Why We Can’t Wait

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. Signet Classics, 2000. Print.

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This past week, I read for the very first time a book by Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned about MLK in school, but I was never assigned anything by him. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have inspired me to educate myself about racial injustice in my country. Since reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander I have begun to look at the prison system in a new way. America has never wanted black emancipation. The Civil Rights Act has largely been ignored because states find new ways to keep black people down. The War on Drugs is really a War Against Blacks. Since reading The New Jim Crow I realized that I didn’t know a thing about racial injustice in this country. I only thought of racism in terms of segregation (whites only schools, bathrooms, etc) and racial slurs. I am not white, but I am not African American either. I grew up in an upper middle class, suburban family. I have faced racism, but not the structural racism blacks face in America. After reading The New Jim Crow I decided to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. I realized that I needed to finally read something by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King’s Why We Can’t Wait describes a system that unfortunately hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. Schools and bathrooms have been desegregated, but blacks still face crippling poverty, unemployment, and disenfrachisment due to unjust laws. I was shocked by the contemporaneity of King’s writing. White people argue that great strides had been taken in the ten years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, but King writes that black people should not be forced to accept compromises. They will not compromise.

King also explains why and how nonviolent protest can be successful. Sit-ins and boycotts create a crisis that the white majority cannot ignore. They are forced to listen to the demands of the oppressed minority. King constantly cites the Bible to support his beliefs. He makes it clear that the Gospel demands social justice. White Americans tend to have an individualistic, otherworldly spirituality. African Americans have never had this privilege. They had to stick together to survive. They were constantly reminded of their earthly servitude. The black God is a liberating God.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail surprised me the most because it was not written to KKK members but to white moderates. These moderates claimed to support King, but they thought he was acting too quickly. King believes that the white moderate is more dangerous than the supremacist because the moderate pretends to care while supporting laws that perpectuate injustice. The Bible distinguishes between just and unjust laws. To support unjust laws in the name of “order” is to promote injustice. Black emancipation must condemn unjust laws. White moderates say “wait”, but the black person does not need the white person’s permission to be human.

Some passages from Why We Can’t Wait (particularly from the Letter from Birmingham Jail) seem particularly relevant in light of the debates surrounding Black Lives Matter, the state of American Christianity, and the recent election:

Yet another tactic was offered the Negro.  He was encouraged to seek unity with the millions of disadvantaged whites of the South, whose basic need for social change paralleled his own.  Theoretically, this proposal held a measure of logic, for it is undeniable that great masses of Southern whites exist in conditions scarcely better than those which afflict the Negro.  But the rationale of this theory wilted under the heat of fact.  The need for change was more urgently felt and more bitterly realized by the Negro than by the exploited white.  As individuals, the whites could better their situation without the barrier that society places in front of the man whose racial identification by color is inescapable.  Moreover, the underprivileged southern whites saw the color that separated them from Negroes more clearly than they saw the circumstances that bound them in mutual interest (29).

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative (87).

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular (105).

Why We Can’t Wait is the perfect book for Lent. It is a sobering reminder that all is not well in America and that as Christians we are called to fight racial injustice. But there is hope. Nonviolent protest does make a difference. I pray that our religious leaders will take this issue more seriously than they have.

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Reading Deuteronomy as a Catholic

Deuteronomy is not usually included in a list of the best books in the Bible. It is a second retelling of the Mosaic Law. Most of the teachings no longer seem relevant to Christians. So why as a Catholic did I decide to read Deuteronomy?

Last week, I suddenly got the urge to revisit the Torah (a.k.a. the first five books of the Old Testament). I have always been interested in Jewish history. But even I find the Law hard to read. God commands fathers to stone wayward children, forbids Israel from sparing anyone in the lands it conquers, and seems to have a complicated relationship with pork (unclean in the OT but permitted in the NT). So why did I suddenly decide to read Deuteronomy? Why should any of us revisit the Law and the Prophets?

