Selma, the Sequel

Celebrated as a civil rights milestone, the three marches in Selma, 50 years ago, also ushered in a new style of social and political advocacy. In the March 18 issue of The Christian Century, I write about what many of the marchers went on to do, after Selma, and the faith-based movement they made. (By the way, the Century has a website worth checking every single day.) Here is the Selma piece, in full:

Fifty years ago, thousands marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were led by an eye-catching row of marchers, including a bearded rabbi, an unidentified nun in flowing habit, and Martin Luther King Jr. The third Selma-to-Montgomery march, which began on March 21, 1965, is rightly remembered as a watershed in the struggle for civil rights. Less known is how Selma refocused the lives of many, black and white, who gave the march its spiritual hue.

The trek to Montgomery began with more than 3,000 of the civil-rights faithful, whose ranks swelled by the thousands along the way. In that initial vanguard were several hundred clergy and untold numbers of lay religious activists from around the country. Voting rights became law five months later, just as many who had marched were letting loose their faith in a wider field of activism, taking on a host of social wrongs. They and others forged a new style of advocacy eventually known as the “prophetic style.”

Until the 1960s, white church people were easy to spot at a civil rights protest in the South, because they were scarce. Standing out among them was William Sloane Coffin, the 30-something Yale chaplain and a former CIA agent. In May 1961, Coffin made front-page news nationwide because he was white, well connected—and leading a group of Freedom Riders, who rode interracial buses across state lines to challenge segregated transportation in the Deep South. He emerged as the brash young face of incipient white solidarity with southern blacks.

In the next few years, religious involvement in civil rights—beyond black churches—gradually grew. In Selma, it was finally brought to scale.

On March 7, police brutally assaulted several hundred marchers, mostly young black men attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the event is dramatically and faithfully rendered in the movie Selma. In response, King issued an urgent plea for a “Ministers’ March” to Montgomery. Within a couple of days, an estimated 400 members of the clergy were wandering Selma, many of them having flown in with one-way tickets.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jonathan Daniels had an epiphany during a recitation of the Magnificat prayer at the Episcopal Divinity School. The white seminarian dropped everything to go see the humble exalted in Alabama.

In New York, renowned Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel momentarily agonized over whether to travel on the Sabbath. Two years earlier, he had met King at a national conference on religion and race in Chicago, where the two became fast friends. “The Exodus began,” said Heschel at his opening address there, “but it is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

Heschel was outspoken, but had never quite taken to the streets before. Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, there he was, marching with King in the front row.

After Selma, many intensified their activism and broadened their faith-and-justice lens. Jonathan Daniels stayed in Alabama, living with a black family, fighting in the trenches to register black voters, and earning a stay in county jail. In August 1965, at the age of 26, he was shot dead by a segregationist construction worker moonlighting as a sheriff’s deputy.

That summer, King turned his attention to the subtler humiliations of northern racism. Soon, he and his family were tenanting in Chicago as he shifted his focus from lunch counters and voting booths to knottier problems such as housing and employment. King was also trying to reason with new, harsh adversaries, ranging from white northerners to black militants who dismissed his inclusive, interracial vision of a “beloved community.”

Seven months after Selma, some of its alumni pivoted to a different cause altogether. They formed a national organization that came to be called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. Its leaders included Heschel, Coffin, radical Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and then-Lutheran pastor (later Catholic neoconservative) Richard John Neuhaus. The New York-based coalition spearheaded some of the first broadly based mobilizations against escalated warfare in Southeast Asia.

It was this group that brought King firmly into the antiwar fold, with his then-controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in April 1967. At the time, King called the war “an enemy of the poor,” linking the expense of intervention in Vietnam to the lagging War on Poverty at home. By the end of that year he was announcing the Poor People’s Campaign, an interracial effort for economic justice. It was King’s last crusade, a dream unfulfilled.

Through these struggles, King and others nurtured a style of politics rooted most deeply in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a politics of vehemence and passion.

If this loosely bundled movement had a bible—other than the actual one—it was arguably Heschel’s 1962 book The Prophets. This study of the ancient radicals helped usher out the soothing spiritual happy talk lingering from the 1950s. Heschel wrote jarringly (and 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 also explained that a prophet feels responsible for the moment, open to what each hour of unfolding history is revealing. “He is a person who knows what time it is,” the rabbi wrote, checking his watch.

The book caught on among spiritually minded civil rights workers. After perusing its pages, a young aide to King named James Bevel started going around in a knit skullcap, his way of paying homage to ancient Israel’s prophets. On the day of the final march in Selma, scores of other young, black, and presumably Christian men also chose to incongruously sport yarmulkes. Andrew Young, one of King’s top lieutenants, has recalled seeing marchers arrive with copies of The Prophets in hand.

After King’s assassination in 1968, Heschel and many other Selma veterans pressed forward (though not for long, in the case of Heschel, who died in late 1972). In 1968, Coffin became a household name as he stood trial for aiding and abetting draft evasion through his counseling of young men. So did Berrigan, who exceeded Coffin’s comfort zone by napalming draft records. In keeping up their prophetic ministries, they and others also spawned an assortment of imitators.

In the late 60s and early 70s, student antiwar radicals mimicked the so-called “prophetic style,” denouncing and confronting like the spiritual radicals but adding contempt and sometimes even violence to the mix. They designated themselves, in the words of counterculture leader Tom Hayden, a “prophetic minority.” Later on, from another ideological galaxy, came Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, which explored the boundaries between prophetic denunciation of perceived social evils and demonization of one’s opponents.

In these and other imitations, much of the prophetic spirit was lost—and the tone. King and likeminded clergy of the 1960s may have been quick to denounce and confront, but they scarcely if ever demonized or even denigrated. Typically they managed to blend strong moral convictions with degrees of civility and good will often unseen in politics today.

