Tag Archives: MLK

Martin Luther King, Jr: Sacramental Theologian

We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church day after day. By the hundreds we would move out, and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” [applause] Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” (Yeah) And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. [applause] And we went before the fire hoses. (Yeah) We had known water. (All right) If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist and some others, we had been sprinkled. But we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. [applause]
–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
April 3, 1968; Memphis, Tennessee
I’ve been pretty obsessed with the last speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ever since Charlottesville. In preparing for yesterday’s sermon commemorating the baptism of Jesus, I reviewed our commitments as baptized United Methodist Christians (hub of resources here). We all agree to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”. This has always sounded good to me.
If I’m going to be more active in the human struggles for freedom and dignity, actually, all I have to do is keep the word I gave at my baptism.

How are Non-White Americans forced to live today?

This is part two 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.

I can remember [applause], I can remember when Negroes were just going around, as Ralph has said so often, scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. [laughter, applause] But that day is all over. (Yeah) [applause] We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.

What is the rightful place for black people in God’s world? The naturally-following question is more blunt: How are non-white Americans ‘forced to live’ today?

Just this week, a story emerged locally of a man deported in February leaving behind a wife and 7 kids. He is only 2 years older than I am. I cannot imagine being ripped from my family and removed thousands of miles away. I would probably die of sadness. Compare this to the relative ease with which Irish immigrants came to the US 100 years ago: granted ease of passage for being white. The notion that the road is equal for white and non-white Americans is simply not supported by statistics.

  • See HERE for disparities in the criminal justice population.
  • See HERE for income disparities.
  • See HERE and HERE for educational disparities. See HERE (pdf) for a huge federal report from 2013.

Add to these realities the function of historical trauma. This refers to the difficulties of particular groups of people to escape the pains of their ancestry. You can see this trauma in Native American groups where addiction has decimated entire tribes, essentially finishing off ethnic-based atrocities begun generations earlier. The black community is still feeling the economic ripple-effect of slavery. They are feeling the economic ripple-effect of segregation. they are feeling the economic effects of mass incarceration.

It’s weird, I don’t see anyone forcing black people to live poorer than me. But the invisibility of these disparities is designed into the disparities themselves. I don’t see the income gap, because I live in a lily-white town. I don’t see the disparities in education. I just happened to go to a private Christian college and saw the percentage of black classmates drop from 40% to 1%. I think you get the picture.

In this context of systemic disparities in America, what then is black America’s “rightful place in God’s world”? What then must be done for the black American to gain that rightful place?

The first is a spiritual matter. The second a spiritual-political one.

Spiritually, it seems obvious that black Americans ought to be free. Free to be who God is calling them to be.They ought to have equal access to housing, healthcare, education, opportunity, etc. as anyone else. It seems to basic and obvious to me that it seems almost shameful to have to say it. Why would a nation who so values money NOT want to unleash the productivity of half of its population? Why would a nation who prides itself on opportunity not want to grant full access to the creative powers of its peoples?

The simple answer is the best one, in this case. Black America’s rightful place in God’s world is to be free and to seek and find the abundant life God has for them.

Closing the gap between current realities and God’s will for black Americans is a lot tougher (The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates remains the seminal work). I’m not sure its because the answers are all that complex. I more think that the pathway to true freedom and equality for all people is BOTH spiritual and political. And often the political is dominated by current matters. Spiritual matters are slower and elusive. Of course, public policies need to eliminate disparities in the public sphere. But spiritually, there needs to be a further growth within white people for black equality to be a reality. The growth is in terms of awareness of black inequality, honesty within white America regarding our complicity in systems of oppression, a deep concern for non-white Americans that leads to radical change in white Americans and an collective effort to acknowledge wrongs and commit to set those wrongs aright.

As I encounter Dr. Kings’ last speech in light of an ascendant white power movement embodied at Charlottesville, I see so much about what he writes that is still unresolved 40 years later. This intersection of black America’s “rightful place in God’s world” and the powers forcing black Americans to live dramatically less free is today’s enduring work for enlightened and conscious people. The work is multifaceted: artists, politicians, clergy, educators, historians each have their role. I worry that there is too much work and too little will power for true equality. But ultimately, these spiritual matters are God’s will. Don’t I want to be in that will?

