favor by positioning themselves as religious leaders who object to what they see as a debatable public policy, rather than as martyrs in the making with God and the GOP on their side. …read more

Among the Homies

Greg Boyle, S.J.

Over the past week, my thoughts about political matters have taken a sort of geographical turn, after going to see Father Gregory Boyle lecture at Boston College High School. The Jesuit priest is well known for his work with gang members in Los Angeles, far too many of whom he has buried over the years. Speaking to a lively overflow crowd in the school gym on a Tuesday night, Boyle did a remarkable riff on the Beatitudes, the eight “blessed are the … ” declarations by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

He noted that some translations of the sermon say “happy” instead of “blessed.” And, he pointed out that many biblical scholars are thrilled with neither word, because the more precise (if cumbersome) rendering of the passage from the Gospel of Matthew would be—“You’re in the right place.” That is: You’re in the right place if you’re merciful. You’re in the right place if you hunger and thirst for justice. And so on.

“It’s about social location. It’s about where we choose to stand,” said Boyle, who delivered the second annual Dowmel Lecture sponsored by the New England Province of the Society of Jesus on June 5. Then he offered this bracing interpretation—“The Beatitudes is not a spirituality. It’s a geography. It tells us where to stand.”

In the Lowly Places

Boyle takes his inspiration in part from Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola, who instructed his recruits to “see Jesus standing in the lowly places.” He has inhabited such a place since the mid-1980s, when he arrived in East Los Angeles—often called the gang capital of the world—as a young pastor and quickly decided that presiding over funerals wasn’t going to be his signal contribution to gang members and their families. Two years later, in 1988, he started Homeboy Industries, a now-thriving collection of enterprises that include baking, silk-screening, tattoo-removal, landscaping, and other homie-staffed businesses.

Boyle, a gentle soul who looked pleasantly rumpled in an old black blazer and an unpressed pale-blue shirt, recounted the Homeboy story with grace and wry humor. (The whole story is told beautifully in his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, published in 2010 by Free Press).

In the beginning, he went looking for what he called “felony-friendly” employers who might want to hire the young ex-cons, and who were (not surprising to hear) few and far between. Then he got the idea to start some businesses—like Homeboy Plumbing, which didn’t exactly catch on. “Who knew? People didn’t want to have gang members in their homes,” Boyle said, tossing up his hands in mock amazement. “Who saw that coming?”

The Jesuit even made a joke with regard to the leukemia he has recently battled (and which is now in remission). He noted that he when he has an appointment at the hospital, he always gets a ride from a homie—which is “clearly more harrowing than the chemotherapy itself.”

Today, Homeboy Industries employs approximately 300 of those who used to run with gangs. One of its newer ventures, HomeGirl Café, staffed by female ex-gang members (“waitresses with attitude,” Boyle quips), serves about 2,000 customers a week at three sites. The broader organization also provides an array of social services such as tutoring and job training to more than 1,000 homeboys and homegirls each month. The vast bulk of them are on probation or parole.

What Boyle hopes for is hope itself. “Gangs are places kids go where they have encountered a life of misery,” he told the 500 or so lecture goers, among them students who read the Spanish-language edition of his book in a “Spanish Liberation Theology” class at the Jesuit high school, and who turned out wearing black-and-white Homeboy Industries T-shirts. “Nobody ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”

Anyone with a Pulse?

During the Q&A, a young African American man asked the Jesuit if a white guy like him could really connect with these troubled young people of color. Boyle has a ruddy face and a bushy white beard—he could not be mistaken for a homie.

“Who can do this?” he asked rhetorically. “Anyone with a pulse. You can do it,” he said running a finger from one side of the audience to the other (over a crowd that included no slim share of Irish Catholic suburbanites). “If you’re receiving people and loving people, nobody will ever say, ‘You don’t understand.’ ”

The problems of the world are immense, and there will always be plenty of room for debate about the best solutions. But there is perhaps a simpler way of looking at the social challenges, the way of the Beatitudes. As Greg Boyle suggests, the clearest task of faith is not necessarily to take the right stands on issues, which are perpetually open to argument. The unmistakable task is to stand in the right places, with the lowly, despised, and afflicted.

Geography. …read more

When So Little is at Stake

Recalling those who had reasons to resent, and didn't.

There’s no doubt that the cultural and ideological fissures in American politics have become more apparent in recent years with the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the pushback from Occupy Wall Street. Still, it’s tempting at times to look at our political leaders and say what is often said of academia—that the battles are so vicious because so little is at stake.

