Monday, November 28, 2016

WHEN LOVE IS NOT ENOUGH (Engaging Evil – Part III)

(Thank you Gary Olson and Bill Rettig for your helpful questions and comments regarding this post.)

(You can view Parts I and II, “How I Learned to Love Donald Trump” & “Things That Go Bump In the Night” at  & my “Living With Soul” page on Facebook) 

This is the season of thankfulness. I am thankful for family, friends and my many blessings. I am also torn by conflicting emotion about our presidential election.

I'm disgusted: We elected a president that many - business people, political professionals, and analysts judge unqualified for the office.

I'm angry: Important government programs affecting the environment, health, aid for disadvantaged people and immigrants may be eliminated or downgraded.

I'm fearful: The US may revert to the militaristic foreign policies of the past.

I'm sad: The election exposed deep divisions among the citizens of our country. These are exacerbated by ignorance, isolation, and hatred.

I'm confused: I see no obvious solutions. We seem disconnected from the moral grounding of our ancestors.

I'm hopeful: I believe we have unrecognized potentials that will allow our nation to once again become a resource to the global community.

In the midst of these mixed emotions, life is getting more personal. My Haitian friends have introduced me to the pain and frustration of immigrants who are seeking asylum in the United States. My little grandson has opened me to seeing things in new ways. I now realize that oppressors are often oppressed themselves. When that kid bullied my grandson (See my last post), I thought only of Gus. Now I wonder about this little boy. Was he jealous because he had no grandpa to play with? Had he been bullied himself? In the heat of the moment, I wasn't able to relate to him. I wish I had behaved differently.

I'm still concerned about injustices in our world. Now the news reports are more than statistics. I anguish for the people caught in the violence. I envision myself trapped in Aleppo as bombs destroy my city;i or in Mosul as ISIS and coalition forces battle for control; or in Homs Syria.ii I wonder about the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, lovers and children of the fighters on both sides. They grieve over the death of their loved ones even as I grieve over the death of our son.

I'm no longer clear about the appropriate response to violence and evil. When I was young, the answers were simple. There were rules. I had to “do the right thing.” Now that I am older, evil is less well defined. Right and wrong are no longer polar opposites. The blacks and whites have faded into shades of grey.

In the past, religious and moral traditions provided guidance. Today these traditions have less influence. We are increasingly left alone and adrift. Unconsciously we look for people who support our views - a tribe so to speak. As with ancient tribes, we band together for self preservation. We have our own beliefs and values (gods). We promulgate our own creation stories (myths). We seek to dominate other tribes to protect our political, economic, and moral positions (territory). The belief that “Violence Saves” holds us in its sway.iii

The animosity that surfaced during the election exposed the depths of the divisions in our society. Given the present political climate, there is reason to believe that these divisions will result in a country riven by distrust and hatred. It is increasingly clear that we cannot deal with our differences through domination and violence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it well, “If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.” We must find alternative ways to engage one another, or our democracy will decline.

I suggested one alternative in my last two posts. This is to tune-in to the emerging flow of the cosmos, a flow that constantly creates and evolves. There is no magic in this. It is a process; - like getting to know and love a friend. It begins with a desire for something more, followed by steps of curiosity, interest and finally commitment.

Like growing in love, this is not a rational process that can be clearly defined. It's something you know deep in your heart and gut. It's a sense of rightness about your way of living.

I offer this alternative to you because you care. You may be active in a religious community, or you may be turned off by religion. In either case, it is no longer sufficient to define ourselves as liberal or conservative; religious or non religious; pacifist or pro military. When we embrace both our positive and shadow aspects, traditional categories are insufficient. We realize that we, and all of humanity, are part of a whole. Everyone and everything has value.

In this sense, people steeped in the cosmic flow are threats to the status quo. We are not bound by cultural definitions of right and wrong. Buddha violated the norms of his society when he abdicated his role as ruler and warrior, abandoned his wife and child, and wandered without status among the dispossessed. Gandhi fomented a societal revolution using only nonviolent resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., inspired by Gandhi, promoted acts of civil disobedience in his struggle against racism. Moses led a worker's revolt agains the ruling class in Egypt. Jesus healed and worked on the Sabbath; ate with tax collectors and prostitutes; and embraced the untouchable lepers. His actions and relationships were in direct violation of the cultural norms of his day. Joan of Arc violated gender stereotypes and became a warrior. Dorthy Day, an unwed mother and communist sympathizer, challenged the entrenched cultural traditions of Catholicism.

