“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963
Thank you Kirwan Inst. and kudos to Jamaal Bell. I teach middle school civics and we’re studying Dr. King’s letter and how it relates to the civil rights movement as it’s covered in our textbook and the 14th Amendment. I think that both having a variety of narrators rather than a single actor portraying King or merely reading the letter, combine with the still images and historic footage you’ve woven together made this a more meaningful and compelling piece- especially for rural, mostly white Iowa eighth graders in 2018, who otherwise may not have understood or appreciated the letter as well.
When I re-read or re-teach this letter, I am reminded of Dr. King’s intelligence, patience, compassion, and insight. This letter has inspired me to write poems and blog posts and paint paintings.
This year, however, just as Dr. King wrote it in response to well intentioned white clergy fifty-five years ago, I wish I could introduce it to all the well-meaning white Christians, especially moderates and conservatives.
King, speaking to clergymen after all, even though it’s an “open” letter that the entire world was privy to in newspapers and magazines, alluded to several saints, philosophers and scriptures. He referrers to the teachings and examples of Jesus frequently in the letter.
These days, my family, friends and neighbors don’t understand the protests over police brutality in the last 2-3 years in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, etc. They saw white supremacists demonstrating in Charlotteville, VA and somehow they blamed former President Obama for being racially divisive during his time in office.
President Trump started his campaign off by describing Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists and started his administration off by calling for a ban on travel and immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.
Just this week Attorney General Jeff Sessions let slip during remarks to law enforcement officials in Washington that he thinks that sheriffs’ have an”Anglo–American heritage.”
My own Congressman, Steve King (R) of Iowa has opposed immigration because he doesn’t think we can restore our “superior culture” with “other people’s babies.” King has met with and admires Tomio Okamura, the leader of a neo-fascist white supremacist party in the Czech Republic.
As much as people would like to think that we’re more enlightened than Americans were in 1963 or have somehow achieved racial harmony, but obviously we haven’t. I fear that too many of us ARE the “white moderates” that Doctor King criticized in this letter.
We have become complacent or numb to injustice and inequalities. We’re reluctant to recognize let alone repent of our own latent racism. Many of us our even either in denial about or oblivious to institutional forms of racism and the racism of many of our leaders, either because recognizing it would mean having to do something about it or worse, recognizing it would reflect poorly on ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we could possibly be wrong.
Then there’s women’s inequality. Why do we hesitate to equate sexism with racism? Are they not the same? I think that when King talks about Austrian philosopher Martin Buber’s discussion about “I and Thou” rather than “I-It,” we could apply that to women as well as to people of color. Don’t we too often treat women as things rather than people?
And of course today discussion of LGBT rights is much more prominent than in the 1960’s. Even if you have difficulties getting past religious qualms about non-traditional (“non-binary”) sexuality, its impossible to get around that the Constitution’s requirements of equal protection and due process for all, regardless of race, creed, gender, and political persuasion. Discrimination is discrimination, no matter who it’s against or what your motivation.
This year, what made an impression on me was King’s discussion about just and unjust laws. Too many politicians have been using the argument about following the “rule of law” to whip up anger and indignation against DACA “Dreamer”immigrants, who’s parents brought them to this country when they were young children and who essentially have never known any country (home) than this one, but now face deportation decades later.
Doctor King handles head-on the fact that morality and justice are more important than the letter-of-the law, especially when state or local laws are abused by those in power to discriminate, segregate, or violate the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. Had he been a judge or a lawyer rather than a pastor and organizer, he probably would’ve quoted the Fourteenth Amendment directly.
I wish my loved ones would realize that when laws are inadequate, unclear, or unfair, it is our responsibility to revise, reform, or replace them. And that challenging them, protesting, sometimes even deliberately breaking them are all part of our constant democratic process.
I feel like ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ is a masterpiece of writing. Personally, I consider it part of the broader American “unwritten-constitution,” along side things like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Washington’s farewell address or Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and along side his own ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which he made just four or five months after he wrote this.
If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to find a copy. If you have about an hour that you’d otherwise end up using on Netflix or YouTube anyway, watch the video linked to at the top of this blog post. Consider it kind of an audio version of this letter. My prayer is that it will impact you half as much as it has me.
