MLK: Feeling Our Way

What Do We Do Now, Dr. King? part 2

Tom Rosenbaum (CUUC member) suggested to me that we might learn something from looking at the ways that King himself discerned to which threats and goals to devote his attention. A review of King's career shows the focus shifting through the years.

Young Martin’s public life began when he was 26, in 1955, the year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, which led to the Montgomery Bus boycott.

Then in the early 1960s there were the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides.

In 1963 April, King was arrested in Birmingham for violating a state circuit court injunction against protests. In solitary confinement, he read an advertisement taken out by white ministers that derided his efforts in Birmingham, calling his actions "unwise and untimely." Using the margins of the newspaper and toilet paper and a pencil, King wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," portions of which were our responsive reading today.

Later the same year he instigated and organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1964-1965, voting rights was the focus of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. The 1965 Selma to Montgomery March contributed to passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1967, the war in Vietnam was a large part of Dr. King’s focus. What was the basis for this shift?

The grounding of the bus boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches had always been nonviolence. Nonviolence was not merely his strategy for civil rights goals. Nonviolence was itself the goal. The reason for nonviolence was to achieve civil rights, and the reason for civil rights was to achieve nonviolence. For him, the two were equally true, for discrimination is a form of violence. He cared about humanity.

(I like to imagine that had he lived to be 88 today, he’d have come to care for all animality, human and otherwise, and the unconscionable violence wreaked especially upon cows, pigs, and chickens. It could have happened: King’s son Dexter is a vegan and says he sees this as an extension of his father’s ideals.)

King’s dream was for beloved community, community without violence. He wasn’t limited to the violence of racism. His aim was nothing less that the eradication of all violence -- understanding that violence is any thought word or deed that treats a being like an object or diminishes a being’s sense of value or security, whether it includes bodily injury or not.

King had studied Gandhi, and embraced the concept of ahimsa, the principle that all living things are connected and form a unity requiring respect and kindness. To bring ahimsa into his own faith, King cast it in terms of Christian teachings on love – the Latin caritas, or the Greek agape: a spiritual love. Agape, as one theologian put it, is “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” King saw ahimsa in agape, and in Jesus’ admonition to, “love your enemy,” and answer hatred with love. As King said,
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
It was natural and logical, then, that Dr. King would devote energies to opposition to the Vietnam war. The United States, he said, is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. He saw violence as interconnected. A government willing to commit mass and bloody violence in Vietnam was also a government willing to countenance the breaking of people through race discrimination, or through poverty. Violence in one area breeds violence in other areas.

For not keeping his focus on civil rights, he faced criticism from close associates and political allies, including President Johnson.

By 1968, King's attention was on poverty. In April that year, King went to Memphis, where he would be shot. He went on behalf of striking sanitation workers as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign, organized by King and the SCLC, focused on economic justice, not racial justice – which cost them support from those who wanted to the focus exclusively on civil rights. The Poor People’s Campaign was based on the principle that all people should have what they need to live. It brought together African-Americans, whites, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans—to alleviate poverty regardless of race.

The changing emphases of King’s career reveal a man wrestling with identifying and working to repair the most torn parts of the fabric of society, both African Americans and whites. He was feeling his way both intellectually and politically.

What do we do now, Dr. King?

If we do what he did, we feel our way. We keep our eyes and our hearts open to discern where people are most hurting, and where our action can have the widest effects.

Police reform is such a linchpin issue because what President Obama called the “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color” limits effective policing and is a key component of the oppression of whole communities.

That's a big and an important issue, but it is not the only one. There’s also the plight of immigrants and refugees, both in our country and refugees abroad. There’s health care, the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and Medicare. There’s climate change. There’s reproductive justice, facing down the threats to access to abortion, including the defunding of Planned Parenthood. There’re issues of respecting and protecting LGBTQIA folk.

Dr. King found it hard to unify, or even coordinate with, disparate groups: for instance, SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pronounced "snick") on the one hand, and Malcolm X on the other. In our time, we face challenges sustaining common cause among environmentalists, immigrant rights advocates, health care advocates, and all the others.