An activist friend of mine is committed to the welfare of the dispossessed. He is cooperating with a dictator because he believes this is the most effective way to help the poor of this third world country. Based on current cultural values, many would condemn his decision.

In a society that has lost it's moorings, we need people from all walks of life who are willing to engage the deeper humanity that resides in each of us. We need people who are willing to explore the profound shift that is occurring in consciousness.iv We need to use every ounce of energy to bind the wounds of the past. We need to challenge injustices and violence wherever and whenever they occur.

This requires people who are willing to put themselves in the middle of the action rather than living by proxy; letting others act in their place. It requires people who will engage social situations without prejudgement; people who can engage others who have different values, histories and perspectives. We need people who are willing to promote diversity and inclusiveness.

Even as I share these lofty ideals, I have no illusion that there are any quick fixes. We are involved in a transition that will occur over lifetimes. We may never see the results of our efforts. The best we can hope for is that we can forestall a major deterioration in the quality of life on our planet. If we survive this crisis, we will emerge as a more conscious and hopefully compassionate species. Surely, this is worth the effort.

iii “The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn't seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It's what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflict. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto- death. ... The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.” Walter Wink, “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”


Friday, September 23, 2016


(Thank you Walter Wink. Your life and teachings have influenced me profoundly.)

Were you afraid of the dark as a kid? Did you want a light in your bedroom? Did you ask your parents to leave the door open just a crack so light from the hallway could seep in? I remember lying in bed huddled under the blankets. I had this eerie feeling that something would grab my hand if I left it dangling over the edge of the bed.

Fear of the dark is not just for children. Why do you think adults are fascinated with horror movies? We watch with fear and anticipation as threatening figures lurk in the shadows. Afterwards the dark corners of our homes are a bit more menacing. The demons of death and darkness never really leave us because they exist deep in our unconscious.

My personal darkness surfaced recently when I took my grandson to the playground. We were playing on the slide when a bigger kid pushed ahead of him and blocked his way. Gus shouted, “You should cooperate!” I told the child to share the slide. He refused. We finally moved to another part of the park.

Gus wailed in frustration, and I seethed. I wished I could beat the crap out of this little bully. I wanted to drag him kicking and screaming to his mom. There I would lecture her about her child's behavior.

Even now my blood boils when I remember how this bully treated my grandson. After all, I was the adult. I was bigger and stronger. He broke the rules. He should be forced to obey or suffer the consequences.

This scenario is played out day after day, not just on playgrounds but in corporate offices and in battle fields around the world. “Might makes right!” ”Violence Saves!” As a result, the powerful thrive and the powerless suffer. ISIS troops capture, rape, torture and kill innocents. Civil wars demolish cities leaving millions homeless. Violence, fueled by poverty runs rampant in large cities. A case in point: More Americans were killed in Chicago since 2001 [7,916] than were killed in the Iraq [4,904] and the Afghanistan [2,384] conflicts combined.i

Theologian, Walter Wink wrote,

The belief that violence “saves” simply appears to be the nature of things. It's what works. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto-death. The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. It is what organizes our inner world. It rings true at our core whether we consider ourselves religious or not.ii

What an amazing insight. Whether we see ourselves as religious, agnostic or atheist, most of us are captivated by an ancient urge that promotes domination, destruction and death.

In my previous post, “How I'm learning to love Donald Trump,”iii I wrote about a cosmic flow that scientists call emergence.iv Emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. In this sense, the cosmos flows into the future, generating new forms of existence. The evolution of life and the growth of consciousness are two examples.

As I think of cosmic emergence, I imagine a flow of creativity through which new forms are continuously created. These forms compete with one another. The more adaptive ones survive, while the others pass out of existence.

Humankind has evolved to the point where our technologies now affect the evolution of our planet. This means that we affect the dynamic of emergence even as this processes affects us.

This is where the story about my grandson is relevant. It's one thing for me to imagine smashing a little bully. It's something else when nations, corporations and religious groups actually smash one another in struggles for dominance. It's even worse when this belief that “Violence Saves” is considered normal. Our impulse to violence is largely unconscious, unexamined and denied. Even as we bemoan the decline of religion in our culture, the religion of redemptive violence grips us as deeply, if not more so, than the religion of our elders.