I realize that MLK Day was a couple of weeks ago but this blog post has kind of been nagging at me ever since then.
Everyone knows him from his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from 1963 and as an important civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. But how many of us have ever took the time to really read, study or digest that speech?
History buffs and civil rights advocates may know more about him. They may know that he’s also remembered for his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ for leading protests there and a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to draw attention to state discrimination in voting rights.
They may credit him with helping to put pressure on President Johnson and Congress to pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They know that after fighting so long against legal segregation and political equality in the South, he had begun campaigning for economic justice nationwide.
But we forget that he was a pastor, a theologian, an intellectual, a husband and father, a reader, thinker and writer. “Rev. Dr.” means that he was ordained and had a PhD. He wasn’t just a gifted speaker, activist and organizer. He was a ridiculously prolific writer.
He’s one of my personal favorite writers.
As a History/Social Studies teacher, I think his most fascinating piece, in therms of political science, sociology and philosophy has to be his 1967 speech ‘Beyond Vietnam.’
Two of my favorite books aren’t political speeches or editorials though, they’re sermons, devotions and essays on spirituality, love, and King’s trademark non-violence. Strength to Love from 1963 and The Measure of a Man , from 1968.
Without having open copies by my side, or a tab open to search for quoted from MLK, I want to share some principles I’ve gleaned from Doctor King’s writings that I try to apply as life lessons. Full disclosure; I’m a white male that grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Phoenix in the 70’s (‘Leave it to Beaver,’ only not in the 50’s).
Maybe that’s the point though- while as a progressive it ticks me off to see right-wing extremists and conservative Republican pundits and politicians try to co-opt Dr. King’s quotes or use his image to try to evoke pretend inclusion or phony compassion- much of King’s teaching really does transcend race, gender, and era.
King made no secret that he was influenced by Mahatma Ghandi, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther, and Jesus Christ of Nazareth. I bet he was also influenced a lot by Mahalia Jackson and Cloretta Scott-King too. What positive role models? We could all use some role models like those today.
When I read King, I see much of his ideas and beliefs echoed in secular authors like Viktor Frankl and Christian authors like C.S. Lewis. white And in white evangelicals like Tony Campolo and black activists like John Lewis and Cornell West. Most of all, I hear echoes of Saint Paul and of Jesus.
If I could pass anything on to my children or my students, I wish I could plant these lessons in their hearts and minds, but I know they have to read Kings books for themselves, listen to his speeches for themselves, study history, read scriptures and encounter God all for themselves. I can’t do it for them. Be that as it may, here are some things I learned from Dr. King.
Off the top of my head, & from the well of my heart-
Lessons I’ve learned from Doctor King
- Meet physical force with soul force
- Peace isn’t just an end, it’s a means to many ends
- Forgiveness is hard, but it shouldn’t just be a habit, but a way of life
- Be a thermostat, not just a thermometer
- Better to be tough minded and soft hearted than hard-hearted and soft-minded!
- Never give up hope, seek to become a prisoner of hope
- Undeserved suffering is redemptive
- ALL of our destinies are inextricably tied together
- Injustice ANYWHERE is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE
- Never stop; if you can’t fly, run, if you can’t run, walk, if you can’t walk crawl- but keep moving forward.
- Hate can’t drive out hate, only love can do that
- Just a sneeze can change history
- Just because something is a law doesn’t make it just and unjust laws sometimes may even need to be broken to draw attention to the fact that they ought to be changed
- Change comes from faith, prayer, love, community, and sacrifice
- Words are powerful
- It’s one thing to claim to believe something, it’s another to live out the true meaning of those beliefs
- Love others, even your enemies
______ 1. How you respond to God testing Abraham in Genesis 22 says a lot about you & your belief system. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, which was God testing?
a) Abraham’s obedience
b) Abraham’s faith
c) Abraham’s priorities
d) All of the above
e) None of the above; it was foreshadowing, sacrificing Isaac was a “type” for the coming Christ.
f) None of the above; it was foreshadowing, sacrificing Isaac was a “type” for the coming sacrifice which God would make of His own son Jesus
First the ringers- If you chose “f,” you’re probably some kind of theologian. If you chose “e,” you’re probably an English or Literature teacher.
