Martin Luther King: ‘Empire of Eternity’

“…although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. … Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory, evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”—Martin Luther King, “A Letter to Christians” (3 June 1958)

Why Did We Ever Stop Singing?

Dr. Vincent Harding
Dr. Vincent Harding

I’m watching Henry Louis Gates’ series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and listening to the music of No Enemies, the music that makes America great. My mentor Dr. Vincent Harding gave encouragement and inspiration to No Enemies to sing the movement into being (see more about them below). Listen to No Enemies music at this SoundCloud link. Why did we ever stop singing?

No Enemies: Call and Response is a series of gatherings initiated by Jamie Laurie and Stephan Brackett of the Flobots. At No Enemies, the public gathers to compose, rehearse, and exchange songs that will later be deployed on the streets. A social experiment in political art-making, the monthly  meetings blend community organizing with choir practice in a celebratory atmosphere sometimes reminiscent of a Baptist church service. Someone might introduce a simple tune that the crowd practices and refines; alternately, small groups will break off to focus on building a song collaboratively, often to address specific issues ranging from transportation inequality and police brutality to gentrification and the oppression of Denver’s undocumented population.

As social activists and musicians, Laurie and Brackett found inspiration in the Southern Freedom Movement and one of its leaders, Dr. Vincent Harding, who mentored the pair before his passing last year. Those who knew Harding use words like “guide,” “sage” and “encourager” to describe him. An activist and scholar in his lifetime, he worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and drafted several of his speeches, including “A Time to Break Silence,” in which King officially declared his opposition to the Vietnam War. Harding also contributed to the sit-ins that helped dissolve official segregation. He eschewed the more popular term “civil-rights movement,” because for him the struggle encompassed but also transcended individual civil rights: At stake was the unequivocal and complete freedom of minorities in the South and everywhere — hence the Southern Freedom Movement.

Breaking silence and empowering people to speak out against injustice was Harding’s talent and calling. Laurie and Harding started meeting regularly in 2000, after Laurie sat in on a class that Harding was teaching at the Iliff School of Theology. Laurie describes how, “with a few questions, [Harding] could make you feel very important. Taking an interest in us, he compelled us to be fully the leaders we could be.” For his part, Harding had always stressed the role that music played in the Southern Freedom Movement — he called it a “primary tool” — and he was compelled by the Flobots’ mix of activism and art. Nonetheless, he called on the band’s members to “do more, think more seriously about what music could contribute,” Laurie recalls. At Harding’s memorial last spring at the Iliff School, Laurie, inspired by the memory of his ally and guide, conceived of No Enemies. The idea — to create a series of workshops where groups could cultivate music embedded in social movements themselves — “basically became fully formed” that day, he says.–Luke Leavitt, NO ENEMIES EXPLORES THE POWER OF PROTEST MUSIC

Video: Archbishop Welby, Talk Radio, and a Canterbury Tale

The head of the Anglican Church, archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was very brave last week when he became the first person in his post to take calls from the public in an hour-long call-in radio show.

Eventually a caller presented the question of why gay marriages couldn’t be left to the individual consciences of Anglican priests, as had been done with women’s ordination.

In Welby’s response, he struggled with all the nuances required by his position as head of the Anglican Communion.

In this video you can see him holding the burden of responsibility for so many souls. He is bearing the cross. I respect him for that.

I disagree however with a framework that pits one injustice –refusal of Christian rites to gays and lesbians — against another — the persecution of Christians in Africa. To stay there is to live in bondage, not the freedom of the cross.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Martin King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Osagyefo Sekou: Martin King, Science Fiction, and the Future of America

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou is a fire-brand Pentecostal prophet. His recent essay A Mighty Stream traces Martin King’s life and developing perspective on radical economics within the Christian tradition.

I first met Sekou through the Word and World program. Additionally, he was the founding national coordinator for Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq. In response to Hurricane Katrina, Sekou moved to New Orleans for six months and founded the Interfaith Worker Justice Center for New Orleans. He’s the author of Gods, Gays, and Guns: Essays on Religion and Democracy (Campbell and Cannon Press, 2011) and the forthcoming Riot Music: British Hip Hop, Race, and the Politics of Meaning (Hamilton Books, 2012), which explores the London riots.

Sekou’s a third-generation Pentecostal minister and the special assistant to the Bishop of New York Southeastern District of the Church of God in Christ. As we continue to unpack and learn from the tremendous legacy Dr. King left us, here is another perspective in the opening section of Sekou’s essay A Mighty Stream:

“Darling I miss you so much. In fact, much too much for my own good. I never realized that you were such an intimate part of my life,” writes a young graduate student, Martin Luther King Jr. to his love interest, Coretta Scott. They are separated for a few months because King had gone home to Atlanta for the summer after his first year as a PhD student at Boston University School of Theology. King opens the letter by sharing how much he missed her. Honing the oratory that would go on to seize the consciousness of a nation, King laid it on thick. “My life without you is like a year without a spring time, which comes to give illumination and heat to the atmosphere, which has been saturated by the dark cold breeze of winter.”