When we participate in worshipping violence and domination, we contribute to emergent dynamics that threaten the existence of our species. These include: global warming; extinction of animal and plant species that maintain the stability of our ecosystem; appearance of new viruses and other unintended genetic adaptations; and new forms of warfare. If humankind passes out of existence, the cosmos will continue to evolve - just without us.

Again I quote Walter Wink:v
The Abrahamic religions (Judaism followed by Christianity and Islam) that emerged during the Axial Agevi challenged the more ancient belief that “Violence Saves.”vii The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.

The question facing us today is this: Will we succumb to our fascination with violence and devolve as human beings, or will we consciously engage the Powers, the shadow side of our humanity, in ways suitable to this age?

Walter Wink suggests that engaging the Powers is a three step process:
  1. Naming the Powers
  2. Unmasking the Powers
  3. Engaging the Powersviii

When we name the powers, we bring them to consciousness. We note that we are engaged in some dangerous practices.

When we unmask the powers, we examine these practices to learn how they affect our lives.

This is where we are in our history. The negative affects of violence are all too obvious. People are beginning to explore the global affects of strategies based on violence and domination. The Powers have been named and unmasked.

We now have two options:
  1. We can deny the existence of the Powers and succumb to the religion of redemptive violence.
  2. We can make the conscious decision to engage the Powers.

Denial takes three forms:
  1. We can explicitly embrace the religion of redemptive violence. This tactic is obvious in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and, to some degree, that of Hillary Clinton. Many global corporations, armies and some religious groups embrace this belief.
  2. We can externalize the Powers and battle them. This is what happens when we project our shadow side onto our enemies. The enemy is all bad, and we are all good. We never deal with our own shadow.
  3. We can run from the Powers. This is what happens when we watch horror films and relate to people and situations with defensiveness. The shadow is outside ourselves and lurking in the dark.

Increasingly, denial is not an option. The old comic strip character, Pogo, put it well, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” In this realization we are compelled to engage the powers. This requires humility and courage. We have to acknowledge that the Powers are intrinsic to each of us as individuals and collectively, to our social structures.

The Powers in my own life manifested as an inner voice telling me, “You don't measure up.” “Nobody will love and respect you unless you prove you are more capable than they are.” “Just bury your feelings and proceed; use your intellect to separate yourself from the pain of your emotions.”

This resulted in workaholism and other destructive behaviors. It was not until I experienced family problems; a health crisis and the death of my sister and son, that I could name and engage my personal shadow. Engagement led, not to victory in the traditional sense, but to an acceptance of my own vulnerability.

Through my personal struggles, I received a profound gift. I was able to acknowledge my intrinsic self-worth. I no longer needed to earn love and acceptance through my intellectual achievements. I was OK just being me. I understood what spiritual leaders and psychologists have known for years. The Powers, when engaged, offer us a gift. They allow us to become our authentic selves.

Moral/religious leaders in the past (Jewish prophets, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammed and others) knew this truth in their bones. This is why they emphasized love, humility and compassion as the only way to participate constructively in the emergent flow of the cosmos. They understood that violence, domination and manipulation result in disintegration and death.

Our challenge today is to acknowledge and engage the Powers and not to deny them. For many of us, the religious forms of the past have lost their power. If this is your experience, I challenge you to join with others in new configurations that allow you to engage these destructive aspects of our humanity. If faith communities still function for you, I challenge you to promote movements within your religious structures that engage the Powers of violence and dominance rather than denying them.

This is where my grandson enters once again. He teaches and leads me even as I mentor him. His childlike innocence and naivety inspire me. I am captivated by my love for him. I can't bequeath to him a society sliding into the abyss of violence and despair. Even though it seems hopeless at times, I am compelled to live into a future vision of love and compassion – for his sake and for mine.


ii Theologian & activist Walter Wink, “The Myth of Redemptive Violence”

“The belief that violence “saves” is so successful because it doesn't seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It's what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflict. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience-unto- death. ... The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.”