If you chose “g”- either you don’t like tests, you may not like organized religion, or you have a great deal of compassion for Isaac. I totally get it. I’m with you. What kind of God would demand child sacrifice? Try to be patient. Not only does it not make sense on the surface, it doesn’t make sense in context either.
The Bible claims that God hates child sacrifice, that’s one of the reasons He tells the Israelites to wipe out the tribes when they take possession of the “promise land” later in the book of Genesis, because the tribes there sacrificed their babies to their gods.
Look- I like you’re thinking. It’s not blasphemous or disrespectful to question God, especially if you see Him as illogical, cruel or brutal or hypocritical. But give me a chance and keep reading. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (okay, pun intended).
At any rate, I like your thinking. You don’t think it’s fair of either God or Abraham to kill poor Isaac. I appreciate that. Look, even if you’re an atheist, an agnostic or some kind of pantheist- keep reading. You may get just get something out of this.
IF YOU’RE PUT OFF BY EITHER MY LANGUAGE or my affinity/empathy for those who choose “g,” 1. You probably chose “a” 2. I won’t use too much more language and 3. please keep reading, even if you feel offended- you might just get something out of this too.
Next, the obvious- Of course the best answer is “d.” Anyone who’s ever taken a multiple choice question knows that if a teacher gives you the ‘ol “all of the above” option, you ought to take it. Notice I didn’t give you the classic Sunday School best answer, “Jesus.” That would have been too easy- although, let’s face it, in this case “f” is pretty much the same as “Jesus.”
So now let’s do some thinking and reflecting. I hope this really gives you something to chew on.
If you chose “c” priorities, you might have made a good Sadducee. You may either have a strong sense of tradition or you may believe in perspective and ethics. You might just believe in social justice. You may see the core of Scripture as Micah 6:8, love mercy, act justly, walk humbly. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were progressive.
Some people seem to think that God was making sure that Abraham put God first, even before family. Abraham had become very wealthy and powerful. In the next chapter, we see that he’s considered a prince by his neighbors. Which was more important to him, serving God, or the promise God had given him of “becoming a great nation?”
Whereas, if you chose “a”obedience, you might have made a good Pharisee. You have a strong sense of legalism. You like authority, whether it’s exercising it or the secure feeling of having to follow it. Between philosophers Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes, you’d probably pick Hobbes every time.
You believe in security and tradition, am I right? Can I just say something to you? Just because the trains don’t run on time doesn’t mean that we’re all going to Hell in a hand basket. We’ve always been going to Hell in a hand basket- and probably always will. So chill.
But seriously: What if you chose “b” Abraham’s faith? Ah, now you’re learning Boy-o. Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3, and 4:22 all talk about how Abraham had FAITH and it was credited to him as righteousness.
If you chose a, c, or g, alone, you’re barking up the wrong trees.
“A” people- God doesn’t want slaves or robots without free will, although that would make things easy.
“G” people, if you’re pissed off at God for demanding a sacrifice- you aren’t seeing that not only does God want Abraham to trust Him, but He trusts that Abraham trusts Him. The test (as people who answer “F” might tell you) was more for us, the readers than for Abraham. Abraham may not have known with certainty that God would stop him at the last minute, but he trusted that God could bring Isaac back to life if he did end up killing him.
(You think you’re pissed off at God. Really you’re pissed off at we “A” and “C” people- and I don’t blame you. But, nothing personal, but you really don’t “get” the “B” people, so try not to assume you’re better than them. If you think you’re pissed at them too- maybe the issue is not whether or not there is a God or whether religion is just a bunch of spaghetti monster mythology, or whether they’re wrong- maybe the issue is your anger. Just sayin’.)
[Sorry again for the language “a” people, please keep reading, not more profanity, I promise]
And “C” people, don’t think we’re somehow superior than the “A” people because if we think that our values and choices are morally superior to someone else’s, we’re still trusting those “rules” more than we’re trusting God. It’s a relationship, not a “religion.”