Where is God’s Hand in Today’s Struggles?

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.

cl1imouvaaaymhoAs 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.

Cmygz37UkAAg8wmI 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.

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.

How to Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (if you’re white)

I want to write about the MLK holiday. There are several thoughts angling into my brain on this one. It’s probably best if I just lay them all out there at once.

  • I deeply admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all that he stood for.
    • I know that he was a freedom fighter, a philosopher, a preacher, a non-violent resister of oppression.
    • I’ve studied with Dr. Vincent Harding and have a better-than-most-white-people understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.
    • My undergrad Ethics thesis was on the differences between MLK and Malcolm X…delivered to an almost all-white college.
  • I understand and affirm the basic premise of white supremacy and my complicity in it.
  • I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to cross and bridge the racial divide.
    • I pastored a Black congregation and was affirmed in my ministry to them. They “ordained” me before my denomination got around to it.
    • I then pastored a congregation founded, in part, by the KKK and made deliberate effort to speak  to divisive racial matters: preaching specifically on the Trayvon Martin killing and speaking openly of my admiration for Dr. King.
  • I’m deeply troubled by my own localized experiences of white supremacy.
    • I live in a town with a shrine to the Confederacy.
    • I live in a town with almost NO black people and am deeply concerned that my small children will think that’s normal.
  • I’m bothered by one element of the Black Lives Matter movement which focuses almost singularly on the exclusive experiences of black people.
    • Certain claims, like “white poverty is not black poverty” seem almost dismissive of the notion that white people can suffer (it’s hard for an Appalachian to take this seriously).
    • The policing of free speech on campuses bothers me, but I admit that I’m not sure how wide-spread of a problem this is.
    • This is almost always ineffective in advancing black causes as it too easily places white people on the defensive, even white people who want to be on the right side of justice.
      • I am NOT talking about exposing discrimination. Obviously, this needs to be exposed.
      • Finding commonalities has historically been very effective in moving the conscience of white people and advancing the causes of people of color (i.e. “I am a Man” and voting rights were two effective measures where a commonality was utilized to advance the causes of black people).
    • It reminds me of a t-shirt from high school: “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.”
      • That sentiment just builds unnecessary walls and is illogical if equality is your goal.
    • Even with this reservation, I can affirm that Black Lives Matter is the most important and effective movement for freedom and equality in the nation.

Can I, as a white person, actually celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I don’t think that MLK would mind people cleaning up the local park on his birthday. He did fight for black freedom as a father who just wanted to take his kids to the park. But clearly the most important way to honor his legacy is to continue his work.

It is probably true that I’ll never fully understand the black experience. White supremacy is everywhere. But Dr. King gave us another on-ramp to advancing equality: the thankless, necessary work of poverty alleviation.

Studying with Dr. Harding, I learned at the feet of one who marched with, and went to jail for, Dr. King. Dr. Harding also drafted speeches for Dr. King. Dr. Harding drafted the speech that eventually became Dr. King’s address at Riverside Church in New York during which Dr. King came out against the war in Vietnam (“Beyond Vietnam“). It was a monumental shift for the movement. For Dr. King, winning voting rights and taking down segregation were merely necessary steps on the road to full freedom and equality for all of humanity. A year later to the day, Dr. King would be assassinated. Dr. Harding shared with our class that for many years he bore a great deal of guilt over that matter. While many felt the assassination was racially motivated, Dr. Harding was convinced it was as much about the war as anything else. That Riverside Church speech had been so good as to receive a sharp rebuttal from President Johnson, who had previously been receptive to the work of Dr. King and the movement. Now Dr. King was seeing the war divide America along economic lines, while racial lines were already killing too many.

poor_peoples_campaign_flyer_fullAdd to that the very reason MLK was in Memphis to begin with. City garbage workers had begun organizing and protesting for safer working conditions and better wages following several job-related deaths and failed attempts to organize effectively. Dr. Harding shared that many in Dr. King’s inner circle were reluctant to go back to the front lines of demonstrating, after having won the vote. Dr. King was clear that returning the plight of the struggling underclass the next front of the movement. He had already begun organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King saw the Poor People’s Campaign as a “a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity” (speech to SCLC, 15 March 1968). Just as Dr. King found white allies to be very important to his early work, his vision of the Poor People’s Campaign was one that included poor people of all backgrounds. And I’ve known poor people.