In this mythic tale, first told in ancient Babylon around 1250 BCE, the god, Marduk, kills his mother, Tiamat, who represents chaos. He creates the cosmos from her dismembered body and the human race from blood. Creation is an act of violence. Chaos precedes order. Evil precedes good. Violence is no problem. It's simply a primordial fact. Therefore cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine. This is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to the ruler (or ruling class)

The creation myth in Genesis 1, developed during the Hebrew captivity in Babylon, provides a rebuttal to the Babylonian Myth of Redemptive Violence. It portrays a God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, in Genesis, as a result of the first couple's sin and the connivance of the serpent. A basically good reality is corrupted by free decisions reach by creatures. In this more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.

iii Check it out on my Blog on Facebook, “Living With Soul,” or on line at

iv See <> for a more complete discussion of emergence.

v  The biblical myth in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed to all this (Genesis 1, it should be noted, was developed in Babylon during the Jewish captivity there as a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth). The Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures. In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.

vi In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day--the development of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. See <>

vii Myth of Marduk and Tiamat
In this myth, creation is an act of violence. Marduk murders and dismembers Tiamat, and from her cadaver creates the world. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes (The Symbolism of Evil, Harper Collins 1967), order is established by means of disorder. Chaos (symbolised by Tiamat) is prior to order (represented by Marduk, high god of Babylon). Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.In the Babylonian myth, however, violence is no problem. It is simply a primordial fact. The simplicity of this story commended it widely, and its basic mythic structure spread as far as Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and China. Typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.

After the world has been created, the story continues, the gods imprisoned by Marduk for siding with Tiamat complain of the poor meal service. Marduk and his father, Ea, therefore execute one of the captive gods, and from his blood Ea creates human beings to be servants to the gods.
The implications are clear: human beings are created from the blood of a murdered god. Our very origin is violence. Killing is in our genes. Humanity is not the originator of evil, but merely finds evil already present and perpetuates it. Our origins are divine, to be sure, since we are made from a god, but from the blood of an assassinated god.
We are the outcome of deicide.

viii Walter Wink originally published a trilogy: Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament; Unmasking the Powers:The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence; Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance In a World of Domination. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink, is a condensation of his trilogy and is an easier read.

Friday, August 12, 2016


Marques Bovre wrote a whimsical song titled, Heaven Halve Me.i His lyrics explain how everyone gets to heaven. But it's only the part that contains goodness that gets there. Marques hopes that at least ten percent of him will get there. This set me to thinking about Donald Trump. How much of him will get to heaven? Depending on your opinion of Mr. Trump, you might figure that one percent gets there, or perhaps only 0.1%. The point is that everyone has some goodness in them, even those whom we despise.

If you believe the rhetoric of our political parties, it seems that less than one percent of all politicians will get to heaven. When you listen to news reports about the mood of fear and hate in our world, it seems that heaven will need only a small room to contain all the goodness in the human race.

It is clear that the November elections are critically important. It is also clear that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face voters who are profoundly confused and angry about the ineffectiveness of our political system. Neither candidate is trusted by the voters.

This issue has larger implications than the results of the election. The atmosphere of fear and distrust in our society pollutes our perception of reality. For this reason, many people imagine that the only way we can deal with conflicts at home and abroad is by dominating or destroying those with whom we disagree. Strategies that promote mutual respect and cooperation are seen as soft and unworkable.

In this context, Marcus Bovre's vision is revolutionary. He proclaims that no one is all bad. There is a core of goodness in each of us. His vision is not only about the afterlife. It concerns the heaven or hell we create here on earth.

Our history is rife with examples of social movements that have struggled effectively on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Movement leaders who have inspired me include: Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Russell Means (AIM), ii the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyl of Myanmar.iii

Our situation today is different from that in the '60's and '70's. Those labeled oppressors in the past now see themselves as oppressed. White working class males and their families are threatened as blue collar jobs are shipped overseas or phased out. Many, without a college education, are unable to obtain the training required to obtain jobs in the information age. They are stereotyped as stupid and racist. These angry and frustrated people are prime targets for those who choose to manipulate them for their own self interests.

I watched a televised roundtable forum with President Obama. A 50 year old steel worker asked, “How are you going to help me and my family when good jobs are drying up?” The president responded by telling him that new jobs were being created for people like him in the green energy fields. As the president shared his vision for the future, the steel worker's eyes glazed over. He knew that these well intentioned progressive programs would not be available in time to help him and his family.

Our challenge today is more complex than that of our predecessors. Today, the “bad guys” are not people. They are impersonal institutions and social structures. This is why Marques Bovre's vision is so important. We need to work together in new social movements to modify these dysfunctional social institutions and structures. Participation in such movements is not for sissies. Change agents need training, discipline and courage. This is a long term effort since the goal is the transformation of our society.

