The Fierce Urgency of Now
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King stood at the National Cathedral in DC, and retold Washington Irving’s story of Rip van Winkle. Rip Van Winkle fell asleep under a tree for 20 years. When he went to sleep, he saw a sign that had a picture of King George. When he woke up twenty years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, King remarked that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept twenty years, but that he remained asleep through a great revolution. Too many of us, King observed, sleep through great periods of social change. (1)
And that was King’s observation in 1968, but for today’s generation, we need to go further than King’s retelling of the Rip Van Winkle’s story. The challenge in our current situation isn’t just remaining awake, because so many of us have never woke up in the first place.
As we read today’s news, people are slowly and, quite disturbingly, being prodded to wake up to the challenge of radical difference and plurality. Whether it’s the conflicts between Islamic militants and civilians in Nigeria and France, or white police officers and black youth, North Korean government officials and American movie execs and even the tragic suicides of LGBTQ teens such as Leelah Alcorn: the problem of difference and plurality is baked in to our contemporary culture.
During the previous century, the primary way American culture attempted to resolve the problem of difference is by eliminating it. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Muslim, we worship the same God; it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, we’re all just human; it doesn’t matter if you’re straight or part of the LGBTQ community, all marriages are the same.
As well intended as these efforts are, they erase, or at least significantly minimize, the radical diversity inherent in God’s creation. As we move forward in this millennium, there’s a growing awareness that a world without meaningful diversity is unimaginable. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the former Superior General of the Jesuits, reminds us that the first document of diversity is the book of Genesis… “God brings diversity to creation by distinguishing between day and night, land and sea… as expressions of God’s richness. No one tree is the same as another tree and no animals is a mere clone of another… In a very special way, each human person is called by its name.” (2)
The diversity of Genesis is not diversity for diversity’s sake but points toward a greater sense of belonging to the whole. This sense of interconnectedness and bondedness in the Creation narrative is intrinsic to our faith tradition. “Unfortunately,” Kolvenbach explains, “instead of considering diversity as an expression of the infinite bounty of the Creator, we too easily use difference as a reason to hate one another. Color, gender, culture, and nationality as religion can be used to fight against one another.” (3)
This culture penalizes difference and regards it as deviant.
As we begin our national reflection on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, one question we ought to pose is, Can the legacy of King provide resources to help us navigate the problem of difference?
Most people are unaware that America is only 338 years old, and that’s very young compared to some historic dynasties and nation-states. Nevertheless, it’s been only in the past 50 years, that America has been forced to seriously grapple with her pluralism. King was a major force in helping America come to terms with herself.
Early in King’s career, King took on the evil of racial segregation—a legal and moral framework that enforced the separation of racial groups in daily life. The policies of segregation applied to everyday activities such as eating in restaurants, drinking at water fountains, using bath rooms, attending schools, going to hospitals, and even in death, there where white grave yards and black grave yards. From womb to tomb, segregation assigned unequal citizenship rights, legal statuses and unequal positions in economic life to blacks. Race was the principal organizing concept for America’s self-understanding; it rigidly determined life outcomes.
As depicted in the movie Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King led nonviolent protests throughout the South, dramatizing its racial contradictions and forcing the Federal government to intervene on behalf of black citizens. Equally as important as the strategic action he took against segregation, King articulated a counter-framing story, a contrast narrative to the dominant framing story of the time.
Framing stories are stories that give people direction, values and vision by providing a structure for their lives. Race has always been an unacknowledged subtext of America’s self-understanding as a democratic and Christian nation. America’s Eurocentric framing narratives articulated the movement of history as whites being the chief architects of human civilizations, the custodians of all things valuable and meaningful and blacks are regarded as “less than”. Racial division was embedded in America’s dominant framing stories, often without name. Life in a white body was intrinsically worth more than life in a black body–this axiom was part of the taken-for-grantedness of the culture, an un-argued assumption presumed to be an extension of the natural and divine order. The physical presence or the materiality of racial segregation confirmed and reinforced this dysfunctional narrative.
Part of King’s brilliance was that he was situated in a freedom movement that articulated a counter story—one that reinterpreted America’s founding documents (Declaration of Independence, Constitution) and its Christian faith tradition to expand what it means to be part of the in-group, to enlarge our sense of the “WE”, and to democratizes human value.
Color, for King, has no intrinsic worth, “Injustice anywhere, King remarked, 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. For King, our primary human identities are not black and white, but wrong and right.
What King called for was a new social erotics, I use the term erotics not in a sexual sense, but its classic sense of yearning or desire — King wanted us to yearn for one another– to belong to each other. He used the metaphor of “Beloved community” to capture this vision. Beloved Community served as a counter narrative that called humanity to its highest possibilities. King placed a crown above our heads that we would strive to grow in to. Both biblical faith and America’s democratic heritage were reimaged as calling humanity to deeper levels of creativity, harmony, justice and peace.
In this new consciousness, we are to be creatively maladjusted to normalized forms of oppression and disinvest in fear driven stories and practices that divide and destroy us. We must move from being thermometers that merely record peoples thinking and attitudes on justice issues, to being thermostats that transform and regulates peoples thinking. This is how we join God’s healing activity, by placing our hopes for a better tomorrow above our fears and obsessions of self-preservation.
And for King, that’s going to take a “Revolution of Values” a revolution that does not ignore color and seek to become color blind but a revolution where people become “love struck.” and see color differences as part of American’s promise, not problem; as sources of collective enrichment not division.
A true revolution of values, according to King, will cause us to question the fairness and justice of America’s democratic and religious heritage. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that, according to King, will be only an initial act. One day we must evolve to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. We must do more than fling coins at beggars. We must come to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
King pushes us to face the fact that our hope for a better tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. There is such a thing as being too late King reminds us. Procrastination is a thief of time. And Life is full of lost opportunities . . . this, according to King, may well be humankind’s “last chance to choose between chaos or community.” God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, fire next time.
~ January 18, 2015, Bellarmine Chapel, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH.
1. “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. Peter Hans-Kolvenbach, Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education (2007), p. 173-4.
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