Poor Lives Matter

I can never inhabit the space of oppression that black America as inhabited. But I also do not have to just lay down in the bed of white supremacy. I can overcome this by raising my consciousness as well as my effort in winning the dignity of all people. I can help black people by helping poor people. I can affirm the Black Lives Matter by joining in the struggle to alleviate the suffering of poverty. As black people are disproportionately poor, you cannot effectively fight poverty without standing up for the dignified treatment of people of color.

To celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., take on the causes of the poor around you. Where I live, it is the vilification of the homeless and the lack of affordable housing that divides people economically. It is the vulturous prospecting of housing which kicks the vulnerable to the curb as a means of making a profit. Where I grew up, it is the crushing effects of the private sector pulling out, leaving behind rampant drug abuse and lots of hopelessness. In your town, there is poverty…not just the presence of poor people, but systems and schemes that make the making of poor people a profitable business. Is your county considering a prison as a way of “creating jobs” and balancing budgets? Is your town run b y a single entity who capitalizes on being the ONE big player? Is the biggest employer underpaying their employees so much that they have to go on public assistance?

The legacy of Dr. King is one of justice. Service is great, but it is not the same as justice. Justice makes some people mad in the process of freeing others. Dr. King was a justice keeper. And I still want to be like him. Black Lives Matter is a movement of justice. I’m still listening to them, even when I don’t understand. Perhaps the best thing I can do this MLK holiday is fire up that last speech in Memphis and learn about the poor in my town and schedule my first step in being part of the solution.

How the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero would benefit from the Presence of Clergy

You may have heard that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has organized the 10th Anniversary 9/11 Ceremony at Ground Zero in a manner that excludes prayer and the presence of clergy.  Perhaps, given that 9/11/11 is a Sunday all clergy are busy leading their congregations.  But that would only be Christian clergy.  Are there no apt clergy from other faiths available? Clearly something is missing.

During the ceremony, prayer will be relegated to the moments of silence marking the times of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Shanksville, PA as well as when the towers fell.  These moments of silence are very good, apt ways to mark those moments.

On the Gifts and Limitations of Silence

I remember 9/11/02 as well as I remember 9/11/01.  In March of 2002, 6 months after the attacks, I moved to New York City to work for the General Board of Global Ministries.  I remember the week leading up to the 1st anniversary.  There was a quiet but present fear of reprisal.  Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising came out.  I remember listening to 1010-WINS and learning about the preparations for the anniversary.  I decided to take the day off and go to Ground Zero, but I feared public transportation.  I had in mind that I would walk from 104th Street to Ground Zero, but as I calculated the actual distance, I thought differently.  I feared a suicide bomber would be in the subway.  So I began walking, but noticed all the people on the bus.  I climbed aboard and joined the strap-hangers.  The bus didn’t move.  People kept coming to the bus and squeezing in, no one said a word and the bus didn’t move.  Then, without notice, the doors closed and the bus moved…it was 8:46am–the time when the first plane hit the North Tower.  I was calmed by the calmness of the crowd.  So I got off the bus after several blocks and braved the subway.  I got on the red-line going downtown.  I squeezed in and grabbed a bar.  No one moved.  No one said anything.  No one coughed.  Others came running down the stairs in that oh-so-New-York-hope of catching the train before the doors closed.  They would squeeze in and join in the silence.  One minute, the doors closed and life resumed…it was 9:03am.

The moment of silence is classic and necessary.  But it is not enough.  All of us on that bus and all of us on that train were joined in silence, but there was no interpretation.  None of us said a word, and none of us spoke to each other when the minute was done.  Even the collective experience of acknowledging the worst day in our living history could not make us friends.  We participated but only by ceasing to do something that is at the heart of humanity–talk.  The moment of silence seeks to allow everyone to ‘pray as they see fit’.  But most authentic prayers are not silent.  Even when the Holy Spirit prays for us, there is the sound not unlike a painful groan.  The moment of silence seeks to recognize a commonality among us, but refuses to describe what that commonality actually is.  Silence can be intensely holy.  It can also be a cop-out.

