Tag Archives: commentary

On the MLK Dedication

This past weekend we stopped to remember the legacy of MLK.   Or to be more accurate I should say some stopped.  I was surprised by the lack of coverage.  Really it was considered another “ho-hum” historical moment in the news cycle.  For instance compare the MLK dedication coverage to the rabid coverage of the death of Steve Jobs.   Or the Conrad Murray trial for God’s sake.

I thought about reasons for this.  On one hand maybe it’s because he has been covered so much already?  Maybe there is nothing much left to cover, as around his birthday in January and Black History Month in February he receives his just due.

On the other hand I thought that MLK is becoming just another postscript in history.  But make no mistake about it he was far more than a postscript.  If you think about it, really it’s kind of crazy that he is accepted by both liberal and conservative circles alike nowadays.

Obviously I wasn’t around when he was operating but even a cursory look at his life reveals the man was a polarizing firebrand.  One clear example can be found in his famous essay Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  Dr. King wrote his essay while serving out a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham.

It was a response to the public appeal made by some Alabama clergymen to let unjust local politics decide the denied rights of African American people.  King issued an indictment that their faith was too attached to American civic concerns to see the plight of his people through a biblical lens.  His response was to make a biblical appeal to the righteousness of civil disobedience.  An excerpt:

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.  It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abendengo to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved.  It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

King wrote that the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.  It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo.  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they (unjustly) are.  This is not your average Sunday sermon, but rather prophetic and polarizing.

But King is viewed as very mainstream now.   Have we lost our prophetic understanding of King?  I wonder.

What I Think About the Occupy Protests

Let’s just say that it’s not Bull Conner and Birmingham.   And it’s definitely not the recent “Arab Spring.”   Pundits and protestors alike need to stop comparing this to those historic social movements because its an insult.  There is no absolute, hopeless desperation connected to this.  Yes we are in hard economic times but most of us still eat and our lives are not at stake.  Most in America will go on living and not even give this a second thought.  On the other hand it’s not exactly something to be flippantly blown off like this photo:

Funny, truthful, and perhaps ironic.  But the photo misses the point.   It attempts to write off  this phenomena as just a bunch of people with too much time on their hands.  Maybe, but I’ll chose to take them at their word.  From my scan of the landscape here is the gist of  it.    The country’s richest 1% control 25% of the wealth.   This is up from the 1970’s, where the ratio was 1% to 9%.  Folks are upset with this ratio and finger the Wall Street/Washington relationship as the cause of it.

Here’s the primary problem as I see it.   It doesn’t matter whether the politician is Democratic or Republican, if they reach office they will be loyal to the interests of the 1% because the 1% is what provides their financial support.  In fact many in Congress are the the 1%.   Both Repubs and Dems carry their water.  Why would they fight against their own personal interests?   Only when it is politically expedient to do so.

Therefore that is the possible significance of these protests, and when I say possible I mean slight chance.   It may move from nice political theater to full populist outrage.   If it reaches that level politicians will pay attention and respond in some fashion.  It won’t be a revolutionary change because everybody loves change as long as it is happening to someone else.  So the 1%, if it becomes politically expedient to do so, will give in a little if it means more votes.  We’ve seen that movie before during the Great Depression, where about 4 years in people took to the streets.   It will be interesting to watch what develops, if anything.


This morning I watched the morning talking heads analyze and debate The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen report Sunday that Rick Perry brought friends and supporters to a West Texas hunting camp his family leased that was called “Niggerhead.”   I’m not interested in the political ramifications as that should be obvious.  What I was observing was how people were making meaning of the situation from a racial perspective.

There were those who said that it obviously meant that Perry was racist.  Of course the Perry camp said they rectified the situation in an expedient manner, offering up Perry’s record on race to dispel the developing “Perry is a racist” narrative.  Others gave the “those were just the times” narrative and place the whole incident in the accident bin of history, not reflective of the present.   One racial incident with many perspectives.

This and other types of similar situations offer us great insight into how race operates in the post-civil rights era.  Dialogue around such incidents illuminate how in this era discussion concerning race and racism center around what is going on in people’s hearts, not necessarily the incident itself.   In the post-civil rights era racial motivations are murky, sending people on an expedition to find the hidden racial meaning of commonplace incidents.

It is a significant paradigm shift to comprehend.  For instance in my dad’s era if a black man was lynched for whistling at a white woman the focus was on the injustice of the action itself and there was nothing murky about the racial intentions.   In today’s world most of the time the incident itself is sort of a bystander to the broader debate.   Consider some relatively recent incidents (Prof. Henry Gates/Cambridge Police, Don Imus/Rutgers Women’s team, etc.).  To some these are serious transgressions.  To others they are trivial.  The only people who would have such a debate over a lynching would be maybe Neo-Nazi’s.

The framework of the broader debate centers around the question “does the incident at hand reveal racial authenticity within a person’s heart?”  That is what the talking heads were debating, not the incident itself.  Nobody disputes that it took place or that it was wrong.   I welcome these moments because in my opinion it furthers the conversation about race in America today.

Are We There Yet?

Robert Putnam’s American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us is a must read for the serious minded Christian.  In relation to race in chapter 9 (entitled “Diversity, Ethnicity, & Religion) he makes a few interesting observations.

After decades of being the least racially tolerant group, evangelicals are now virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the population when it comes to racial attitudes.  Putnam argues that evangelicals have simply followed the national trends:  never leading, always following, and now have finally caught up.  He also states that evangelical megachurches (along with catholic parishes) are the only noticeably racially diverse religious communities in America.

His observations connect with one of my previous observations that things are looking better when you look at the overall Christian landscape concerning race and faith.   If the reconciliation journey was a map of the US with the beginning point New York City and the ending point LA, perhaps we are in Pittsburgh?  Maybe even St. Louis?  We definitely aren’t in Kansas, Dorothy, but we have made some significant progress.