Fifty

Fifty years.
Fifty years since one of the greatest theologians and social activists of the 20th Century was shot down.
 
Who is Rev. Dr. King to you?
 
To too many Americans, he is a messiah of cheap grace, who finished the work of racial reconciliation in his blood, because it was too hard for us. In this false good news story, we are now clean, blameless, and above reproach. For this group of us, challenging systems and behaviors that persist is insulting, unreasonable, and unfair.
 
To many more of us, he’s a Great Figure of History, like Frederick Douglass, George Washington, and so on. For this group of us work is important, formative, but vague and disconnected from our daily lives.
 
As I meditate on his life and death today, I think about how far we can progress in fifty years. When I went to my college Reunions parade for the first time in the 90s, the fiftieth anniversary alumni had their first black members. My class wasn’t at the proportion of the country as a whole, but there were hundreds of us. When my father registered people in the Alabama countryside to vote fifty years ago, the experience seemed more like one of the countries we cluck at today, with citizens afraid to vote because what might follow was state-sanctioned murder by the white members of the community. Today, it’s a short and easy trip to Memorial Drive to vote early, or across to a nearby church to vote on the day. I’m far more worried about being late for work or late for dinner as a result of voting than I am about making it back home.
 
Despite this, we still have problems. Racial animus wasn’t erased, it was buried. Individuals who actually got to experience life with people from other racial groups were better for it, as we found none of us neatly fit into the stereotypes and tropes created to keep things as they were, or created to protect the vulnerable. (As an aside, something you must understand is that while white stereotypes can be hurtful and unfair, they were created to protect vulnerable people of color in a system designed to keep them oppressed and to eliminate those who got out of line, while stereotypes about people of color were designed to dehumanize and justify the continuance of same system. So while we should let go of all stereotyping, the hand-wringing and false equivalence should be released as well.) But as black people moved in, white people moved out. Old laws that were explicitly, undeniably racist, were not removed from the books, but simply (usually) not enforced.

Grandparents and parents who grew up in a system designed to protect their benefits and raise their preferences at the expense of everyone else taught their children how unfair it was that these people now were getting such large slices of the pie. Looking at the slivers being cut for others, they’d say, “Why, there’s hardly any left for us! We used to have the whole pie, and now these people who didn’t even help bake it get to eat it up. What about us? We’ll starve!” All the while, their eyes remained averted from the kitchen where the pie was made.

We plow on as resolute and relentless individuals, completely unaffected by the portions of the past we find distasteful, and clinging to those portions of the past we think are critical. We have had no lament about where we have been, no place to process any sense of collective shame or guilt. We have had no reconciliation. Given this, is it any surprise that we have elected leaders at multiple levels of government who are individualistic, who have no sense of shame or guilt, who have no ability to weep with those who weep?We could speculate about what King would do or say if he were still here to guide, to be a conscience, but there are only a few people who have studied him enough to be qualified to do that. What I’m more interested in is what I’m going to do and what you’re going to do.

If you are white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of non-white people in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • When I disagree with non-white people about where we are on race in this country, do I look for other non-white people to validate my beliefs?
  • Have I ever borne an emotional burden about something they’ve experienced regarding race with a non-white brother or sister?
  • Have I ever felt shame or guilt, untempered by resentment or resistance, around the way things are in this country, even if they’re not my fault?

If you are not white, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I in multiple actual relationships with non-white people of different ethnicities than myself where we talk about real issues and feelings?
  • Am I under the leadership of someone non-white of a different ethnicity in any aspect of my life? Professionally? Spiritually?
  • Do I center the pain of my ethnic group and compare it quantitatively against the pain other ethnic groups have experienced, or do I lament with other stories of injustice?
  • To what extent am I complicit in holding up systems of power that unfairly preference those that have historically held power?

The reason why none of these questions are reciprocal toward white people is because since white is the historically dominant group, all of these preference raising questions come naturally. It’s not anything magical about the notion of whiteness; it’s just how cultural dominance works. You will be in relationship with the dominant group in some form. You will be under leadership from someone in the dominant group. You will understand their preferences and cater to them if you want to thrive. So for those of us new to this conversation, please understand this isn’t a finger-wag at something you were born with. This is about being intentional about dismantling imbalances in systems of power.

When I hear King the philosopher and social activist speak, I hear him asking us to seek the Beloved Community. When I hear King the pastor speak, I hear him asking us to lay down our preferences at the Cross and seek the well-being of our brothers and sisters at both an individual and systemic level.

Looking at 2068, what kind of country do we want for our grandchildren? Do we want a country that’s still in a cold Civil War that’s now 200 years old? Do we want a country that sits in resentment, fear, and individualistic separation? Or do we want to make the braver, harder, choice, and plow forward in love, letting lament and a sense of righteous shame break our stone hearts and remake them as flesh, then letting our collective love and intimate knowledge of each other heal and reconcile?

It sounds like a pipe dream when you put it like that. But just sixty years ago, I’m sure someone sat at their dinner table and thought “I appreciate what King is saying, but he’s crazy. Things will never change.”

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