The Florida primary showcased a particularly nasty fight between two politicians who have little that separates them in policy substance: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. They resent and resemble each other. For instance, both men supported health insurance mandates before they didn’t. And both of course have serious gripes with Obama (who, incidentally, adopted the originally Republican idea of insurance mandates as part of his healthcare reform package).

When aiming at Obama, the Romney-Gingrich fusillades can seem strangely out of proportion even to their obvious differences with him.

Take Romney’s claim that Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” while he, Romney, would “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.” The choice in November, if Romney finally carries the GOP flag, would actually be between two politicians who desperately want to position themselves as “reasonable centrists” in the general election, as John Harwood of the New York Times has pointed out. Put another way, the election would pit a Republican in favor of keeping the Bush tax cuts against a Democrat who would return to Clinton-era tax rates. That adds up to a difference of roughly four percentage points in the top marginal rate. It’s not what separates a socialist strongman from a friend of the free.

Gingrich’s clashes with Obama might be more profound ideologically. But could these possibly justify his assertion that he, Gingrich, honors the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while Obama supports neither? As Speaker of the House during the ’90s, Gingrich did more than any other political figure to envenom the public discourse. He helped make it safe for politicians to habitually attack the decency and good faith of their adversaries.

No small amount of that incendiary rhetoric has rubbed off on the left. Many liberals have lapsed into the habit of condemning Republican “lies.” Very often, these alleged prevarications are really just matters of opinion, like the GOP claim that the rich already pay too much in taxes. To call them lies is itself a distortion.

When Things were Rotten

Plainly, there’s a lot to fight over in 2012. But there was far more at stake a half-century ago when Martin Luther King and the civil rights marchers, walkers, and sitters showed another way of relating to the opposition. You might say they had some serious differences with the segregationists. They were living in what was, for African Americans, a state of terror in the Deep South. But they steered a way to mutual understanding even as they took to the streets.

During the movement’s early years, King went to such lengths as to answer his hate mail respectfully—thanking his correspondents for writing, and proceeding to reasonably state his differences with these unreasonable points of view. (There was less time for that as the freedom campaigns intensified and the hate writers became more prolific.) During the few times he lost his cool with a segregationist or, some years later, with a supporter of the Vietnam War, King would reproach himself for hours, as his biographers (including Stephen Oates) have described. And then he’d pick up a phone and apologize.

Unlike today when political dialogue is often clogged with conversation stoppers like “lies” and “dishonesty,” King and his supporters found ways to keep the conversation going. They engaged in rational argument, as King did in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (in which he asked his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth,” and begged God to forgive him if he had understated the truth). He tried to open channels of discussion because of his belief that hearts could change, but also because, as a trained theologian, he could “see that some truth, however minuscule … may exist in quite opposite ideas and viewpoints,” as the social ethicist Rufus Burrow Jr. has noted.

In other words, everyone has a piece of the truth—not the most likely message of a Super PAC ad.

Yes, King denounced and confronted: history told him that oppressed people seldom gain their freedom by dropping hints. But he and his fellow campaigners made it clear enough that the prize they eyed was not just their own freedom. It was friendship and community with white America, what King often referred to, in rich theological tones, as “the beloved community.”

During this Black History Month, it’s worth recalling how civil rights activists often spoke large-heartedly about people who set off bombs in their churches or tacitly condoned the terror. It shouldn’t be too hard to practice a similar forbearance today with political rivals who would like to raise (or lower) taxes by a few percentage points. …read more

Shades of ’63, in Birmingham, Alabama

Some recent news from Birmingham, Alabama, made me think, What is it about black kids that makes some people want to spray them violently?

NPR’s All Things Considered reported that police assigned to inner-city schools there have been pepper-spraying high school students who get a little out of hand. The prototype for the story was a 17-year-old girl who, one day last winter, was crying in the hallway because some boys had been calling her names. An officer arrived, told her to calm down and handcuffed her—not the surest way to ease distress. And then, “I got maced. My eyes was burning. My face was burning. Like, I couldn’t breathe. And then like, afterwards, I threw up,” she told NPR. This girl was pregnant at the time.

You’d think Birmingham would be especially wary of using weaponry on African American schoolchildren.

In May 1963 the city attracted world attention when thousands of Negro children flooded its downtown to march with Martin Luther King Jr., in nonviolent demonstrations for civil rights. Police attacked with clubs and dogs and—infamously—high-powered fire hoses that slammed the little ones across the pavement. But the spraying didn’t stop the marching. “In Birmingham, the Negro principal of Parker High School desperately locked the gates from the outside to preserve a semblance of order, but students trampled the chain-link fence to join the demonstrations,” Taylor Branch wrote in his magnificent trilogy America in the King Years.