What will motivate us to live into this vision? How can we join with others in movements that challenge the fear and negativism in our culture? Some people, like the movement leaders of the past, will be motivated by their faith traditions. Others will be motivated by personal experiences that put them in touch with a flow in the cosmos that moves toward creativity and innovation.

Scientists call this flow emergence.iv Emergence is a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. In this sense, the cosmos flows into the future, generating new forms of existence. The evolution of life and the growth of consciousness are two examples of emergence. (I should note here that some emergent properties threaten the survival of humankind. These challenge us to discern, using our developing consciousness. I will deal with this dynamic in a subsequent post.)
I have experienced this flow personally. One time, in particular, comes to mind. I was walking on the grounds of Holy Wisdom Monasteryv on a cold winter morning. It had snowed during the night. The rising sun reflected off the newly fallen snow. The forest floor sparkled like it was covered with diamonds. Everywhere I looked I saw diamonds. I was filled with a sense of hope and joy. Even now, these diamonds sparkle in my memory. I had the sense that the cosmos continues to evolve toward creativity and life even in the darkest of times.

Unfortunately, when we are conditioned to expect predictable and negative outcomes, it is difficult to recognize these emergent properties. If we are to live into a more hopeful future, we must prepare ourselves to notice them when they occur. We need cadres of people who are willing to live outside the norms of the dominant culture; people who are willing to look for signs of hope where many see only fear and violence. These cadres already exist in some social justice, service and faith communities. They are also emerging in new I believe that the continuation of such communities may be the greatest gift we can give one another in these troubled times.
The ability to perceive the diamonds of love, compassion and hope is not a skill that can be taught in the classroom. It is passed on through relationships and personal stories. In this spirit I will share a few instances where these diamonds sparkled for me. As I do this, let your mind wander to similar experiences in your life.

We recently took our four year old grandson, Gus, on a picnic. Gus, who is fascinated with bugs, wandered around collecting specimens. He wanted to bring them home and keep them in a terrarium. As he argued his case, Gus described the ideal world he would create for his bug friends. They would have water to drink, leaves to eat, rocks to crawl on and even a slide for his “roly-poly” to play on. As I listened to Gus' description of his imagined world, it sparkled in my imagination like the diamonds in the snow.

I have friends, Emmanuel, Melissa and Gaby.vii Emmanuel risked his life in Haiti, advocating for the destitute in his country. He fled to the United States to avoid being assassinated. Melissa risked her life in the escape because she loves Emmanuel. Four year old Gaby radiates love as she runs to give me a hug with an impish grin on her face. When I am with them I experience the flow.

The diamonds of love also sparkle in tragic situations. The whole world mourned when the photo of the drowned Syrian boy went viral on the internet. Many were moved when a Muslim man sacrificed his life by hugging a suicide bomber as he detonated his explosive vest.

I experienced this flow when son, Timothy, died. His friends surrounded us with love as we removed belongings from his apartment. We, in our nuclear family, are more open with one another as a result of Timothy's death. We are aware of the fragility of life. We cannot take love for granted.

When I was younger, I feared I was not good enough, not man enough, not desirable enough. My whole life was about how I did or did not measure up. I was defensive, condemning of others and cynical about the world. I studied to become a physicist. I entered the field to prove myself. I soon realized that many of my peers were smarter and more talented than I. As a result I felt like a failure,

I changed careers and became an urban minister. I followed my passion. I was in the flow. I still wonder where my life is going at times. I do not worry about measuring up. I do what I do now because this work gives meaning to my life.

I'm certain you know this passion as well. It may involve child rearing, serving others, doing a good job at work, or being a friend.

When we are in the flow, we deal with life's set-backs differently. Rather than sinking into depression and cynicism (although this sometimes still happens to me), we look for opportunities to live into the situation. We don't say, “Someone, please bail us out.” We say, “This is important. How can we make things better?”

I believe we can all live this way. We can join communities of committed people. We can share stories to help one another see creative opportunities for involvement that sparkle like diamonds all around us. We can challenge political candidates to develop programs to achieve this positive future.

As we live this way, we will feel more alive. Then we will be able to say with my Facebook friend, “Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely, in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting 'Holy Crap, what a ride!'”

iii Formerly Burma
iv See <> for a more complete discussion of emergence.
vi See <> for a more complete discussion of emergence.
vii Not their real names

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


(In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I'm writing this reflection on Monday, January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Yesterday, I preached at our little congregation, where I am the Lay Leader. The Scripture readingi told the story of Jesus' first miracle at a wedding in Cana.

