1 Corinthians 16:13-14 (NIV)
13 Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 14 Do everything in love.
I humbly come before you today well aware that I am standing on the shoulders of a giant, my Morehouse Brother, my Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother, my brother in the struggle, but most importantly my brother in Christ, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if indeed it is a King’s broad shoulders that I stand on, I do not do so alone – for it is the King of Kings that props me up on every leaning side when I tire, when I grow weary. You see to be lifted up…to be elevated is to be at war with the forces of nature be it the earth’s gravitational pull or the forces of evil – there’s always something or someone waiting to knock you down. And so we must be on guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong, as Paul writes in his first epistle to the Corinthians.
Dr. King understood the art of war. He understood the adversarial relationship between good and evil and he understood that to be a proponent of justice – incessantly met by the resistance of the opposition – would possibly be to sacrifice life itself. Yet he committed his life to be a guardian of peace, a drum major for Justice, a general in the fight for racial reconciliation – standing firm in his faith, being courageous, being strong. And he fought, to his death. He died on the battlefield for a dream that we would one day live in a nation where we would not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. And today, January 17, 2016 I sometimes wonder if Dr. King died in vain?
I wonder because as a young black man in America, I can’t breathe. I can’t swim. I can’t drive. I can’t walk on the sidewalk at night or down the street during the day. I can’t play outside with a toy gun or inside where they are sold, I can’t listen to music too loud and I can’t even pray. And so I wonder; I wonder where it’s safe to be me anymore. Not outside of a convenience store selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. Not at a swimming pool or driving in your car in Texas. Not on the sidewalk or the street in your own neighborhood in Ferguson. Not at a park or inside a Wal-Mart in Ohio. Not at a gas station in your own car in Florida. Not at church for bible study in Charleston; and not on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Yet society tells me that all I have to do be safe is get an education, speak well, wear a suit, and I’m covered. But I remind society that Dr. King was well educated, well spoken, and was killed and buried well dressed. And sometimes I wonder if his living was in vain?
Dr. King died for a dream but I’m afraid it was a dream deferred; a dream not fully realized as we’ve come far by faith but not far enough. I was reminded of this nearly one year ago when I took my seat in the movie theater on opening night of the MLK biopic, Selma. I thought I knew what to expect; after all, I know black history. I’ve studied the Civil Rights movement. I idolize Dr. King. I thought I knew what I was walking into. I expected the violent resistance to peaceful protest for progress in the Jim Crow south. I expected the noncooperation and inaction of the U.S. government in enforcing voter’s rights for disenfranchised Blacks. I even expected the most intimate, personal, and sometimes uncomfortable glimpses into the humanity of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I expected these things. What I did not expect was the eery feeling that while I was watching history play out before me in major motion picture, what I was witnessing felt a lot like yesterday instead of 50 yesteryears ago.
I thought I knew what to expect when I took my seat in the movie theater on the opening night of Selma, but I was wrong. I didn’t expect for Selma to feel like yesterday. I didn’t expect the image of unabated violence against black bodies by law enforcement in 1965 to resonate yet and still in what was then 2015. I didn’t expect we’d still be marching for equal rights under the law for people of color. I certainly didn’t expect that yet another small U.S. city – Ferguson, MO would be the epicenter of such a big movement to combat racial inequality and injustice in America just as Selma was.
Michael Brown, an unarmed black man shot and killed by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, is Jimmie Lee Jackson relived: an unarmed black man shot and killed by white Alabama State trooper James Fowler in Selma 1965. Fowler was a significant player in escalating the acute racist conflict that ultimately led to the Selma to Montgomery march, just as Officer Wilson became the villain that catalyzed the #blacklivesmatter movement in 2014.
The parallels between Ferguson and Selma – now and then, are quite startling and downright discouraging when viewed through a “progressive” lens; and yet there’s hope in history. Our past informs our present, and history tells us that before we can cure cancer, we must first identify and address its symptoms. The cancer is the same in Selma and Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Cleveland, and New York City, and Oakland and Charleston – systemic racism. However the symptoms that exposed this cancer in 1965 and present day are decidedly different.