In Place of Hoses

Today, students who face the Birmingham police at their schools are not exactly practicing civil disobedience. They’re usually engaging in routine misbehavior like cursing, talking too loudly, and violating dress codes by wearing, for example, baggy pants.

In other words, they’re doing the kinds of things that might normally earn a trip to the principal’s office. But at certain high schools in Birmingham, they’re being punished not just with detention but also with chemical weapons. The incidents—reportedly more than 100 of them over the past five years—have taken place primarily at a handful of city high schools with predominantly African American student populations.

President George W. Bush spoke of the “soft racism” of low expectations. He was speaking of academic standards in inner-city schools, but just how low are the expectations of those who feel that the disciplinary toolkit in those schools must include inflammatory agents?

Some students are resisting once again. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of seven Birmingham students who have been sprayed, alleging that the city’s school system and police department have “created a police state” within the schools. Black students are also speaking up in places like the Washington, D.C., area, where—according to a Washington Post analysis—they are up to five times more likely than white students to be suspended. Lawyers for the Birmingham students say they could find no other school district in the United States where students are being repeatedly punished with mace.

That they are fighting an apparent injustice would be unsurprising to King, whose birthday we observe this coming Monday. “Many children took it upon themselves to participate in demonstrations even in defiance of their parents and school officials,” writes theological ethicist Rufus Burrow in his handy volume Martin Luther King Jr. for Armchair Theologians, referring to the Civil Rights era. “Such behavior only confirmed for King that children not only had a major stake in the struggle against racial injustice but also had a strong awareness of what was going on. They wanted to participate and would do so in defiance of any adults.”

In the Birmingham of 2012, the adults include African American school administrators: they’ve invited the police into the schools to help keep order. That makes this case less than black and white, morally speaking. Still, it is hard to picture unruly white students in suburban districts being routinely shot with canisters of mace. It’s hard to see this clash entirely apart from the narrative of racial inequity in America, apart from the unfinished work of what King often described as “the beloved community.” …read more

When Hope Dies Last

Studs Terkel, an American original, devoted the last of his great reportage to the people throughout history “who had hope,” as he explained in a 2003 interview. “They did stuff they shouldn’t have done. They discommoded themselves. They could have led nice lives.” Terkel paid tribute to those people—who are called “activists”—in his final oral-history book published that year, Hope Dies Last: Keeping Faith in Troubled Times.

This was a prolific year for activists. With a bow toward the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, Time magazine styled them collectively as the “Protestor,” who was anointed Person of the Year.

What’s an activist? “Someone who does an act,” Terkel, who died in 2008, said in the interview conducted by Missy Daniel for PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (it was carried also in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World). “In a democratic society, you’re supposed to be an activist; that is, you participate.”

Of course someone could act in a way that energizes people for the greater good or just polarizes them. An activist could defend the privileges of the already privileged or speak up for those on the margins of society. Activism could mean standing exclusively with people who look and think like you, or venturing onto different turf.

In my mind, the most creative and meaningful activism today is taking place below the social radar, in the spirited locales of faith-based community organizing. Tom Roberts, my friend and former editor at Religion News Service, occupied some of that space as a reporter while producing his insightful and indispensable book The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself, issued this past fall by Orbis. The book is primarily about the new forms of this hierarchical faith that are emerging from below, from the parishes and communities where Roberts did his remarkable reporting. On that ground he frequently crossed paths with social justice activists and followed some down their own trails.

Roberts on the Emerging Activist

In a chapter titled “Travels on the Margins,” Roberts, who is editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter, profiled activists such as Sarah Nolan. In her case, it was the Society of Jesus that constructed a road to social agitation. She discovered justice issues as a student at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution; after graduating she drew further links between faith and activism while helping women in El Salvador organize soy cooperatives in 2001-2002, as part of a Jesuit program. From there Nolan returned to her home in southern New Mexico and formed a regional affiliate of PICO (which stands for People Improving Communities Through Organizing), a nationwide interfaith network of congregation-based community organizations.

Now married with a small child, Nolan helps people in the region make common cause with uncommon allies—liberal Catholics with conservative evangelicals, Anglos with Latinos and African Americans, and so forth. The causes include poverty, homelessness, and—in one of the dicier tasks of solidarity—immigration.