Next: The Common Cause

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This is part 2 of 3 of "What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?"
See also
Part 1: What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?


What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?

What Do We Do Now, Dr. King? part 1

"Keep your lamps trimmed and burning."

Sometimes it's hard to keep shining the light of justice. There’s just so much darkness we cannot illuminate it all. No, you can’t. We can’t fix everything. No, you can’t. But WE can. You just illuminate your part. Let others illuminate other parts. Bring your small lamp. The darkness is overwhelming, but what else you gonna do with your life? Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

Martin Luther King, Jr, was born on this day in 1929. Were he still alive, he’d be 88-years-old on Jan 15, 2017. What would he have done in the 49 years since his death in 1968? What would he be counseling us today? How would he assess the areas of greatest need, given where we are now?

And where are we now? The Justice Department report this week found that in the Chicago Police Department “excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos.” Also this week, the Justice Department and the Baltimore Police Department finalized a consent decree for reform, flowing from the Justice Department’s blistering report last August of systemic racial bias in Baltimore’s policing. Two years ago, a Justice Department investigation into the Cleveland Police Department found a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” – “insufficient accountability mechanisms, inadequate training, ineffective policies, and inadequate community engagement.” That report led to a consent decree approved in 2015 June.

Earlier Justice Department investigations led to consent decrees in Albuquerque, in Detroit, in New Orleans, in Seattle. In all, the Justice Department under Eric Holder – continued by Loretta Lynch -- have investigated nearly two dozen police departments, usually leading to consent decrees: court overseen mandates for reform.

So far, the consent decrees haven’t done much. Last April, a Fault Lines investigation of Albuquerque, for example, found that a year and a half after that city’s consent decree was issued, “change was only scratching the surface and that the corrupt and violent culture of the police department continued unabated.”

Change was never going to come that fast. The habits are too deep, attitudes too entrenched. Still Justice Department pressure for compliance with consent decrees offered our best hope. Yet our president-elect and his pick for Attorney General are both seen as hostile to police oversight agreements.

What do we do now, Dr. King?

Starting Friday, our president will be a man whose company the Justice Department sued ― twice ― for not renting to black people. In 1992, his Hotel and Casino company in New Jersey was fined $200,000 because managers would remove African-American card dealers at the request of a certain big-spending gambler.

Well, that was a long time ago.

During the recent campaign, he was supported by white supremacists.

Maybe that doesn’t mean much.

That he refused to condemn the white supremacists who advocated for him means more.

His rhetoric, while often inconsistent, is consistent in treating racial groups as monoliths –
“treating all the members of the group ― all the individual human beings ― as essentially the same and interchangeable. Language is telling, here: Virtually every time Trump mentions a minority group, he uses the definite article the, as in ‘the Hispanics,’ ‘the Muslims’ and ‘the blacks.’" (Lydia O'Connor & Daniel Marans)
Well, maybe these linguistic tell-tales are just quirks, verbal ticks.

He encouraged the mob anger that resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of the Central Park Five. At a 2015 November campaign rally in Alabama, he condoned the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester.

Then came the election. In the 10 days following November 8, there were nearly 900 hate incidents across the U.S.:
“vandals drew swastikas on a synagogue, schools, cars and driveways; an assailant beat a gay man while saying the ‘president says we can kill all you faggots now’; and children telling their black classmates to sit in the back of the school bus. In nearly 40 percent of the incidents, people explicitly invoked the president-elect’s name or his campaign slogans.” (O'Connor & Marans)
Is that his fault?

His campaign gave license to those hate acts, and if his supporters were misinterpreting him, he could have made clear that he regards this hate as serious, as damaging to the victims and to our social fabric, and issued a full-throated denunciation. Instead, he downplayed the incidents, and his denunciation was half-hearted.

The president-elect “has picked top advisers and cabinet officials whose careers are checkered by accusations of racially biased behavior.”

Whatever debates we may have about the advisability of most of his policy ideas, I do believe it is fair to say, our country is entering a phase where the concerns of racial justice will receive even less attention from the federal government.

What do we do now, Dr. King?