A skillful clergyperson helps us all understand that actual commonality.  For a common spirit is too easily lost without a common understanding.

On Clergy in the Midst of Many and No Religion

It does not matter that those gathered at the Ground Zero ceremony will be of many faiths and no faith.  Skillful clergy negotiate differences everyday of the week.  Whether it’s comforting the agnostic son at his mother’s deathbed, participating in a mixed-faith wedding, speaking up for civil rights at city hall or serving mashed potatoes at the Community Kitchen, clergy, guided by the ancient wisdom of their respected tradition, offer the gifts of our trade to whomever is in need of them.  The vast, vast, vast majority of us negotiate these differences with grace, skill and humility.

So there will be moments of silence.  But how will we move together from those moments?

What Clergy Offer

Here are 10 things a skillful clergyperson would add to the  9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero:

  1. A skillful clergyperson can help us all recognize the common spirit present among the people and present a common understanding.
  2. A skillful clergyperson would help the people ACT upon and INVEST in the common spirit.
    • Why hasn’t the common spirit of 9/11/01 brought us closer?  Why are we as divided internally as ever before?  Because we did not act upon the common spirit borne out of 9/11/01 with a common understanding and we didn’t respond with a common act.  Some of us held candles, some of us counted ammo.  Some of us learned about our neighbors.  Some of us shot our neighbors for wearing a turban.
  3. A skillful clergyperson can speak to the grief that the nation as a whole is experiencing, can help us understand how this 10-year old grief is present in our lives and can encourage us on the path of collective healing.
    • Skillful clergy are adept at living with pain.  We join people all the time as they grieve, as they struggle.  With the wisdom of compassion taught by the ancient people, we know how to journey with people ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’.  Who will acknowledge the pain we still bear?  Will it be someone who knows what to do with it?  Most clergy know what to do with it.
  4. A skillful clergyperson would help the nation confess the sins that we have committed in response to the attacks.
    • The tendency will be to name the deceased and focus on the victims’ families.  I understand this tendency.  But a decade later, I feel it is inadequate.  It is, instead, a ripe time for reflecting on our response.
    • I fear there will be an implicit approval given to our nation’s response.  Will there be any acknowledgement of the fact that we have killed a lot of people, many children and many innocents in this quest for vengeance?
    • There is a need for cleansing, as well as healing.  We have responded to acts of hate and violence with acts of violence that feel rather hateful to those on the other side.  When we drone-bomb weddings in Pakistan without even saying sorry, we have clearly become too like our enemies.  Who will acknowledge this truth?  Certainly not a politician whose greatest fear is being defeated at the next election.  This is the role of clergy: to speak truth when it in necessary but unpopular.  (See Nathan in King David’s court).
    • There is a direct connection between confession and healing.  This has been taught and confirmed for millennia.  It is a basic and necessary matter to state that what bin Laden did to us was awful.  We state this truth at ceremonies every year in an innate hope that stating the truth is part of what will set us free.  That being the case, our freedom from this matter is not complete until we confess that we have sinned in our anger.  Unfortunately, we have a very hard time admitting that we ever do wrong, much less naming  the wrong itself.  Truth doesn’t beg its way into our lives, it will only set us free if we let it.
    • It is not a coincidence that America’s most notable period of spiritual cleansing was led by a clergyperson: REVEREND Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was, at once, prophet for black America and priest for the nation as a whole.  By prophet, I mean that he spoke God’s message of liberation to an unwilling nation.  He interpreted the sins of the nation as well as God’s better vision for the country.  By priest, I mean he led the nation in confessing our collective sin of racism and led us to a more godly society.
    • See also Bishop Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi.
  5. A skillful clergyperson will call us to live up to the highest ideals we have.  In a time of toxic divisiveness, this call is most aptly given by someone of recognizable moral authority.
    • Yes, there are people of recognizable moral authority outside of the clergy.  But being a ‘recognizable moral authority’ is one of the responsibilities of clergy.
  6. A skillful clergyperson would help us realize that the victims’ most fundamental identity is as human beings and NOT just Americans.
    • Our nation’s foremost religion is patriotism.  (Or maybe college football).  It is a false religion that reduces someone to their nationality and dismisses those of other nationalities.  Since the 9/11 ceremony will be led by politicians, who are expected to be adherents to the religion of patriotism, I suspect that we will hear a lot about the spirit of America and a lot less about the spirit of humanity.  I hope I am wrong.
  7. A skillful clergyperson practices the ministry of presence, which will definitely be needed at Ground Zero.  By ministry of presence, I mean that as the clergy person ‘stands in’ for God, she/he points to a higher reality.  For the religious that would be the presence of God.  But even for the non-religious a clergyperson’s ministry of presence points to the power of love over hate, of peace over war, of unity over divisiveness, of good over evil.
  8. A skillful clergyperson helps with existential issues of theodicy.  These questions (Where was God? Why me/us? Why does hate even exist?) are the elephants in the room at ground zero.  A skillful clergyperson helps us (both religious and non-religious) live with the unanswered and the unanswerable.
    • This is the clergyperson’s pastoral function, to be with the people in times of trial, to join another in pain so that they know that they are not alone.
  9. A skillful clergyperson mines the past for wisdom.
    • We are not the first people to suffer.  We are not the first to be terrorized.  Ours were not the first towers to fall.  Since the beginning of human consciousness, we have suffered.  And we have learned from our suffering.
    • Through suffering, Israel learned not to trust their chariots.  Through suffering, India learned how to creatively resist evil.  A skillful clergyperson does not speak as a single voice, but carries teachings that have stood the test of time.  That historical wisdom would be useful to the people at Ground Zero.
  10. A skillful clergyperson would save the ceremony from the scourge of cheap words.  Politicians major in mind-numbing platitudes and empty promises.
    • By contrast, Dr. King talked about Having a Dream…and then defined what that dream was: “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”  
    • Tutu formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and led the arduous effort to heal a nation.