Roberts writes:

And then there is the occasional surprise, like the rabbi at the local reform synagogue who said his biggest concern was the need to work on immigration, even though his congregation is mostly retired, white, and not from New Mexico. The rabbi explained by recalling Jewish history and its multiple exoduses. He said he viewed the immigration centers as “modern-day concentration camps.” His problem was that he didn’t know any immigrants, and that’s where Nolan came in. “There’s this desire to be in relationship with people who are directly affected by the problem so that they can not only get to know people who are going through this problem, but so they can also have a path for their theology “ [Nolan said] and apply it to the realities that people are going through.

It’s hard to tell just how many faith-based community activists are out there, because nobody seems to be counting. But PICO alone claims more than 1,000 member institutions (churches, predominantly) that, in turn, have one million members in 150 cities and 17 states.

Activists like Nolan are helping low-income people assert their legitimate rights to minimum social goods such as healthcare and housing. At the same time they’re enlarging the tent by including others, such as affluent members of congregations. They’re able to do so because all these faith traditions have theologies that demand concern for the weak and vulnerable, and because, as Terkel insisted, “Hope dies last.” …read more

“The Beloved Community”: A Pulse Check

In the spring of 1963, African American children were laying their little bodies on the line in Birmingham, Alabama. Thousands of them, as young as six years old, strode out of schoolhouses to join in the marching downtown—several times during one of the most chaotic and brutal episodes of the civil rights movement.

During a surreal scene in May, elusive bands of schoolchildren skittered down streets almost playfully—chased by police with batons and dogs. Eventually they and many other nonviolent resisters were clubbed or smacked down by high-powered fire hoses or just dragged into paddy wagons off to jail. Breaking through the bedlam, through the singing and screaming and blaring of sirens, was what biographer Stephen B. Oates framed as the “haunting voice” of Dr. Martin Luther King:

We must say to our white brothers all over the South who try to keep us down: We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you…. Do to us what you will. Threaten our children and we will still love you…. Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.

King projected through his megaphone not only a resoluteness, but also a longing for what he limned on other occasions as “the beloved community.” This vision of social communion is usually gleaned from his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, but King invoked the concept as early as 1955. At the time he declared that the purpose of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was nothing less than “reconciliation … redemption … the creation of the beloved community.”

A Movement’s Theology

Before King came along, the theme had kicked around Protestant theology for decades, more or less as a shibboleth of theological optimism. King gave the idea a certain soberness, and as University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh notes, he infused it with moral urgency.

In his hands, the beloved community became the “realization of divine love in lived social relation,” in Marsh’s words—never fully realized but always an object of human striving. Marsh (his 2005 book is The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today) and other writers have shown how the motif threaded through King’s writings and speeches until the end. It gave the freedom struggle its theological trajectory.

King had rooted the principle partly in what he considered a fact of human existence, that we are social by nature, interdependent with one another. “The solidarity of the human family” were words he frequently spoke in this vein, Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zep observed in their 1974 book Search for the Beloved Community.

He could see the obstacles ahead. While battling legal segregation, King contemplated a future, subtler enemy: “spiritual segregation,” the mistrust and distance between blacks and whites that would continue to forestall a beloved community.

Not even racial harmony would usher in the great community, in his mind (as he made clear in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?). A further requirement was economic justice, a bridging of chasms between rich and poor.

Fast Forward

Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute released the results of an opinion poll casting light on simmering resentments in the body politic.

For instance, a (slim) majority of white Americans polled—51 percent—agreed with the statement, “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Among those who say Fox News is their most trusted source of information, 70 percent held the same view.

What lies behind this myopia might be hard to pinpoint. Economic anxiety? An African American president? Recollections of purely race-based affirmative action? Or simply, the unrealized dream of a beloved community.

King himself seemed to think this community would always be not yet. At times he made it sound like a spiritual construct to be made flesh in the Kingdom of God. He also wielded the phrase when preaching about the endless struggle against evil, in which God ultimately prevails, as Smith and Zepp pointed out.

Less cosmically, King had faith in the human capacity to approximate the beloved community, here and now. He saw the civil rights movement, spanning racial lines, as a microcosm of the ideal.

Detecting a Pulse

Where are the signs of such approximation today?

Earlier this year the New York Times ran an eye-opening series titled “Race Remixed,” which explored interracial marriage and the growing numbers of mixed-race Americans. Surely this is a mark of spiritual integration.

Beyond race, polls for over two decades have shown that lopsided majorities of Americans favor higher minimum wages for the poorest workers. Whatever one might think of the wisdom of such a proposal, the impulse is a moral one. It’s an instance of social solidarity, not economic self-interest. Boosting the bottom wage would give no direct lift to most wage earners.

There are, even in these polarized days, the glimmerings of a true political community, if not a beloved one. …read more

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