While it’s clear that there were a myriad of issues surrounding systemic racism in America in the 1960’s, it’s unclear as to which issues were of greatest priority to the leadership of the civil rights movement, as depicted in one scene of the movie Selma where members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) intensely debated why they should coalesce around a particular issue. With the support of key civil rights actors, it was ultimately Dr. King’s assertion of voter’s rights as the “symptom” to focus their attention on attacking the much larger cancer of systemic racism.
Whereas King and others had the luxury of choosing which issue they’d organize around and where they would stage their protest, we didn’t choose Ferguson, MO or the killing of unarmed black men as our issue; it chose us. The criminal injustice system, that is: police brutality, excessive use of force by law enforcement, racial profiling, and mass incarceration, is the symptom that has chosen us and it’s what we must continue to mobilize around in order to cure America’s long suffering from the cancer of systemic and institutional racism. So if criminal justice reform is our voter’s rights act, who will be our King; our general to be on guard, to stand firm in the faith, to be courageous, to be strong on our behalf as we line up side by side shoulder to shoulder prepared for battle?
It’s my belief that our success as a movement hinges upon our ability to lead not as individuals, but as a unified front. A unified front united by faith. Such leadership has proven to be effective as just last year we celebrated marriage equality for the LGBTQI community; a movement which made positive strides despite not having a definitive identifiable leader. The success of this movement was in the collective voice of LGBTQI and alleys and their ability to coalesce around pointed issues, using their strength in numbers to leverage change. We are better together. But before we can move together, we’ve got to first stay together, and before we can stay together we’ve got to do some difficult internal work. We’ve got to unpack some of our cultural baggage and leave somethings behind, both whites and people of color, because we can’t take everything with us. The journey is too long, the road too rough, a war not yet won. We’ve got work to do.
One of my favorite analogies about how racism works comes from Dr. Beverly Tatum, former President of Spelman College. She describes our society as being on a moving walkway headed in the direction of oppression and racism. Some folks, likely those we consider racists, are walking or running more swiftly in that direction, but most of us are just standing. We are non-racists. But there’s a funny thing about standing still on a moving walkway…you’re still headed in whatever direction the walkway takes you, whether you agree with it or not.
To be anti-racist, we must actively turn around and run in the opposite direction on this walkway. Have you ever tried to go the opposite direction on an escalator? Or better yet have you ever stepped foot on a treadmill? It’s tiring, right? The whole phenomenon of a treadmill is to force you to go against the grain. And as the exhaustion grows, it almost feels impossible to carry on. But the point of a treadmill is not to tire you; it’s to strengthen you, so that you become stronger and stronger along the journey. If we want to change our society we can’t just stand still, pointing fingers and yelling at all the racist bigots running towards an unjust society. We must, ourselves, change our direction, go against the grain, and hopefully bring some other folks with us. That’s anti-racism. Its hard, ACTIVE work, and we all have to be held accountable, starting with my beautiful black brothers and sisters. We’ve got some baggage to unpack.
While I’ve never believed that racism was for people of color to solve, I have to acknowledge that we’ve played a role in perpetuating it. Sometimes the greatest apologists for white supremacy are black people and specifically black Christians. Nobody forgives people with more expediency than black Christians. It’s what we’ve been taught to do; but it’s been a disguised forgiveness – not as forgiveness for our sake, but for the sake of others. We forgive to set others free without having grieved properly ourselves, rendering us captives of our own despair. We give our oppressors permission to live with a clear conscience while we continue to harbor anger, resentment, and grief in unhealthy ways.
Now don’t mistake this for what it is not – a “forgiveness cease and desist” mandate for black Christians everywhere. I am black and Christian too, and a key tenant of my faith is the act of forgiveness. This is however, a plea to black Christians everywhere to reform our forgiveness. Proper forgiveness is a process, one that involves prophetic grief, prophetic guilt, and prophetic relief.
When black people are oppressed at the hands of the powerful and the privileged, attention is not given to the culpability of the oppressor, or to the fight of the oppressed to overcome their situation; no, attention to those at fault would require society to hold accountable those who have long been held above reproach, or even worse – highlighting the resilience and might of the oppressed would only further empower those who society has intentionally continued to render powerless. Instead, attention is given to blacks’ ability to continue to turn the other cheek almost immediately after being slapped in the face, only to be slapped again. This is not by coincidence, but by design.