Issues that galvanized the 60s clergy still haunt us today. Racism, poverty, and war remain with us; even voting rights is a present-day cause, due most notably to the voter ID laws passed by a majority of states. The “Black Lives Matter” uprising against police violence has exposed racial chasms in many cities. Jails are increasingly packed with poor people who committed minor offenses or were unable to pay court-imposed costs. In 1968, King considered the level of the federal minimum wage to be beneath dignity; today, adjusted for inflation, it’s worth substantially less.

Such challenges invite a theological perspective—and a prophetic one. It’s not hard to find people acting on that impulse, people like Kim Bobo of Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, who has crusaded against wage theft while invoking Nehemiah’s censure of plundering the poor. She and many others breathe life into a far-flung movement that hit stride 50 years ago on a bridge in Selma.

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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

Lamentations Rising: Civility Part 2

Eric Liu: Politics is about “blood and guts.”

In the run-up to Nov. 6, laments about the decline of civility have continued to mount—as seen in headlines such as “A Call for Civility in Days Leading up to the Election,” “Can Civility Be Returned to Politics,” and “Reporter Confronts Obama Over His Lack of Civility.” The latter story, from Fox Nation, cried foul over President Obama’s off-color remark suggesting that Mitt Romney is a serial prevaricator.

We need critiques of incivility, early and often in an election year. And for a particularly thoughtful and earnest one, I recommend James Calvin Davis’s recent essay, “Resisting Politics as Usual: Civility as Christian Witness,” in which he adds a Calvinist punch to such virtues as humility—“an important Christian corollary to the belief that God is God and we are not.”

But we also need critiques of civility itself, or its depth and relevance to questions about justice, truth, and solidarity.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President Clinton, hits a few of the high notes in his Oct. 16 opinion piece in Time, “Civility is Overrated.” He gives civility its due, but says that focusing on it can make us “pay disproportionate attention to the part of politics that’s rational. Which is tiny. Democracy is not just about dialogue and deliberation; it’s also—in fact, primarily—about blood and guts. What we fear, what we love, what we hate, how we belong, this is the stuff of how most people participate in politics, if they participate at all.”

Rational dialogue is just a “tiny” piece of politics? I hope not, but listen to Liu as he draws nearer to the core question of justice.

The danger with pushing for more civility is that it can make politics seem denatured, cut off from why we even have politics. As a Democrat, I want to see more anger, not less, about today’s levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration. I want that anger to swell into a new Progressive Era. And as an American, I need to understand better the true sources of anger and fear on the right and the ways those emotions and intuitions yield political beliefs. For all the formulaic shouting in our politics, we don’t often hear the visceral, emotional core of what our fellow citizens on the other side are trying to express.

I highlight here “levels of inequality and self-reinforcing wealth concentration.” Naming that, and doing so with a touch of rage, ought to be part of civil discourse.

Civility is about Caring

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, was similarly underwhelmed by the usual pleas for civility. “Personally, I worry more about what’s happening to civil rights than to civil discourse, and I certainly wouldn’t want to talk about civility if all it meant was good manners, manners often at the expense of morality,” he wrote in an essay on civility and multiculturalism that appeared in his 1999 book The Heart is A Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality.

But, for this liberal Christian stalwart, civility was never about good manners. Look at how civility took on both a theology and an epistemology, a concern for truth, in Coffin’s hands:

At its most profound, civility has little to do with taste, everything to do with truth. And the truth it affirms, in religious terms, is that everyone, from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet, is a child of God, equal in dignity, deserving of equal respect. It is a religious truth that we all belong one to another; that’s the way God made us. From a Christian point of view, Christ died to keep us that way, which means that our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.

The takeaway? “Caring, I believe, is what civility, profoundly understood, is all about,” Coffin said.

If his essay were less about multiculturalism than about economic justice, he would have undoubtedly emphasized that civility is, above all, about caring for 100 percent of God’s people—but especially for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. How the weak are faring in a society increasingly in the grip of the strong is a fair question for the civility patrol. …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

On Being Respond-able

Gratitude is a feeling, but even more, it’s a response. That’s how the late William Sloane Coffin limned it in an interview he gave to my friend and colleague Bob Abernethy—adapted as an essay for our 2007 book The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World. Here’s a portion of those remarks.

I’m convinced that gratitude is the most important religious emotion. Duty calls only when gratitude fails to prompt. When you’re grateful for the undeserved beauty of a cloudless sky, you’re praying. You’re saying, “Thank you, Lord,” praying all the time about the beauty of nature, the beauty of the deeds some people do. In World War II, occasionally a soldier fell on a grenade there was no time to throw back. Well, you could be absolutely appalled by their deaths, but you could be struck by the beauty of selfless courage.

I feel grateful all the time, so my prayers of thanksgiving are very full. I don’t tell God what to do, but thinking about other people and trying to think what God would think about them is a way of directing my thoughts to other people. I pray for world peace, but not, “Grant us peace in our time, O Lord.” God must say, “Oh, come off it. What are you going to do for peace, for heaven’s sake?”

A lot of people think their prayers aren’t answered. They are answered; the answer is no, and they haven’t heard it. I don’t think you have to be self-conscious about your prayer life. You can just live in wonder and gratitude and with a sense of wanting to respond—responsible means “respond-able,” able to respond. If you’re able to respond to the beauty of nature, you’ll be an environmentalist. If you’re able to respond to human beings’ basic right to peace, you’ll be a peacenik. It’s a matter of being full of wonder, thanksgiving, and praying for strength to respond to all the wonder and beauty there is in human life.

Bob Abernethy’s original PBS interview with Coffin can be read in full here. …read more

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