Turning to “something more intellectual,” King indicated that he finished reading Bellamy’s “fascinating” book. In April 1952, Scott sent King a copy of Edward Bellamy’s socialist novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887. She inscribes the gift with a note expressing her interest in his reaction to “Bellamy’s prediction about our society.” The utopian science fiction novel took place in Boston, where both King and Scott were graduate students. Written in 1888 and set in the year 2000, the novel’s protagonist Julian West awoke from a 130-year slumber to realize that the United States has been transformed into a socialist society. West offered a stunning criticism of the faith practices of the 19th century:

“Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the 19th century was in name Christian, and the fact that the entire industrial and commercial frame of society was the embodiment of the anti-Christian spirit must’ve had some weight, though I admit it was strangely little, with the nominal followers of Jesus Christ.”

Read Sekou’s whole essay here.

Richard Rohr: Losing Nonviolence … And Finding It Again

“I’m told that the word “nonviolence” did not exist (at least in the English and German languages) until the 1950s. There’s a reason for that: the notion didn’t exist in our consciousness. We didn’t create a word for it because we didn’t get it yet! When Gandhi came along, he pointed out that every religion in the world knows that Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived nonviolence except one religion—Christianity. In very short order, after Gandhi, this became obvious to many wise people throughout the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the one who most influenced our American culture regarding nonviolence. That’s why I speak of it as a recovery of nonviolence. We had it, but we couldn’t hear it, especially after Christianity became the imperial religion. When you’re imperial, you can’t hear any talk of nonviolence. You have to be violent to be an empire. So after 313 AD, we pretty much lost the nonviolent teaching of Jesus and it was not recovered until the twentieth century. It’s sort of unbelievable, but in between, nonviolence was almost universally forgotten, denied, or ignored as Christianity needed to justify its own violence.”–Richard Rohr, OFM (Adapted from Fr. Richard’s teachings on his lineage)

Fred Shuttlesworth: #Occupying Heaven

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth with wife, Sephira in Selma, Alabama, at the 46th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (Photo: Rose Berger)

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who withstood fire hoses and dogs unleashed by Birmingham’s public safety conmmissioner, and survived bombings and beatings during the civil rights movement, died on Wednesday (Oct. 5) at age 89.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (left), Ralph Abernathy (center), Dr. King (right) on Good Friday on April 12, 1963, in Birmingham.

I met Rev. Shuttlesworth last year in Birmingham with his lovely wife Sephira when I joined the 46th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on a civil rights tour of Alabama led by Congressman John Lewis.

Rev. Shuttlesworth’s body was a bit ravaged, but his eyes were fierce and he was tracking everything that was going on.

He made it across the Edmund Pettus bridge one more time. And now he’s crossed a bridge where there’s nothing but angels on the other side.

“I think God created Fred Shuttlesworth to take on people like Bull Connor. He was one of the most courageous men that I have ever known. I don’t know of anyone else that could have led the movement in Birmingham.”–Rev. Joseph Lowery

Read more about Rev. Shuttlesworth over at Sojourners.

Joan Chittister: Sin and ‘The Good Life’

Sr. Joan's recent lecture in Boston was cut short due to a false fire alarm.
I like Joan Chittister’s understanding of “the good life” and the wages of sin. Personal piety is important because it keeps us grounded in God. But we are grounded in God only so we can spread the good news to the world in which we live. Spreading that “good news” means consorting with those who society deems as “sinners.”

In American society, it is socially unacceptable to be poor. To be poor calls into question the great American “bootstrap myths” and the myth that market capitalism can advance humanity, and that myth that a system of American democracy that allows for an unfettered market will create a stable economy. What’s “good news for the poor” in this context is, indeed, revolutionary.

When Pope John XXIII talked about “the signs of the times,”–poverty, nuclearism, sexism–I began to read these new signs with a new conscience and with a new sense of religious life in mind. Most of all, I began to read the scriptures through another lens. Who was this Jesus who “consorted with sinners” and cured on the Sabbath? Most of all, who was I who purported to be following him while police dogs snarled at black children and I made sure not to be late for prayer or leave my monastery after dark? What was “the prophetic dimension” of the Church supposed to be about if not the concerns of the prophets–the widows, the orphans, the foreigners and the broken, vulnerable, of every society?

We prayed the psalms five times a day for years, but I had failed to hear them. What I heard in those early years of religious life was the need to pray. I forgot to hear what I was praying. Then, one day I realized just how secular the psalmist was in comparison to the religious standards in which I had been raised: “You, O God, do see trouble and grief…. You are the helper of the weak,” the psalmist argues (Psalm 104). No talk of fuzzy, warm religion here. This was life raw and hard. This was what God called to account. This was sin.

