This is part one of a series of reflections on Charlottesville via Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech “I See the Promised Land” (text and audio here). See the Intro here.
The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. (All right, Yes) And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men in some strange way are responding. Something is happening in our world. (Yeah) The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.” [applause]
How is God moving today? Is it not the case that the world is still “all messed up”? As Martin Luther King, Jr. surveyed his world in 1968 he identified some of the chaos of his time as God’s doing. What was deemed by the mainstream society (i.e. white society) as chaos or upheaval, Dr. King saw as a holy UNsettling: by which African-Americans were shaking off their resigned acceptance of second-class citizenry. What looked like chaos on TV, with sit-ins often devolving into fisticuffs, was really an unmasking of reality: people of color were still compelled to a lesser-than role in society. This unmasking was God’s work, not because it was a serene matter, but because it was a holy exhalation of decades of frustration and a holy inhalation of dignity and self-determination. The chaos mostly sprang from the ways white society resisted the expanding freedoms of black America. It wasn’t chaos-inducing to sit down for lunch. It was chaos-inducing for white America to not accept their black neighbors as equals.
Dr. King, like much of black America, had one eye on the international scene, thanks in no small part to black newspapers in major cities. They regularly covered freedom movements on the African continent and found thematic similarities in the black struggles for freedom in African nations and the US. They also found strategic information for how to utilize media and confront heavily armed and highly motivated oppressors. It is no mistake that MLK heard harmony between specific struggles in Memphis and struggles in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Accra. By this section of “I See the Promised Land,” King had already drawn parallels between ancient Egypt and 20th century US south. A sense of history was always a driving factor in the black freedom movements, both in the post-Civil War era and in the 1950s and 60s.
So where are we today? A new surge for freedom is rising. It seems to have multiple fronts. The pursuit of LGBT rights, environmental activism and immigrant rights have vied for the nation’s attention and have both made waves and suffered setbacks in their various pursuits. And we had a potent, revelatory intersection of race and environmental matters at Standing Rock last year, where mainstream powers met creative resistance along an old front: the strife between the federal government and the rights and dignity of indigenous people. Burning hotter than it has in a long time is the struggle for black freedom, embodied in the Black Lives Matter movement and inflamed around issues of police brutality and a resurgence of white nationalist groups. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philandro Castille and Alton Sterling, as well as many other killings recognized in various localities (for example: this list from nearby Portland, OR) have exposed disparities in how municipalities police communities of color. The failure to even bring most of the killers to trial further reveals disparities in the justice system. Add to this singular and convoluted issue the resurgence of white nationalist groups following the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and emboldened by the fierce rhetoric of Donald Trump. The massacre of churchgoers in Charleston, SC and the brutal murder-by-car in Charlottesville, VA lays to rest any notion that white supremacy is a thing of the past.
If the world is still “all messed up,” where is the hand of God, today? Recently, in preaching on the Eagle Creek Fire, I remarked how Eagle Creek will ‘rebuild itself’: that the earth has built into it a reproductive power that can generate life out of chaos and destruction. I am writing this on 9/11. In place of a site of destruction and death, a tower has arisen as a symbol of resiliency and strength. I saw a great video yesterday of a LAFD fire truck with a trailer of boats heading to south Florida as Hurricane Irma was striking. I believe, ultimately in the creative and benevolent power of humanity.
As in 1968, the evidence of the hand of God is not found in a pristine community devoid of strife. Today’s evidence of holy presence is found in the ability of people to proclaim goodness, beauty and freedom in spite of opposition from an emerging white power population. Godliness is found in the courage to say No to hate. This is coming in direct ways of marches and demonstrations. It is happening through art and music. It is happening on political and public policy levels. It is happening as people are gathering together to resist hate. It happens when white people become more enlightened to racism as a system that oppresses our black and brown neighbors and suppresses our own sense of freedom and peace and find the courage to dismantle these systems in their localities.
I fear that it is from a position of privilege that I can say “Yes, God’s outstretched arm is over her children.” I sense two present truths: that awareness is increasing. (I don’t have quantifiable proof of this, and such statements have often been false security blankets for white people.) It is also true that ignorance dominates white consciousness. We are ignorant of what people are talking about when people talk about racism. We are blind to the institutions that drive white privilege. We are irresponsibly defensive when these greater truths are stated.
So, it’s a muddled reality. I know that God works in times of upheaval and change. This is history. And I know that God’s ultimate will for my black neighbors is the same as for me: to love each other abundantly and to find the abundant life God has for us.
As in 1968, perhaps it is the convenient desire for a neat and tidy God that prevents me from the confidence to say “Look, God’s hand is certainly upon the black and brown bodies crying out for justice!” I think MLK would have the confidence and the historical sensibility to say God is working to further the freedom causes of black and brown Americans…and is calling white people to a greater sense of their own history and their complicity in the injustices black and brown Americans are facing.
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