It’s the perpetuation of a history of systematic oppression dating back to slavery, with Christianity at its core. Faith is passed on from generation to generation. Because many of today’s black Christians inherited their faith from their parents, who inherited it from their parents, who inherited their faith from those who were introduced to Christianity by “Master” as slaves on the plantation – our idea of forgiveness is rooted in the liberation of our oppressor and not of ourselves. Mark Galli writes in Christianity Today’s The Inconceivable Start of African-American Christianity:
“The gospel presented to slaves by white owners, however, was only a partial gospel. The message of salvation by grace, the joy of faith, and the hope of heaven were all there, but many other teachings were missing…the master or mistress would read, ‘Servants obey your masters,’ but neglect passages that said, ‘Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free.’”
With that kind of history of pathological theological indoctrination, it’s not by coincidence that today’s black Christians forgive so easily. It’s by design, to continue to absolve the oppressor of any responsibility of wrongdoing and the guilt that accompanies it. The forgiveness process should involve the processing of guilt. Prophetic guilt is an impetus for contrition, and contrition is the currency for which amends are paid between each other – both oppressor and the oppressed – and to God. Our ability to not only feel regret for our actions, but to express regret is a byproduct of guilt processing. Forgiveness without due process is forgiveness absent of prophetic guilt. When black Christians forgive prematurely, we excuse our transgressors from penitence, subsequently inviting repeat offenses – leaving everyone stuck in a perpetual cycle of oppression.
When we think about oppression, we often only think of the oppressed as being stuck and therefor, the only ones in need of liberation. But the truth is, both the oppressor and the oppressed are stuck, and their liberation is bound. Imagine someone pinned down on the ground unable to move because someone else is holding them there. Our first mind says that the one being held down is the only one in need of freedom, but the reality is, both are stuck. The oppressed can’t get up, and for that to remain true, the oppressor can’t let up. In order to end oppression, both the oppressed and the oppressor have to be liberated – bound liberation.
Proper forgiveness is a lot like oppression; it requires that both be liberated in order to experience prophetic relief. Whereas with oppression, the one in need of liberation is obviously the one being pinned down, with the oppressor being the unlikely candidate in need of freedom as well. The inverse is true for black forgiveness; black forgiveness liberates the oppressor without also freeing ourselves from the confines of anger and resentment. Black forgiveness allows the oppressor to let up, but we don’t get up – continuing to be pinned to the ground by a “pathetic” grief.
To quote Dr. Cornel West, “Forgiveness is not an utterance. It’s a process. We are a loving people. We’ve taught the world so much about love because we’ve been hated so.” Let our black love continue to teach the world how to love even when being hated; and let our black forgiveness be the kind of forgiveness that allows us to love our neighbor as we have first loved ourselves.
To my white brothers and sisters in Christ and those who enjoy a certain level of privilege, I understand that sometimes when you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. And I’m well aware that the overwhelming majority of whites are not racist. But those who are loud to a deafening sound – and they’ve been amplified; it’s called the US Presidential race. We need for you all to be much louder than them and I want to offer 4 ways in which you can do that:
- See race, don’t ignore it. A common phrase I hear from White allies is, “I don’t see race; I don’t see color. I only see people.” In fact, Black America needs you to do exactly the opposite. We don’t want to be invisible. We don’t want to be neutral. We want to be Black, because our Black is beautiful, just as your White is beautiful. I believe God created us in all different shades and forms, not for us to ignore our diversity, but to celebrate it! We absolutely want you to see color but we need you to acknowledge it as equally beautiful and valuable and non-threatening as every other color. Likewise, see racial injustice, don’t ignore it. It’s not good enough to only see color; you must also see injustice against people of color. The two principles go hand and hand and one cannot be an ally without acknowledging both race, and racial injustice. So adopt a new phrase: “I absolutely see race; I absolutely see color. And I see them as being absolutely equal in beauty and in value; therefore all races should be treated as such.