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This is part 1 of 3 of "What Do We Do Now, Dr. King?"
See also
Part 2: MLK: Feeling Our Way


What Is Mystery?

This word “mystery” is itself somewhat mysterious, isn’t it? It seems to invite examination of the division one makes between “stuff I know” and “stuff I don’t know” – with the latter called “mystery.”

“Stuff I know” doesn’t imply certainty. Some of what is in my “stuff I know” folder might actually belong in “false beliefs.” For now, I have it in “stuff I know” if (a) I believe it is true, and (b) I have some reason or evidence for believing it true (though the evidence might not be conclusive), and (c) it matters, in some way, to my life and my understanding of the world.

“Stuff I don’t know” comes in a variety of flavors:
  1. Stuff I temporarily don’t know, but some people do, and I could find out. This would include more-or-less agreed-upon facts of history (Who was the English monarch just prior to the King Harold who died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?) and science (What is the chemical composition of benzene?)
  2. Stuff that is known, by someone, but that I can never know: government or corporate secrets, for example.
  3. Stuff that is known, by someone, and isn’t a secret, but I lack the aptitude or the will to learn to comprehend – such as how to solve certain very complicated problems in theoretical mathematics or quantum physics.
  4. Stuff that no one knows now but that will, or conceivably could, become known. This includes future events: Who wins the 2017 World Series? It also includes possible discoveries: What other planets have life? What is “dark matter”? Is cold fusion electrical generation possible?
  5. Stuff I don’t know because I’ve adopted an agnostic stance on the subject. I do this when I’m aware of strong arguments on both sides and I don’t need to have an opinion on the matter. Did the boxer Hurricane Carter commit the 1966 murders of which he was convicted? I don’t know. Is Renoir or Monet the greater painter? Should the US build more nuclear power plants? Some people have opinions on these questions. I do not.
  6. Stuff that no one knows or ever will know because the question is nonsense. Is the Earth upside-down? This is a nonsense question because the concept “up” only has meaning within the context of Earth (or whatever planet or body the speaker is standing on). Standing on Earth, “up” means “away from the center of the Earth.” The Earth itself floats in space, and that’s not a context in which “up” has any meaning. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether a question is really a nonsense question or not. Is “What is the meaning of life?” a nonsense question? One might argue that “meaning” occurs only within the context of a life, just as “up” occurs only within the context of Earth. Various things move up and down within the Earth context, but “up” doesn’t and can’t apply to the Earth as a whole. “Up relative to what?” one would ask. Likewise, various things have meaning within the context of a life, but “meaning” doesn’t and can’t apply to life as a whole. “Meaning relative to what?” one would ask.
  7. Stuff that no one knows or ever will know because . . . well, just because it’s unknowable. Ah, this is the interesting one. Now we’re talking proper mystery. These questions hover on the border of nonsense – but we cannot quite dismiss them that way. Why is there something rather than nothing? The agnostic stance might seem attractive, but the question is too compelling to dismiss that way either. What is mine to do in this world? What is love?
These questions are not to be answered, but lived into. True mystery is not to be dispelled and isn’t dispellable. Rather, we live in and with the mystery.

There is always something beyond what we know. One way to say this is: There is always more to learn about anything. Another way to say it is: Existence is shot through everywhere with mystery.
Every experience, every moment, presents itself, and we bring to it our “stuff I know” folder. This is an oak tree, we say. Or, Here is my office. We know these things, these places. But in each moment and experience there is also the presence of the unknown -- something about it that will never go in the "stuff I know" folder, can never be encapsulated, articulated, filed, and cross-referenced. Every moment offers us the chance to ask: What is ineffable here? This is an unanswerable question (because any answer would be effing it, and then it wouldn't be ineffable) – but is it unanswerable because it is nonsense? I’d say, rather, that there is an unspeakable quality in everything. We cannot speak it, but we can nevertheless be present to it.

It is possible to go through life doing no more than responding to every situation with the knowledge we have, as best we can – bringing our concepts and purposes to bear on everything we encounter. This is a grave mistake. In addition to the “stuff I know” – and in addition to the first 6 categories of “stuff I don’t know” – there is something else present in everything you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. It is the unspeakable – the silence inside the sound, the darkness inside the light, the stillness inside the motion. It is the mystery. It holds us always.