As you may know, I am interested in late medieval religious literature. Late medieval Catholicism doesn’t have a great reputation. Heretics were executed, popes went to war, and bishops lived in palaces. But the Catholic Church always exists in an ever-changing world. Negotiating with this world is both challenging and necessary. If Pope Innocent III found a way to justify the eradication of the Albigensians without undermining “just war” Thomas Aquinas engaged with contemporary scholarship and found a way to communicate an ancient faith to a 13th century world. In both cases, negotiations and compromises were made. Some were good, and some were well…

The Catholic Church, on pilgrimage to the City of God, exists in the City of Man. Catholics, like Jews, have had to wrestle with the laws of their surrounding cultures.

A tribal nation like Israel cannot survive without waging war with surrounding nations. Some of the laws are no longer applicable even for Jews (at least, not literally). They also tend to be quite specific. The laws were given, after all, to Jews living in a particular socio-historical context. When God commands “eye for an eye” He condemns “head for an eye”. When God commands the Israelites to attempt peace with surrounding nations before going to war with them, God condemns war for the sake of war. Once I considered the historical context of Deuteronomy I felt more comfortable reading the Law. I was impressed by God’s justice toward widows, orphans, and strangers. Throughout history the Jewish people have had to adapt their interpretations of the Law to address contemporary concerns. Catholics have had to do the same.

Finally, reading Deuteronomy has me a greater appreciation for Christ’s teachings. I noticed how Jesus adapted certain laws to address the Jews of his day. Here is an example from Deuteronomy 20.

When you go out to war against your enemies and you see horses and chariots and an army greater than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD, your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, will be with you. When you are drawing near to battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the army, and say to them, “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies. Do not be weakhearted or afraid, alarmed or frightened by them. For it is the LORD, your God, who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies and give you victory.”Then the officials shall speak to the army: “Is there anyone who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard and not yet plucked its fruit? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another pluck its fruit. Is there anyone who has betrothed a woman and not yet married her? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.” The officials shall continue to speak to the army: “Is there anyone who is afraid and weakhearted? Let him return home, or else he might make the hearts of his fellows melt as his does.” When the officials have finished speaking to the army, military commanders shall be appointed over them.
When you draw near a city to attack it, offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to your terms of peace and lets you in, all the people to be found in it shall serve you in forced labor. But if it refuses to make peace with you and instead joins battle with you, lay siege to it, and when the LORD, your God, delivers it into your power, put every male in it to the sword; but the women and children and livestock and anything else in the city—all its spoil—you may take as plunder for yourselves, and you may enjoy this spoil of your enemies, which the LORD, your God, has given you.

Sound familiar?

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “[Lord,] let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.* But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” [To him] Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62).

and

Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave. As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you.Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (Matthew 10:11-15).

It was so exciting to notice that connection, but I am still thinking about what these passages in Deuteronomy can teach us about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Reading Deuteronomy as a Catholic has reminded me of the Jewishness of my faith. It has encouraged me to revisit those “hard books” in the Bible and discover the dynamic nature of God’s revelation to the world. It has reminded me that we are always engaging with the wider world, trying to discern God’s word to us today. I plan to read more of the Old Testament.

Personal Reflections: Hagiography of Privilege

I teach 4th grade CCD. During snack time, the leaders take turns presenting a saint we think the children might find interesting and inspiring. This year, we have a black student in the class. I’ve made a conscious effort to talk about saints from around the world – not just Europe.

For All Saints’ Day last year I asked my students to present a saint of their choice. I had printed out short biographies of at least 20 saints with accompanying coloring pages. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a black saint who was not a victim of discrimination, abuse, and/or slavery. White children can find saints who lived heroic lives and were perhaps persecuted for their faiths, but not many European saints were persecuted by their fellow Christians for being human.

St. Martin de Porres was persecuted by members of his own order (the Dominicans) for being biracial. In Peru, descendants of Africans and Indians were not allowed to be members of religious orders. Martin performed menial tasks for the brothers, but he was never allowed to be a Dominican. Worse still, Martin had internalized the racism. When the monastery was in debt, he offered to be sold into slavery. Priests mocked him for his race. The Catholic Church venerates Martin de Porres as a saint, but the Church has never owned up to its complicity in his persecution. I encounter white privilege when I choose saints for my students. White students are taught that Christians face persecution when they stand up for their faith. But what does St. Martin’s life teach black children? His life teaches, instead, that black Christians become saints when they overcome the racism they face in their own Church. They are saints when they find ways to survive (barely) in a Church that doesn’t accept them.