When the Latin American bishops talked about a “fundamental option for the poor,” I began to see the poor in our inner-city neighborhood for the first time. When Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. finally stood up in Birmingham, Alabama, I stood up, too. I was ready now. Like the blind man of Mark’s gospel, I could finally see. The old question had been answered. The sin to be repented, amended, eradicated was the great systemic sin against God’s little ones. For that kind of sin, in my silence, I had become deeply guilty.

I had new questions then but they were far more energizing than the ones before them. I began to look more closely at what “living a good life” could possibly mean in a world that was so full of suffering, so full of greed.

I began to realize that “a good life” had something do with making life good for other people. Slowly, slowly I began to arrive at the oldest Catholic truth of them all: all of life is good and that sanctity does not consist in denying that. Sanctity consists in making life good for everyone whose life we touch.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Joan Chittister: In My Own Words, edited by Mary Lou Kownacki

Dr. King and the ‘Maladjusted’ Prophets

Protesters picketed the racially segregated Glen Echo Park in 1960, near Washington, D.C..
Pacifica radio is playing speeches from Dr. King all day. It’s the best tribute I can think of. It’s like an all day seminar on the very best of American history and religious nonviolence.

The earliest recorded speech in the Pacifica archives is from June 4, 1957, when Dr. King delivered a speech to students at the University of California at Berkeley at the invitation of the Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Christian Association. His topic was “The Power of Nonviolence”, and in relatively few words King movingly described the principle of nonviolent resistance and the ideals he sought to uphold by using it in his movement. The speech’s conclusion has a famous section on the biblical prophets and “maladjustment.” He says:

Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word. It is the word “maladjusted.” Now we all should seek to live a well—adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted to such things. I call upon you to be as maladjusted as Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day cried out in words that echo across the generation, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

My community e-list today for the Columbia Heights neighborhood has a reflection by one of our local heroes, Kenneth Barnes, founder of ROOT Inc,dedicated to ending gun violence, recalling segregated D.C. He writes:

I was born and raised in northeast Washington, DC, in a section known as Trinidad.   I grew up on Owen Place, a street between Montello Ave and Trinidad Ave, NE.  My family moved to Owen Place in 1945, and, ironically, was the first African American family to move onto the block.

I attended Wilson elementary school on the corner of 6th and K St, NE.  Wheatley Elementary is on the corner of Neal St. and Montello Ave, NE, within two blocks walking distance of my family home.  Yet I had to catch a bus to go to Wilson Elementary over a mile from home and by pass Wheatley every morning.

As a child, I would wonder why but it was one of those mysteries not clearly defined by my family to me and it seemed as a child to be no big deal.  My family was from the south and shielded the inequities of segregation and the evils of racism from my brother, my sister, and me.  Racism and segregation was a part of everyday life accepted by families like mine from the south as part of their existence.

I remember being in the first integrated class of Wheatley when I entered the 5th grade and still was not totally aware of the segregated society that I had been a part of.   I remember studying history and not really seeing or being able to identify with Black people, because all history at that time being taught consisted of the history of western civilization and culture or American (White) history.  We learned about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,   Davey Crockett and Wyatt Earp were big frontier heroes.  Even God was a white man with a flowing white beard and hair to match, and Jesus Christ was a younger white man with a darker beard and long hair down to his shoulders.

I succinctly remember one black person being taught as being a hero during the American Revolution, and his name was Crispus Attacks.  I remember wondering at the time what made him a hero and why was he singled out.  He happened to be in a crowd of people that were shot by English soldiers and he happened to be black.  I never could figure out what was heroic about that nor, at the time, did I understand the significance of why he, of all the heroic Black people throughout history, was singled out and given to us (Black children) as being a hero.

This naivete of thinking remained with me up until my high school years.  I remember about a black lady refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  I remember about sit-ins and protests, about Medgar Evars being murdered, about a bombing of a church, and civil rights workers being killed.  Even with all that atrocity my most vivid memory is of a remarkable man, a preacher, who began to become prominent as a spokesperson against all of the evils entwined with bigotry, segregation, and racism.  He spoke eloquently yet forcefully and firmly.  He spoke with a gentleness of conviction, and his powerful message of non violent confrontation as a means of battling racism began to resonate throughout America.

He stood up for us as African Americans perhaps as no other before him.  He was, to me, our savior, our Christ.  He led marches and protests against racist and segregation against some of the vilest and most ruthless people in this county.  He was beaten, stabbed, locked up, attacked by dogs, and water hosed.  Yet he seemed to rise, larger than life, above it all.

And he became my first hero.  He opened my eyes like no one before me had.  I began to listen to his speeches, enthralled by his every word.