Evil As Lack of Skill

Evil and Hope, part 2

Sometimes harm happens because of a medical condition: a brain tumor, for instance, or (what is a very different kind of medical condition) a mental illness such as antisocial personality disorder.

Other times harm happens from lack of skills.

In the November issue of On the Journey (see it HERE), my colleague Rev. Peggy Clarke tells the story of a developer whose projects tear down hundreds of trees, harm ecosystems, and create shopping centers that entice further resource waste through unnecessary consumerism. She describes the developer as a “good man doing a terrible thing with a clear mind. It’s his lack of introspection concerning his livelihood and the destruction that creates.”

There’s no medical condition here – probably. No mental illness. There’s thoughtlessness. And we all suffer from thoughtlessness. A normal, reasonably well person wants connection, wants to care about others and be cared for. A more-or-less normal person also wants to protect themselves, provide for their material needs and comfort, and not get taken advantage of. The thing is, we aren’t always skillful at balancing connection and self-protection.

It’s a matter of skill: call it spiritual skill.

We typically put too much energy into the self-protection side because we don’t how not to. The developer that Rev. Clarke described was devoted to protecting his and his family’s material needs and livelihood. Then to further protect himself from the discomfort of the knowledge of the harm he’s causing, he pushes it out of his mind.

I do that, too. I drive a car, heat my house, burn fossil fuels. I eat foods some of which were not sustainably produced. I do avoid meat, the production of which ranks as the most environmentally destructive of all food sources, but many of the plant foods I eat, though not as bad for the Earth, are still not long-term sustainable in quantities that would allow everyone equal access to them. I, too, push out of mind the discomfort of the knowledge of the harm that some of my choices cause.

What we want is connections of care – to live in the joy of manifesting bonds of affection for each other and for this Earth, our mutual home.
I want a life that does less harm, but I’m not skillful about carrying out the life I want. Building the skill, I know, like any skill, requires some dedication and practice, practice, practice.

Habits of not thinking about the-harm-we-do have to be replaced with habits of awareness, and that’s not just a simple matter of deciding. You can’t just say, “I’m going to go lift 500 pounds," or "I’m going to dance professional-level ballet today” You have to build up the muscles of compassion, practice the skills of empathy, hone the art of caring connection to self and others.

A hymn in Singing the Journey says:
If every woman in the world had her mind set on freedom,...dreamed a sweet dream of peace,...held her hands out in the name of love, there would be no more war.
If every man in the world had his mind set on freedom,...dreamed a sweet dream of peace,...held his hands out in the name of love, there would be no more war.
If every leader in the world shared a vision,...shared a sweet dream of peace,...worked for justice and liberation, holding hands out in the name of love, there would be no more war.
If every nation in the world set a true course for freedom,...raised its children in a culture of peace, if all our sons and all our daughters reached in friendship across the waters, refusing to be enemies, there would be no more war.
This is true. But it doesn’t happen just from wishing for it, or even from everyone in the world agreeing to do it. It takes the work of practice, practice, practice, committed to changing ourselves to develop the necessary skills. We need to be able to play compassion and joy and peace the way a master pianist plays the piano.

This comparison with creative arts like dance and music is, I think, what Henry Nelson Wieman had in mind. For Wieman, evil is what obstructs creative good, and our hope lies in the creativity, greater than ourselves that drives us toward transformation.

Sometimes harm happens and there’s an identifiable mental condition. Sometimes harm happens because we lack the skills of connecting in peace and in love effectively with our own needs and the needs of others. We don’t know how, we haven’t trained, so we pursue our needs with clumsy obliviousness, knocking down trees, and other healing beauty, as we go.

What creative transformations are possible? Who knows? All we know is that getting there, even though we can have no very clear picture of what "there" looks like, takes work and a lot of practice. The hope that is before us is the hope of a blank canvas, waiting for us to learn how to draw. How are you practicing?

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For loads of info about how to do a spiritual practice: LOOK HERE.

This is part 2 of 2 of "Evil and Hope"
See also
Part 1: Sources of Evil