- Hear the outcry of Black America. Listen to the stories. Hear our grievances without disagreement. Listen for understanding of what Black America needs from White allies to accompany us on this pilgrimage of racial justice. Understand what’s being heard not as an indictment of White America, but as an opportunity to reconcile the unfortunate past and present of this country, for a better brighter future. I frequently have conversations with my White brothers and sisters about the White privilege they enjoy that Black and Brown people don’t benefit from, and they often receive it as an opportunity for debate and defense. It’s not. It’s an opportunity to hear and learn of the Black lived-experience from a Black perspective, not to be challenged by unrecognized White privilege. If you aren’t willing to hear the voices of the oppressed, your deaf ears won’t absolve you of your role in oppression, your deaf ears make you an accomplice in it.
- Speak out against racial injustice. If racist White bigots are the loudest amongst White Americans (and they are indeed loud), the perception becomes that they speak for all of White America. Perception is reality. If we are to recognize that racism continues to be carried out by a very small minority of noisy bigots, the voices of White allies must be louder than those who continue to spew hate into the conversation. The investment of White allies to end racism in America must be larger than the investment of White bigots to continue it. My Facebook timeline should be inundated with loud, enraged White allies drowning out the noisy racists with cries of defiance, reaffirming that those hateful few do not speak for the compassionate whole. Utilize what you’ve seen and heard as tools to articulate the positive change you want to realize. In doing so, America – Black and White, will no longer be able to discern those few voices of discrimination among the many voices of liberation. Dr. King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We should all be so wise as to listen.
- See, listen, speak, and then act. Actions speak louder than words, and words without actions are meaningless. Act at ALL times of injustice, not just when it’s convenient. Black America doesn’t get to take a day off from being Black; White allies cannot take a day off from being advocates for racial justice. Act not just at rallies for Mike Brown or the next unarmed Black person to be gunned down by police. Act in your homes in the guests you invite over for dinner. Act in the schooling of your children in choosing the environment in which they learn. Act in deciding which church you will worship in. Act at your workplace where you have the authority to make decisions about personnel. Act as if your liberation is bound to that of Mike Brown, because it is. Act as if your life depended on it, because it does. As long as one of us is oppressed, all of us are oppressed. Act.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that no groups of marginalized people have ever overcome oppression without accompaniment from allies at the center.
The abolition of American slavery could not have been realized without the accompaniment of White abolitionists using their white privilege to enact change.
The end to South African apartheid would not have been achieved without the partnership of White South African allies willing to get behind Mandela and others to liberate S.A. from segregation.
The Holocaust would have been far graver if not for German allies willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of oppressed Jews.
The LGBTQIA movement for equal rights under the law would not be experiencing the success it has enjoyed if not for cis-heteronormative allies lobbying alongside them.
Women will not benefit from the gender equality they deserve without the accompaniment of male allies using their male privilege to fight for gender justice on their behalf.
Palestinians won’t be liberated from Israeli occupation without Israeli advocates.
Black America will continue to be victims of racial injustice and all its atrocious byproducts, without the eyes, ears, tongues, and the hands and feet of our White allies.
So as we leave behind that which ways us down culturally, socially, spiritually, and take with us that which sustains us on our journey for justice together, we do so united in faith which gives us courage to press on. But most importantly we do so IN love and WITH love. Even as Paul gives these military like commands to the Corinthians he ends with a different sort of command, “Do everything in love.” You see even in warfare, be it physical or spiritual, love always has the last word. Love is what makes all of our dreams come true. Love is what makes I have a dream come true. Loving thy neighbor as we love ourselves but remembering Jesus’ new commandment to love our neighbor as he first loved us – because he knew that sometimes we don’t even know how to love ourselves. Love is what binds us. Love is why Dr. King did not die in vain.And love is the reason why we don’t have to wait 2nd coming of King to realize his dream.
The leadership is in the love. “People need to know how much you care before they care how much you know.” And while good leadership can be defined by the number of followers you amass, great leadership is measured by your ability to develop and cultivate more leaders. Never has there been a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of men and women, children and adults, of every race, gender expression, sexual identity, class, and faith pouring into public spaces to die-in and live-out the American dream: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” We are the leaders of the new movement, and united by faith we are better together. Amen.