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

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

God and Consolidated Edison

During this year of recrimination over a supposed “war on religion,” I’ve been collecting tidbits about a special flock of writers and intellectuals who want to make love, not war, with organized religion. Every last one of them is a card-carrying atheist.

This crowd is rebelling against the so-called New Atheists, who served up a brash assortment of down-with-God books during the mid-00s and who are now apparently the old-new atheists. One of the really new atheists is the Swiss-born London intellectual Alain de Botton, who has turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic with his book Religion for Atheists. In it, de Botton argues that one can be “left cold” by religious doctrines and still treasure “the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.”

He would like to see your local atheists build “a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” like friendship. Or mimic other faith establishments like the Franciscan retreat house—by opening up “a secular hotel for the soul,” a place of quiet reflection and personal enrichment, he suggests.

Among the new-new atheists, I also count the Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson (beliefs in immortality and divine justice “give priceless comfort” and “steel resolution in difficult times,” he writes in a new book); German philosopher Jurgen Habermas (liberal democratic society cannot flourish without “the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love,” he concludes); magazine publisher Bruce Shelman (An Atheist Defends Religion is his offering to the genre); and other secular souls in that choir. Their standard refrain is that religion contributes to both social cohesion and personal contentment.

What does all this tell us other than the obvious—that not all atheists are damning religion? I might have to get back to you on that, but I can’t think of much offhand. These writers are commendably fair-minded, but they aren’t showering us with insights about faith and society. They’re the latest in a long and fairly insipid tradition of believers and unbelievers alike who have applauded religion as a useful buttress of society—a public utility of sorts. They seem to have trouble distinguishing between religious faith and the National Grid, between God and Con Ed.

A stinging response to this flurry of faith-friendliness has come from the impious British literary critic Terry Eagleton. Writing in The Guardian he pointed out that some great thinkers such as Machiavelli, Voltaire, and Diderot held to the view that “I don’t believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should.” That slogan is alive and well, Eagleton reports. Back in January he had this to say in a preview of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

What this book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularized religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.

Invisible Mortar

I don’t think Eagleton doubts that religion serves all these ends and then some: he points without elaborating to Machiavelli’s observation that religious ideas are an excellent way to “terrorize the mob.” The question, which reaches beyond his polemic, is whether the public-utility view of religion is adequate. It does have its merits. It reminds us of how religion has often provided a sense of shared purpose, “a kind of invisible mortar for our common life,” as described last week by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion. But as Douthat notes, religion has also supplied moral critiques of our public life. That too has been a vital function though not an unmixed blessing.

Martin Luther King and the liberal ministers, rabbis, and priests who coalesced during the 1960s epitomized the less-convenient role of religion in America. They called on the forces of faith to confront society and its unjust structures, not prop them up. Like the Hebrew prophets they condemned far more than they condoned.

Then came the conservative evangelicals in the late 1970s. They showed that two ideological sides could play this unruly game of prophetic politics. Conservative Catholics and Republican office-holders increasingly allied with them. So now we have a culture war against the so-called “war on religion” and other furious confrontations—a style of religious-political engagement sure to stay with us through the election year. …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

A Little to the Left

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a liberal Protestant stalwart who could spot self-righteousness a mile away—and in himself—recalled visiting his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr in 1966. Niebuhr, who had taught social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was in poor health and spending his last years at his summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As Coffin entered the room, the great theologian smiled from his bed and said, “Ah, Bill, I heard a speech of yours the other day on the radio. You reminded me of my youth—all that humor, conscience, and demagoguery.”

That visit is recounted in Coffin’s 1977 memoir Once to Every Man. The story came to mind as the youngish bands of Occupy protestors hit the streets earlier in the fall, and again in recent weeks as police broke up their encampments in city after city. What’s next for these dauntless activists who have already introduced a new politics in the United States? What will they do with their anger, passion, and conscience? Might there be a little more humor and a tad less demagoguery?

In reflecting on these and other questions, they and the rest of us may find some wisdom in the words of Bill Coffin, who assumed the mantle of leader among left-leaning Protestants after the assassination of his friend, Martin Luther King, and who died in 2006. This year, Dartmouth College Press felicitously reissued Coffin’s 1999 book The Heart is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality. What follows are some nuggets from that slim and veracious volume.

Love and Anger …

• I like St. Augustine’s observation: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

• But in all this talk of anger, there is a caveat to be entered. We have to hate evil, else we’re sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger must always and only measure our love.

• Socrates was mistaken. It’s not the unexamined life that is not worth living; it’s the uncommitted life.