As I read the story, I was struck by the fact that both Jesus and MLK were called to lead before they were ready to do so. I believe this is often the case in my life and possibly in yours. I would like to reflect with you today on this dynamic. How can we live out MLK's legacy when much of our life happens when we are unprepared?

The Gospel story goes like this: Jesus and his mother were attending a wedding near their home. Wedding celebrations were big affairs in those times with food and dancing for several days. Friends and relatives came from all over. The groom's family threw a big bash to show the community that the groom came from quality stock and that would be a good provider for his new wife. So running out of wine was a problem for the host.

At this time, Jesus was not a well known rabbi or teacher. He was just beginning to invite disciples to join him He didn't yet have his act together. So Mary's request that he turn the water into wine was a big deal. If he had plans about developing his ministry, these plans were interrupted. His coming out at this time could blow the whole thing. This may be why he said to his mother, “My hour has not yet come.” Yet he acquiesced to her request, and the rest is history.

MLK Jr., like Jesus, may have been outed too soon as well. He was a young preacher in his mid-twenties finishing his PhD at Boston University and serving his first parish, Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, in Montgomery Alabama. When he arrived, the NAACP was organizing to desegregate the city bus system. At this time black riders were forced to enter and sit in the rear of the bus. If the bus was overcrowded, black riders were to relinquish their seats to white riders and stand.
The NAACP recruited Rosa Parks to refuse to leave her seat. She would be arrested and this would allow the NAACP to challenge the arrest and, if necessary, to have black riders boycott the bus system until the practice was changed. After Rosa Parks was arrested, Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen to lead the protest and boycott, not because he was so highly valued, but because his church was centrally located and because he was new enough in town that the white citizens had not yet intimidated him.

Both Jesus and MLK Jr. lived in times of great social upheaval and violence. In first century Israel, troops of the Roman Empire occupied and dominated the local population through violence and coercion. It was a time of unrest, and local zealots were fomenting rebellion.

In the United States during the 1950's, an emerging civil rights movement was challenging Jim Crow racism in the south, prompting an increasingly violent white backlash. Once again the potential for violence and class war was imminent.

Both Jesus and MLK Jr. were devoutly religious men. Both were viewed as prophetic leaders like Moses. They were expected to call down God's wrath on their oppressors and to lead them to freedom through God's awesome power and might. Both men disappointed their followers, preaching a response based on love for the enemy as the only way to wholeness.

Jesus put it this way, “To have life you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and you must love your neighbor as yourself.” When asked who was his neighbor, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan indicating that even the hated Samaritans were neighbors.ii

MLK Jr. was powerfully influenced by Jesus and by Gandhi's teachings on nonviolence. Dr. King once said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”iii He also said, “ I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daylight of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality...I believe that unarmed truth and love will have the final word.iv

Dr. King, like Jesus, moved forward completely dependent on God to help him discern his next steps in organizing people in his crusade for justice. He said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing”v He followed this saying, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”vi

In my understanding, this means that MLK believed that God's grace and forgiveness extend to us independent of our actions. If we live in this grace, we have already forgiven people for what they do before they do it. This allows us to relate to friends and enemies without bitterness or a desire to “pay them back” or “get even with them for their actions.” In this respect, both Jesus and MLK were seen as weak by those who wanted to answer violence with further violence.

Most celebrations of the MLK holiday feature the soaring oratory of King's “I Have A Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963, when more than 250,000 demonstrators descended upon the nation’s capital to participate in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” This was the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history.

In the year following this demonstration, Dr. King and other Civil Rights Movement leaders convinced President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress to pass the the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements as well as racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and at facilities that served the general public.

A year later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act banned racial discrimination in voting practices by the federal government as well as by state and local governments. It is is often held up as the most effective civil rights law ever enacted. It is widely regarded as enabling the enfranchisement of millions of minority voters and diversifying the electorate and legislative bodies at all levels of American government. (It should be noted that this act is presently under attack as politicians gerrymander voting districts, limit access to polling places and require forms of identification, such as drivers licenses, which many low income people do not possess.)