The Gospel of Discomfort: Welcoming the Stranger

In the Scriptures, God cares a lot about the widow, the refugee, the orphan, and the immigrant.

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:31-40).

I do not know ancient Greek or Hebrew. I cannot read the Scriptures in the original languages. But I am aware of how radical the teachings in the Old and New Testaments are. When I reflect on passages such as the ones above, I am reminded that God calls us to be uncomfortable to make our neighbors comfortable. The Mosaic Law ordered the Jews to cancel all debts and free their slaves every seven years. Scholars say that these teachings weren’t always followed. I’m not surprised! I’m sure many Jews found the teachings impractical. Wouldn’t freeing slaves and canceling debts destroy the economy? And in the New Testament, we come across a lot of really hard teachings that sound unreasonable. If I turn the other cheek, have I not allowed myself to be trampled on? But try as I might, I am not convinced that the Bible is always exaggerating.

On the issue of immigration, the Scriptures are clear. We are called to welcome the stranger. We Christians may decide to disregard the teaching because it’s “impractical”, but then let’s not pretend we are acting in conformity to the Gospel. We are certainly not! Although I usually don’t observe it, I am not convinced that God’s Word is impractical. The foolishness of the cross lead to the victory of the resurrection. Because of Christ’s total self-giving, we are given new life.

#Iamastranger

Hello everyone! I am posting a selfie today (even though I generally hate having my picture taken) for a good cause. Two Franciscan friars started a hashtag campaign to fight Trump’s anti-immigration, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim policy. I encourage all of you to do it, especially if you are Christian. We need to remind the world that Jesus was a refugee, and that rejecting the stranger is not Christian.

Take a picture of yourself holding the #Iamastranger sign, then post it on social media. I handwrote mine, but you can print one out here: https://pax-bonum.com/2017/01/26/iamastranger-campaign/

selfie

Thanks!

The Art of Biblical Narrative

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic, 1981. Print.

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I am currently reading The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter. This work is a good introduction to the narrative language of the Hebrew Scriptures. Type-scenes are analyzed linguistically to reveal the tensions and ambiguities of the stories. Alter argues that scholars need to carefully study the language of the Biblical stories to understand their content. Alter pulls no punches in his criticism of much of the Biblical scholarship of his day. Repetition is dismissed as scribal error, and over-emphasis of the composite nature of the stories has downplayed their unifying themes. Alter’s work has definitely motivated me to reread Biblical stories that I thought I understood or that I considered trivial.

In the following passage at the end of chapter five, Alter describes the role the Biblical authors give to language in their vision of the world:

Language in the biblical stories is never conceived as a transparent envelope of the narrated events or an aesthetic embellishment of them but as an integral and dynamic component – an insistent dimension – of what is being narrated. With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men. There is a supreme confidence in an ultimate coherence of meaning through language that informs the biblical vision. When the action and speech of men and women, always seen in some fateful course of convergence with or divergence from divine instruction, are reported to us in biblical narrative, repetition continually sets their lives into an intricate patterning of words. Again and again, we become aware of the power of words to make things happen. God or one of His intermediaries or a purely human authority speaks: man may repeat and fulfill the words of revelation, repeat and delete, repeat and transform; but always there is the original urgent message to contend with, a message which in the potency of its concrete verbal formulation does not allow itself to be forgotten or ignored. On the human plane, a master speaks (for spiritual and social hierarchy is implicit in this patterning), his servant is called upon to repeat through enactment; and, most frequent of all, an action is reported by the narrator, then its protagonist recounts the action in virtually the same terms, the discrepancy between “virtually” and “exactly” providing the finely calibrated measure of the character’s problematic subjective viewpoint. As human actors reshape recurrence in language along the biases of their own intentions or misconceptions, we see how language can be an instrument of masking or deception as well as of revelation; yet even in such deflected form we witness language repeatedly evincing the power to translate itself into history; a history whose very substance seems sometimes men and their actions, sometimes the language they use (p.112).

Repetition, far from being a scribal error, is a deliberate device employed by Biblical authors to reveal and conceal important information about the characters in the story. I highly recommend The Art of Biblical Narrative.