Sadducees had a “religion” or tradition and identity too. Adherence to justice is still following a set of disciplines rather than trusting a loving parent.
Pharisees had a “religion” of rules and identity. Entitled as the chosen tribe but demanding that everyone follow the letter-of-the law while sometimes losing sight of the spirit of the law.
But both groups were tribal and both groups had a frail grasp on the big picture. So one saw the forest and one saw the trees- neither were seeing the creator of those trees.
If I’ve lost you because of this alphabet soup, the bottom line is this- God doesn’t “test” all of us every day, but He may allow us to be tested from time to time and He does want to know our priorities, whether or not we’re willing to sacrifice our will to His AND above all He wants to know that we TRUST Him because He loves us.
So what IS His will? What does he expect from us? Well…
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.'” ~Matthew 9:13 & Hosea 6:6.
FYI– “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” ~Matthew 5:7
God’s Love and Ours 1 John 4:7-21
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
This is a painting I created back in 2006 as a wedding present for a former student who’s a dear friend. I thought it would make a great temporary profile picture for MLK Day weekend. King wasn’t just a political/social activist. He was a powerful writer, theologian and pastor. Especially in the renewed racially & politically divided climate we’re facing today, I thought I’d share one of my favorite of his sermons. I agree with him that we need to have tougher minds and more compassionate hearts, instead of the soft-minds & hardened hearts that most of us have.
SERMON: A Tough Mind And A Tender Heart, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites. Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony. The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two.
Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the recalcitrance of political officials and the intransigence of the protectors of the old order. He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.” And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.
Let us consider, first, the need for a tough mind, characterized by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment. The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong, austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.
Who doubts that this toughness of mind is one of man’s greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
This prevalent tendency toward soft mindedness is found in man’s unbelievable gullibility. Take our attitude toward advertisement. We are so easily led to purchase a product because a television or radio advertisement pronounces it better than any other. Advertisers have long since learned that most people are soft minded, and they capitalize on this susceptibility with skillful and effective slogans.
This undue gullibility is also seen in the tendency of many readers to accept the printed word of the press as final truth. Few people realize that even our authentic channels of information – the press, the platform, and in many instances the pulpit – do not give us objective and unbiased truth. Few people have the toughness of mind to judge critically and to discern the true from the false, the fact from the fiction. Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts. One of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.
Soft-minded individuals are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. Their minds are constantly invaded by irrational fears, which range from fear of Friday the thirteenth to fear of a black cat crossing one’s path. As the elevator made its upward climb in one of the large hotels of New York City, I noticed for the first time that there was no thirteenth floor – floor fourteen followed floor twelve. On inquiring from the elevator operator the reason for this omission, he said, “This practice is followed by most large hotels because of the fear of numerous people to stay on a thirteenth floor.” Then he added, “The real foolishness of the fear is to be found in the fact that the fourteenth floor is actually the thirteenth.” Such fears leave the soft mind haggard by day and haunted by night.
The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea. An elderly segregationist in the South is reported to have said, “I have come to see now that desegregation is inevitable. But I pray God that it will not take place until after I die.” The soft-minded person always wants to freeze the moment and hold life in the gripping yoke of sameness.
Soft mindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with a dogmatic passion. Through edicts and bulls, inquisitions and excommunications, the church has attempted to prorogue truth and place an impenetrable stone wall in the path of the truth-seeker. The historical-philological criticism of the Bible is considered by the soft minded as blasphemous, and reason is often looked upon as the exercise of a corrupt faculty. Soft-minded persons have revised the Beatitudes to read, “Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.”
This has also led to a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between soft-minded religionists and tough-minded scientists, but not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge that is power; religion gives man wisdom that is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.
We do not need to look far to detect the dangers of soft mindedness. Dictators, capitalizing on soft mindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society. Adolf Hitler realized that soft mindedness was so prevalent among his followers that he said, “I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.” In Mein Kampf he asserted:
By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that Heaven is hell – and hell, Heaven. The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed.