Dr. King lived 3 years after these milestone accomplishments. These were years in which his rhetoric and actions shifted. He began to lead and speak to the racism, poverty and militarism that threatened to destroy our democracy.vii

On one occasion Dr. King said, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem.”viii

Dr. king began organizing to address racism in the North. He also organized a Poor People's March on Washington to emphasize that poverty as well as racial discrimination are cancers that destroy democracy. He warned about the decay of our nation stating, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.ix

At Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination, Dr. King delivered his “Beyond Viet Nam” speech. In this speech he opposed US involvement in the Viet Nam war. He said, “When ma­chines and com­puters, profit motives and prop­erty rights are con­sidered more im­port­ant than people, the gi­ant triplets of ra­cism, ma­ter­i­al­ism, and mil­it­ar­ism are in­cap­able of be­ing conquered.x

The response to that speech was swift, certain and severe. Both liberal media and black media turned on him. The White House turned on him. He had worked with Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, but now [Johnson] turned against him.

The last Harris poll taken in Dr. King’s life showed that almost 75 percent of the American people thought he was irrelevant and almost 60 percent of blacks thought he was irrelevant or obsolete or persona non grata. In the last year of his life, the NAACP came out against him, and Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young of the Urban League. Ralph Bunche, the only other Nobel Peace Prize winning black, came out against him. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the powerful congressman, came out against him. [Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall had no respect or regard for him.xi

As I speak of these last years of MLK's life, I am reminded of the last year of Jesus' life. He too shifted or intensified his course of action. He left Galilee and moved toward Jerusalem. The writer of Luke puts it simply and eloquently saying, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”xii

As long as Jesus preached and healed in the backwaters of Galilee, he was lauded as great teacher. But when he challenged the entrenched hierarchy of chief priests and lawyers at the center of political and religious power, they marked him for elimination. His disciples and followers abandoned him leaving him at the mercy of his enemies.

Both Jesus and MLK were killed in the prime of life. Both lived courageously in the face of danger. Both left a lasting legacy demonstrating that love can conquer fear and violence.

Finally, MLK's critique of the United States applies today. All you have to do is substitute “Iraq and Afghanistan” for “Viet Nam” in his Beyond Viet Nam speech to see this.

Racism is alive and well in the United States. Evangelical activist, Jim Wallis, points out that a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey has revealed a devastating truth: While about 80 percent of black Christians believe police-involved killings are part of a larger pattern of police treatment of African Americans, around 70 percent of white Christians believe the opposite … that they are simply isolated incidents.xiii During this election season, political candidates receive applause when they characterize all Muslims as dangerous people who should be forced to leave our country or even should be attacked and killed.

Finally, MLK's critique on poverty still holds true. A recent Oxfam reportxiv states that just 62 individuals have the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – the bottom half of humanity - and that the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together. These statistics are mirrored in the United States.xv

What does this mean for us as we celebrate MLK Jr.'s life and legacy?

Author Tavis Smiley puts it well. He writes, In many ways we honor him (MLK) on the cheap. These monuments and holidays and postage stamps and his name on schools and streets are a beautiful thing and he deserves that. But King would much prefer that we deal with the triple threat he spoke of—racism, poverty and militarism—and try to save our democracy. So there’s work to be done. He’s a shining example of what the best of America looks like. I believe that the future of this democracy is inextricably linked with how seriously we take his legacy. I regard that legacy as one of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people.xvi

It's one thing to laud Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a single holiday. It's another thing to live into his legacy.

MLK and Jesus were both given the opportunity to act before they were ready. The were both challenged to live authentically rather than settling for the status quo. This was when they were most completely alive and engaged with that life force that courses through the cosmos.

Like Dr. Martin Luther King's life, each of our lives can make a difference. We can each leave a legacy of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people. A friend once put it this way, “What if the Moral Universe is in need of your unique way of interpreting and living your human experience?”

I will end with two questions for your reflection:

  1. When in your life have you been challenged, before you felt ready, to step out onto a path that was consistent with your authentic self? What was that like, or what might it have been like, to make that move?
  2. How has (or might have) that decision affected your attitude toward others; your ability to face difficult life circumstances; and your passion for life, peace and justice?

iJohn 2:1-11
iiLuke 10:25-37
vii“MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley” <>
viiiDelivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 4 November 1956.
ixSpeech was delivered by Dr. King in support of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, just two weeks before he was assassinated in the same city as part of his Poor Peoples Campaign.
xiHistory News Network | MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley
xiiLuke 9:51b
xviHistory News Network | MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley