The Promised Land After Charlottesville

After Charlottesville, what changes? The change is what matters. The posturing doesn’t matter. The marching only matters as a means to an end. After Charlottesville, as in after Charleston, Ferguson and Baltimore, what matters is the change in society to where black Americans can say “Yes! We are truly free!” Perhaps we forget this larger transcendent goal in the immediate skirmishes over policing and monuments. It is ultimately about the mistreatment of black Americans: historical, ongoing and systemic. It is about black Americans being able to walk, drive, learn, marry, create and work without skin-based harassment and belittlement.

America has rarely afforded her black residents full access to her promises. Slavery, segregation and mass incarceration have weighed the black American down, obstructing her access to these promises. Disparities in policing, housing, schooling and economic services add to the weight. It is a testament to the mighty spirit of the black American that any of them can overcome such daunting obstacles. That entire families and communities have risen from such depths is miraculous. Why America would NOT want to unleash the full potential of her black residents is an utter mystery. The only conceivable answer is fear…and even that is a baseless convolution of white shame.

As events in Charlottesville unfolded, I was leading my congregation through a summer series on Moses. We were looking at ourselves, our congregation and our community through the Moses story utilizing an ancient Jewish method called midrash. I was already boning up Martin Luther King’s final speech “I See the Promised Land” (aka “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) in an effort to unlock Moses’ own death scene in Deuteronomy 34. Dr. King gave this speech in support of sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in 1968. The next day he would be murdered on the balcony of the Loraine Hotel. “I See the Promised Land” is a profound, mighty speech (text and audio here). It is powerful, wise, poignant and prophetic. For 45 minutes he recites history, outlines strategy for helping the sanitation workers, calls for non-violent, compassionate and spiritual action and defies threats against his life with boldness and spiritual tenacity. He sees the bigger picture (the human rights revolution) in the smaller skirmish (Memphis was being unfair to its sanitation workers) and vice versa. After Charlottesville, I can’t help but notice the relevance of this speech today. I hear unlearned lessons, forgotten strategies and unfinished business.

I’ve long struggled with the junction of the bigger picture and the smaller skirmishes. I have struggled with the gravitational pull of white privilege and the tyranny of the latest upheaval. Occurrences of racial strife–from the killing of Trayvon Martin to the brutality that killed Freddie Gray to the uprising of white power hate groups–rightly demand our attention and are great opportunities to clarify positions and analyse prongs in the larger issue. But I fear that left unattended or under-analyzed, these skirmishes suck our attention from the larger issue and its ongoing causes. If your marching against the Patriot Prayer group, you’re not marching against police brutality. At the root is a subtle belief in white America in the inherent inferiority of our brown and black brothers and sisters; an apathy within white America to take on changes that will promote the freedom of black Americans; an ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the social structure that lifts whites on the backs of brown, black and immigrant Americans. Beneath all of these major matters is a basic lack of love, understanding and responsibility on the part of white Americans to the plights and rights of our non-white residents.

With this understanding, I have been diving more deeply into Dr. King’s “I See the Promised Land” speech to gain reflection points, study angles and action notes. I have 10 jumping off points from the speech which I will reflect on in the coming weeks.

  1. Where is God’s hand in today’s struggles?
  2. How are non-white Americans “forced to live” today?
  3. Do we really have to march still?
  4. What sacrifices are required by white people of conscience to further the freedom of black Americans?
  5. How can I master non-violence?
  6. How do we move stubborn white Americans to see the plight and dignity of black and brown neighbors?
  7. What is the role of clergy today?
  8. What economic pressure points need to be brought to bear today to further the freedom of black Americans? And what does it mean for the white person of conscience?
  9. In what ways is compassion the linchpin to true peace?
  10. How does one overcome threats and fear?

I cannot seem to get away from these teachings. I hope these reflections further the conversations that lead to true peace.

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