Soft mindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The tough-minded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he postjudges. The tender-minded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently soft minded to believe in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the tough-minded research of anthropologists who reveal the falsity of such a notion. There are soft-minded persons who argue that racial segregation should be perpetuated because Negroes lag behind in academic, health, and moral standards. They are not tough minded enough to realize that lagging standards are the result of segregation and discrimination. They do not recognize that it is rationally unsound and sociologically untenable to use the traffic effects of segregation as an argument for its continuation. Too many politicians in the South recognize this disease of soft mindedness that engulfs their constituency. With insidious zeal, they make inflammatory statements and disseminate distortions and half-truths that arouse abnormal fears and morbid antipathies within the minds of uneducated and underprivileged whites, leaving them so confused that they are led to acts of meanness and violence that no normal person commits.
There is little hope for us until we become tough minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.
But we must not stop with the cultivation of a tough mind. The gospel also demands a tender heart. Tough mindedness without tenderheartedness is cold and detached, leaving one’s life in a perpetual winter devoid of the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer. What is more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the disciplined heights of tough mindedness but has at the same time sunk to the passionless depths of hardheartedness?
The hardhearted person never truly loves. He engages in a crass utilitarianism that values other people mainly according to their usefulness to him. He never experiences the beauty of friendship, because he is too cold to feel affection for another and is too self-centered to share another’s joy and sorrow. He is an isolated island. No outpouring of love links him with the mainland of humanity.
The hardhearted person lacks the capacity for genuine compassion. He is unmoved by the pains and afflictions of his brothers. He passes unfortunate men every day, but he never really sees them. He gives dollars to a worthwhile charity, but he gives not of his spirit.
The hardhearted individual never sees people as people, but rather as mere objects or as impersonal cogs in an ever-turning wheel. In the vast wheel of industry, he sees men as hands. In the massive wheel of big city life, he sees men as digits in a multitude. In the deadly wheel of army life, he sees men as numbers in a regiment. He depersonalizes life.
Jesus frequently illustrated the characteristics of the hardhearted. The rich fool was condemned not because he was not tough minded, but rather because he was not tenderhearted. Life for him was a mirror in which he saw only himself, and not a window through which he saw other selves. Dives went to hell not because he was wealthy, but because he was not tenderhearted enough to see Lazarus and because he made no attempt to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother.
Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. We must combine strongly marked antitheses.
We as Negroes must bring together tough mindedness and tenderheartedness, if we are to move creatively toward the goal of freedom and justice. Soft-minded individual among us feel that the only way to deal with oppression is by adjusting to it. They acquiesce and resign themselves to segregation. They prefer to remain oppressed. When Moses led the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, he discovered that slaves do not always welcome their deliverers. They would rather bear those ills they have, as Shakespeare pointed out, than flee to others that they know not of. They prefer the “fleshpots of Egypt” to the ordeals of emancipation. But this is not the way out. Soft-minded acquiescence is cowardly. My friends, we cannot win the respect of the white people of the South or elsewhere if we are willing to trade the future of our children for our personal safety and comfort. Moreover, we must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.
And there are hardhearted and bitter individuals among us who would combat the opponent with physical violence and corroding hatred. Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace. I am convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of chaos. A Voice, echoing through the corridors of time, says to every intemperate Peter, “Put up thy sword.” History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow Christ’s command.
A third way is open to our quest for freedom, namely nonviolent resistance, which combines tough mindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted. My belief is that this method must guide our action in the present crisis in race relations. Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as citizens, but may it never be said, my friends, that to gain it we used the inferior methods of falsehood, malice, hate, and violence.
I would not conclude without applying the meaning of the text to the nature of God. The greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both tough minded and tenderhearted. He has qualities both of austerity and of gentleness. The Bible, always clear in stressing both attributes of God, expresses his tough mindedness in his justice and wrath and his tenderheartedness in his love and grace. God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace. On the one hand, God is a God of justice who punished Israel for her wayward deeds, and on the other hand, he is a forgiving father whose heart was filled with unutterable joy when the prodigal son returned home.