The Bible and Us …

• I read the Bible because the Bible reads me. I see myself reflected in Adam’s excuses, in Saul’s envy of David, in promise-making, promise-breaking Peter.

• [The Bible] is a signpost not a hitching post. It points beyond itself, saying, “Pay attention to God, not me.”

• It is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one.

• Christians have to listen to the world as well as to the Word—to science, to history, to what reason and our own experience tell us. We do not honor the higher truth we find in Christ by ignoring truths found elsewhere.

Might and Right …

• True patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s eternal lover’s quarrel with the entire world.

• The United States doesn’t have to lead the world; it has first to join it. Then, with greater humility, it can play a wiser leadership role.

• About the use of force I think we should be ambivalent—the dilemmas are real. All we can say for sure is that while force may be necessary, what is wrong—always wrong—is the desire to use it.

The Spiritual and the Knowable …

• Spirituality means to me living the ordinary life extraordinarily well.

• All of us tend to hold certainty dearer than truth. We want to learn only what we already know; we want to become only what we already are.

• We forget that both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are deeply rooted in the soil of mystery. The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all. …read more

Speaking of the Devil

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Most people would agree that a political conversation is probably skidding downhill when one participant accuses another of channeling demons. One person who would beg to differ is the political firebrand Ann Coulter, who lives pretty far down that hill and whose latest book is Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America.

According to her, liberals and Democrats are literally demonic because they foster a “mob mentality,” which they’ve done since the civil rights movement— “the first mob,” Coulter calls it. Left-leaning activists including environmentalists and unionists are the principal horn-wearers in this book. They are cast as both demonically possessed and as the evil spirits themselves—which raises the metaphysical conundrum of demons possessed by demons.

Of course Coulter is hardly the first to see the Prince of Darkness behind causes unpalatable to her. Many opponents of civil rights conducted a brisk trade in such imagery during the 1960s, and still do—if the deluge of Google results for “Martin Lucifer King” is any guide. Christian antinuclear protesters have proclaimed a mission to “expel the demons” from those who countenance the stockpiling of such weapons.

I’d be happy to leave Satan out of any and all political discussions. But now comes a different tack on the subject by one of my favorite scholars of antiquity, Luke Timothy Johnson, whose probing article in the October 7 edition of Commonweal magazine is titled “Powers and Principalities: The Devil is No Joke.”

Johnson points to a general inclination among reasonable people to see the Devil as an amusing topic—rendered as the man in red tights, for instance, or Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. In contrast, he makes an authoritative case that the New Testament writers and early Christian theologians, not to mention the Greco-Roman world and Jewish thinkers, used the language of demons and evil spirits fluently. And they did so in all seriousness.

A professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, he asks: “Is it possible, then, that the New Testament’s language about the demonic is true in ways that are important for us to relearn? Does the language say what needs saying in a way no other language can?”

Johnson argues soundly that in our time the language of social science has proved inadequate to the task of explaining such unspeakable evil as the Holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields. For such behavior, he writes, “It is important to be able to speak of the Devil.”

A Call for Reticence

Perhaps, but Johnson is quick to acknowledge the downside. He grants that demon language has a checkered history of “misapplication, overextension, and trivialization,” notably among Christians (as evidenced in the polemics against Jews, heretics, and many others). People of faith should exercise “reticence and linguistic discipline” as they seek to rehabilitate Devil talk, he advises.

At the same time he sees ample signs of demonic pull—for example, in the “systems of addiction” that enslave people and destroy families. In addition, Johnson (whose most recent book is Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity) applauds the liberation theologians for speaking of the Evil One when critiquing structures of oppression.

Linguistic purists may shudder at the terms employed in such critical analyses. But racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia are real, and their capacity to damage and destroy, even as they corrupt those who practice them, is powerful indeed…. The act of liberation begins with naming such systems for what they are: the work of powers and principalities—the Devil’s work—intended to hurt God by harming humans.

Johnson’s cautions and caveats are welcomed, but there’s still cause for wariness. He might see a huge difference between demonizing an oppressive social system (which can be problematic enough), and demonizing one’s political opponents (as Coulter does with aplomb). Unfortunately the distinction can be a quick casualty in the ideological crossfire.

What might help is the sensibility of St. Augustine. The theologian and philosopher understood evil, which is why he believed the use of deadly force against an aggressor could be (in theory) morally justified. But he also wrestled with his internal demons and wrote about them more than 1600 years ago in his Confessions, the first and most celebrated spiritual autobiography.

One lesson from Augustine is that no one should ever fight evil as though it were completely outside of himself or herself. Or, to paraphrase a modern-day conservationist slogan: We have seen the Devil, and he is, all too frequently, us. …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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