Anticipating Rebuttal

Anyone can do the things listed above.  Are you trying to say only clergy can do these things?

Sure, anyone can do these things.  By the same logic, anyone who can count can advise me on my family budget.  I’d rather have the best do that and so would you.  By the same logic, do we really want any old politician handling complex matters of the spirit?  Me neither.

We don’t have any MLK’s or Tutu’s these days.

Dr. James Forbes is no slouch.


I hope readers can discern the difference between a response and a complaint.  For clergy, our role in society is not always clear to others.  We have to explain and defend what we do.  At the same time, Christians should never be surprised when a government wants to shut us out.  When we start complaining because we didn’t get preferential treatment…well…then we have a problem.  For this matter, though, I approach this with a sense of sadness–that thousands will gather at Ground Zero, as I did 9 years ago, and not receive the best ceremony possible–all because one guy doesn’t understand what we do.

Lent 23: Parking

Lenten day 23 saw me in the car a bunch.  Luckily, I like my car.  I tend to work a shorter day on Monday, given that Sundays can be so grueling.  But today was a day in which one of my churches was providing lunch for one of the college Habitat teams.  I am proud to see this little church get all involved and work to help others.  It was a short moment, but a good one.

I also had to deal with parking tickets that several church members and I got yesterday during worship.  Our church is land-locked with only a very small yard in which to park.  Curb parking is unrestricted on Sundays but very congested.  So I park against the church house wall on a yellow line.  For 3 years, I have had no problem.

I called the courthouse to see about the ticket.  As soon as I told them I was the pastor, they buzzed me up to the Sergent’s office.  He’ll be by tomorrow to waive the tickets.

Discipline Scorecard:

1a)  Driving the speed limit–A little slack.  2:4

1b)  Foul Language–I let a guy turn in front of me, then he got stuck, then I said something bad.  1:4

2)  Fasting Lunch–Nope.  1:4

3)  Giving up Facebook–Today, I was trying to contact the Black Student Union at WVU, they only have a Facebook fan page.  I had to use it.  I also checked out the red numbers on my home page and learned that a dear friend has invited me to her ordination in April.  Totally worth it.  2:4

4)  Reading–Didn’t fast lunch, but I did read some MLK while eating.  His eulogy to the four girls killed in the church bombing in Birmingham is incredible.  4:4

5)  Something between me and God–4:4

6)  Visitation–Got it.  4:4

7)  Guitar–Why?  1:4