I remember this great man being able to call a march on Washington and give perhaps the most magnificent speech ever delivered in the history of mankind, with the entire nation as well as the entire world enthralled. …

I encourage you to spend some time today being discipled by the essays and speeches of Dr. King. Listen to just one today and let the words take root in your mind and heart.

Cindy Sheehan Says “Don’t Go, Don’t Kill”

A few weeks ago I ran a commentary on Huffington Post titled Christian Support for DADT is a Double Edged Sword. This week anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan added her twist on this same theme with a piece on Al Jazeera titled Don’t Go, Don’t Kill. She says:

Some of us in the peace movement work really hard to keep our young people out of the hands of the war machine that preys on disadvantaged young people in inner cities and poor rural settings.

To see a demographic that is (without appearing to stereotypes) traditionally better educated, more politically progressive, and economically advantaged fight to join this killing machine is very disheartening.

I can see how one could view the repeal as a step forward, framed in the context dictated by the political elites of the Washington beltway. I can imagine much displeasure amongst the military brass – but I cannot reiterate enough how this is not a progressive moment in the social history of the United States.

The US military is not a human rights organisation and nowhere near a healthy place to earn a living or raise a family. My email box is filled with stories of mostly straight soldiers and their families who were deeply harmed by life in the military.

I also appreciated the response from Hank Stuever, a Washington Post writer and author of the book Tinsel, to Sheehan’s piece:

Here’s something you would never hear from the gay-rights crowd about DADT, certainly not here in the epicenter of defense spending and military careers, but nevertheless, I find it curiously spot-on: Just because you CAN join the military, is it the morally just thing to do? Cindy Sheehan (remember her?) making a very good point in an essay for Al Jazeera — THAT’s how fringe this thinking is. But it begs the question: Are there ANY peace activists in the gay-rights movement?

Authentic movements for social justice build allies across lines promoting human dignity.  As Dr. King said in Montgomery, “This is a conflict between justice and injustice.” The only real question is which side are you on.

Nonviolent Resistance and Gandhi’s Psychological Jiu-Jitsu

Last night I was reading reflections sent from Shelley Douglass at Mary’s House in Birmingham, Alabama. Shelley and Jim Douglass are  long-time Catholic Workers, authors, activists, and practitioners of radical hospitality. In her note, Shelley mentioned a new book on Gandhi that she’s really enjoying. It’s called Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire by Rajmohan Gandhi (Mohandas’ grandson). Here’s a description:

This monumental biography of one of the most intriguing figures of the twentieth century, written by his grandson, is the first to give a complete and balanced account of Mahatma Gandhi’s remarkable life, the development of his beliefs and his political campaigns, and his complex relations with his family. Written with unprecedented insight and access to family archives, it reveals a life of contrasts and contradictions: the westernized Inner Temple lawyer who wore the clothes of India’s poorest and who spun cotton by hand, the apostle of nonviolence who urged Indians to enlist in the First World War, the champion of Indian independence who never hated the British. It tells of Gandhi’s campaigns against racial discrimination in South Africa and untouchability in India, tracks the momentous battle for India’s freedom, explores the evolution of Gandhi’s strategies of non-violent resistance, and examines relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, a question that attracted Gandhi’s passionate attention and one that persists around the world today. Published to rave reviews in India in 2007, this riveting book gives North American readers the true Gandhi, the man as well as the legend, for the first time.

Then today I came across Tom Hasting’s blog on nonviolence. I appreciate Tom’s emphasis on applied nonviolence and on highlighting those who are teaching nonviolence in the U.S. today. Tom also mentions Gandhi, along with social philosoper Richard Gregg, and Helen and Scott Nearing, the early “back to the land” pacifists in this post:

Richard Gregg was inspired to visit and learn from Gandhi in India in the 1920s. Gregg was a social philosopher who really began to translate Gandhian nonviolence into practical, explicable social organizing and conflict management models. He thought about the psychological aspects, calling what Gandhi did ‘psychological jiu-jitsu’, that is, using the power of the oppressor against himself, allowing the hatred and violence to expend themselves with far less harm than if those tactics (the oppressor’s strength) would have been countered with similar but asymmetrically weaker hatred and violence. Gregg really influenced the western analysis of why Gandhian nonviolence might work.

Gregg’s 1934 germinal work, The Power of Nonviolence, is still a classic, and the second edition, in 1960, included a foreword by the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Gregg also integrated the swadeshi philosophy in his own life, moving to a farm with Helen and Scott Nearing, who were quite influential in the nascent self-reliance movement in the US. Gregg coined the term voluntary simplicity and staked out an early claim toward our slowly developing notions connecting war to resource conflict to consumerism to ecological care to urban dependency to injustice. We are still learning this basic system of interlocking causes and effects.

Due to the fact that our God is one of hilarious surprises, you just never know when something new will pop up. Read more of Tom’s post here.