Sunday, January 16, 2011

Do you know my friend Martin?

The other day at school, a student asked me why they get MLK Day off but not Columbus Day. Columbus discovered American, they reasoned. We don't really get MLK Day off, students do but teachers have a staff development day. As a former History teacher (I now teach Art) I began to explain about Brendan the Navigator, Leif Erikson, the Chinese and the fact that the indigenous peoples were already here... before I could get to slavery and disease and operating under the delusion that Hispaniola was in Asia- the kid moved on. "I mean, what did he even do, anyway? Give some speech about a dream? So he was in some marches, so what?"

I'm pretty sure that this White teenage girl isn't racist, but was just trying to rile me and (she thought) she was being funny. Be that as it may, it did trouble me that so few kids understand who Martin Luther King Jr. was, let alone appreciate his legacy. After all, he helped end apartheid in the United States!

Two of the most amazing books I have ever read are Doctor King's Strength to Love and The Measure of a Man. Each of these books profoundly effected and influenced my faith and understanding of theology, society, politics, justice and grace.

What a lot of people don't know is that even though they were Baptists, King's father changed both of their names to Martin Luther after a trip to Germany where he studied about the protestant reformer's commitment to the liberating power of the Gospel.

I don't think we should recognize and commemorate his civil rights work or his fight against poverty or his opposition to injustice and political hypocrisy. I think we should remember him because he sacrificed everything to do those things. He risked his life and forfeited prosperity and security to do those things. No, I do not elevate him to the same level as Jesus Christ- he would not either. His death didn't bring salvation- if anything his savage murder denied the world of his further wisdom and an his potential further leadership and example. But one reason he should be remembered is that he followed Christ's example by spending even his own life for the sake of others.

If you need a refresher in civil rights history, read this brief explanation:

King helped change America’s conscience, not only about civil rights but also about economic justice, poverty and war. As an inexperienced young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, King was reluctantly thrust into the leadership of the bus boycott. During the 382-day boycott, King was arrested and abused and his home was bombed, but he emerged as a national figure and honed his leadership skills. In 1957 he helped launch the (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) SCLC to spread the civil rights crusade to other cities. He helped lead local campaigns in Selma, Birmingham and other cities, and sought to keep the fractious civil rights movement together, including the NAACP, Urban League, (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) SNCC, (Congress of Organizations for Racial Equality) CORE and SCLC. Between 1957 and 1968 King traveled more than 6 million miles, spoke more than 2,500 times and was arrested at least twenty times while preaching the gospel of nonviolence. Today we view King as something of a saint; his birthday is a national holiday and his name adorns schools and street signs. But in his day the establishment considered King a dangerous troublemaker. He was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The struggle for civil rights radicalized him into a fighter for economic and social justice. During the 1960s King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. He was in Memphis in 1968 to support striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated. In 1964, at 35, King was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Some civil rights activists worried that his opposition to the Vietnam War, announced in 1967, would create a backlash against civil rights, but instead it helped turned the tide of public opinion against the war.
From: The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century by Peter DreierThe Nation Magazine, September 2010

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Deep Christianity"

Hope on a Tightrope: Word and Wisdom by Cornel WestHope on a Tightrope: Word and Wisdom by Cornel West by Cornel West

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd seen Professor West's books on shelves in bookstores and was interested. Why Race Matters and why Democracy Matters seemed like important discussions that we still need to have in the United States. But I confess my own racism/prejudice- I saw his afro and I wondered if as a middle class, middle aged, Midwestern White male I could relate to him. I worried that his politics would be too liberal even for a left-leaning centrist Democrat like me.

Then I caught his appearance on a late night talk show and he wasn't talking with arrogance or anger about race or politics- he was speaking about Jesus. He was speaking about faith and love and forgiveness and suffering.

When I fount this book, with the word "hope" right in the title, I wondered if it would be about President Obama or about the civil rights movement. It's not. It is about us, all of us. And in it, West introduces us to Jesus.

Not the confident, indignant, powerful Jesus that Pat Robertson and James Dobson talk about- the strict, White American, Republican patriarchal Jesus who opposes government regulation, taxes, and gay marriage and supports the troops and the Tea Parties and the NRA.

Not the optimistic, affluent, sexy, successful Jesus that Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar talk about, waiting to solve all your problems and shower you with material blessings if you just believe enough.

West reveals the Jesus who is humble, genuine, unpretentious but more importantly the Jesus who is brutally honest, patient, kind, just, loving, and wise. The Jesus who turns the other cheek, walks the extra mile, offers the shirt off His back, loves his enemy and was willing to risk everything and sacrifice everything for the sake of others.

Yes, West talks about race and politics, history and economics in this book. He talks about institutions and empire, families, education, and culture. But mostly he talks about depth. Deep Learning, Deep Democracy, and Deep Love, deep enough to sacrifice everything for the sake of justice, equality, and hope.

West says that he's made it his mission to make the world safe for Martin Luther King Jr. That's awesome, because anyone who's read King's 'Strength to Love,' knows that King had made it his mission to make the world safe for Jesus.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Good quote

Vanity is the involuntary inclination to set one's self up for an individual while not really being one; that is to say, trying to appear independent when one is dependent. The case of wisdom is the exact contrary: it appears to be dependent while in reality it is independent. -Nitzche