I am thankful that we worship a God who is both tough minded and tenderhearted. If God were only tough minded, he would be a cold, passionless despot sitting in some far-off Heaven “contemplating all,” as Tennyson puts it in “The Palace of Art.” He would be Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” self-knowing but not other-loving. But if God were only tenderhearted, he would be too soft and sentimental to function when things go wrong and incapable of controlling what he has made. He would be like H. G. Well’s loveable God in God, the Invisible King, who is strongly desirous of making a good world but finds himself helpless before the surging powers of evil. God is neither hardhearted nor soft minded. He is tough minded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality.
At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the Earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the Greek herb. When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the surging sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man. But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice that will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.
I hate to tell you this- but I’m not sure the Devil has a pitchfork. In fact, he may not look much like ‘Sparky’ the Arizona State Sundevil at all. In fact, if you listen to John the Baptist’s sermons- Jesus is the one with the pitchfork, not Satan.
I’m not saying that Jesus is ALL about punishment or torturing people for eternity in Hell with a hay-fork. If anything, I’m probably closer to being type of heretic theologians call a “gospel reductionist”- that means that I believe that the very very core, bottom line about Jesus is His grace. That His law is love and his work on the cross is about forgiveness for us sinners.
But I think it’s amazing how popular culture and art history have placed the scythe in the hands of a “grim reaper” whom we see as the personification of death itself (which we also see as the ultimate evil), when in Matthew 13:24-29 &36-43 it’s God’s angels who will be harvesting souls and separating the wheat from the weeds.
And in Matthew 3, John the Baptist puts the pitch fork, in Jesus’ own hands, not in Satan’s. It may seem a little spooky, but read what John has to say and who he’s talking to. John is a “prophetic voice.” That is, he isn’t telling people what they WANT to hear, he’s telling them the TRUTH, God’s truth.
John’s addressing hypocrites. Religious & political leaders who were smug and full of themselves. They thought they were exceptional. They thought they were chosen, they assumed that they were entitled and special because God was on their side. But John challenged them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Think of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:16-23; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self control. These are virtues, principles of character which prove that you are a branch connected to Jesus, the vine.
So what fruit might that “brood of vipers” been bearing instead? Could it have been stuff like immorality, pride and arrogance, love of money, hatred or inciting other to hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, and self-indulgence? Sound like any celebrities or recently narrowly elected leaders of today’s time? (yeah, I just went there).
John is talking to all of us, not just to the Pharisees during Jesus’ time. He warns us ALL that we should turn from our sin and selfishness and seek Jesus’ forgiveness and renewal. The ax is at the root, ready to cut down any tree that’s not producing good fruit. The good news is the fire of God’s Spirit can burn off our greed and offensive if we let him.
But yeah, I went there. I think that more of us need to let God use us to be prophetic voices like John the Baptist. To be willing to say to people, including out leaders “That’s not how this works, that’s not how ANY of this is supposed to work” (like the old lady in the insurance commercial).
Sparky the devil torturing sinners in Hell with the pitchfork is not Scriptural. The lake of sulfur and fire wasn’t meant for humanity. It was meant for Satan and his demons- it’s their prison and punishment. They won’t be in charge there. And we only condemn ourselves there when we reject God’s free gift of grace and forgiveness.
The fork is for winnowing out grain from chaff (weeds) and that’s Jesus’ job and He does it for out good, not to torture us.
If anyone should fear it, it’s those in power who assume that they are entitled to that power because they’re privileged- and yet are hypocritical and selfish in their actions. His TRUE kingdom is near, in our hearts if we agree to His law- which is LOVE. He won’t put up with all the hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, and selfish ambition for ever.
MEANWHILE: why don’t you enjoy this lovely parody of Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ that I put together in Photoshop. Instead of the father pretending to protect his daughter’s innocence just after performing incest- I have the son, protecting the mother in a quasi-satirical way where Catholic iconography is combined with American iconography resulting in an ironic statement about how conservative Evangelical Christianity has co-opted Middle Eastern (Palestinian) refugees through the symbolism of poor, Roman-Catholic European immigrants to represent their socio-economic and political philosophies as if they were inerrant word of God!
Matthew 3:7-12 (NIV)
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The day after the election I was a basket case (as you might have figured from previous posts on this blog). A professor of mine once suggested that our most prolific times would usually be times of emotional stress or poor mental health. He said it matter-of-factly, not even alluding to art therapy.
I remembered this advice (or admission) and decided that I needed to create something.
On the first day, my grief for my country was so deep all I felt that I could paint was what I felt. As Frida Kahlo once said, ” I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” So this is what I painted:
I’d been teaching about the New York School. Action painters who emphasized the process as a cathartic, meditative experience and color-field painters who created pieces intended to invoke a contemplative mood in their viewers. It was very satisfying.
It wouldn’t leave me alone. It called out to me. This past Summer I’d read a biography of Lutheran theologian and WWII resistance member Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This Fall I re-read his reflection on Christian fellowship, ‘Life Together.’
Bonhoeffer refused to compromise genuine Christian discipleship to mollify the demands of the Third Reich. First this meant pioneering the “confessional” church movement and underground seminaries, but eventually he was recruited by the Abwehr (a German intelligence agency which pre-dated the rise of NAZI power) and thereby a number of assassination plots against Hitler.
He was For a year and a half, he was kept in a military prison, then to the Gestapo’s high-security prison, then to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was hung in April of 1945 days before German surrender.
So I attacked my muddy brown canvas with black, then built an almost ghostly face with stark white. The under-painting began taking shape.A ghost in a concentration camp. Certainly not the prophetic voice of hope which I had met in his writings. But definitely a product of my own angst.
I thought I remember reading somewhere that angst is the combination of anger and anxiety born from the inability to control a situation or effect change. This is certainly how I feel about the election of Trump; a hateful, unprepared, unqualified, angry, entitled, demagogue.
There it stood on my easel for a week. Students commenting that it looked like me- perhaps an indictment of my melancholic disposition. To me it felt like Poe’s raven, constantly reminding me of the death of equality, liberty, justice and any hope of any kinds of peace at home or abroad. A dour ghost haunting my classroom.
I experimented in Photoshop with blending the original photo with my under-painting. The image was exciting and moving, but still ghostly. For me it evoked the spirits of Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom and Viktor Frankl, not just Bonhoeffer.
Finally this week, I resumed painting. Like the prophet Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, I attached flesh to the bones. But alas, dry ache became weeping sorrow. But at least students told me, “now it’s finally starting to look like him instead of you!”
Yesterday I made a great deal of progress, although I think it looked more like a cross between William H. Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Now I felt like it had some indignation and resignation rather than just depression and despair. Somehow I hoped to add some sense of hope or faith, since these are the things Bonhoeffer demonstrated most to me.
Today, I feel like I gave it a great deal more dimension and solidity. I feel like it looks more realistic and closer to finish. This may be prejudiced somehow, but I think it even looks German or at least European- although I’m not quite sure it looks like Bonhoeffer exactly. I’m also not sure how to capture any hope. It may be too late for that.
It’s hard to imagine a martyr with any hope or joy- but that is what is so amazing about Bonhoeffer’s story- witnesses claim that they were amazed by his warmth and encouragement for his fellow prisoners and his amazing composure and bravery even in his final moments.
I haven’t decided whether or not I’m finished with it. Perhaps if I live with him for another week, he will tell me again. But I do like it. Of course, I liked that ghost-like mummy from the second and third days too.
To check that I had the spectacles in the right place, I held my canvas up to the projector on the SmartBoard in my classroom and projected the original photo onto the painting. I loved what I saw so much, I had to take a picture of it. It seems to me still sorrowful, but challenging as well. “What are you prepared to do, Ted? For democracy? For authentic Christianity?” Would I have the faith or the courage to make the kinds of sacrifices he did?
I pray I’ll never have to. One biographer notes that while he wrote treatises and essays and devotions and letters, he never really wrote much poetry until he was imprisoned. But I have to say, one of his poems is one of the most amazing pieces of reflective existential art that I’ve ever run across.
Once you read it, look back over the various stages of my painting’s development and imagine them reciting it to you.
Who Am I?
by Deitrich Bonhoeffer
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!