Your Image of Dr. Martin Luther King is Likely Wrong

(Here is the first part of a piece I wrote for Biblical Seminary’s Blog. You can click over to read the post in its entirety).

Everybody loves Martin Luther King Jr., or at least they love the idea they have of him. There is nothing provocative about naming him as one of your favorite American heroes, quoting lines from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, or referring to him in one way or another to suggest how we can become that “beloved community” he often spoke about. In fact, our usage of Martin Luther King Jr., more times than not, would be in direct conflict with Dr. King himself, and the actual life and commitments he held to.

“Our” Dr. King that we celebrate each year has been completely co-opted by the right and the left to further the shallow partisan ideological work in American society. Dr. King’s legacy has been thoroughly domesticated, like a house cat after being de-clawed and neutered. He is now safe. Safe to mold into our projections of who we want him to be. Dr. King is no longer a radical prophetic voice of a Christian preacher crying out in the wilderness. Instead, after he died, we built him a monument to adore, after our liking, and gave it a seat at the emperor’s table. However, the prophet never sits and fellowships at the table with an imperial ruler. The prophet is not accepted by the social order it speaks life into because he is always seen as a threat.

Read the rest at Biblical Seminary’s site.

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In It For the Long Haul: Gracialized Vision & The New Black Panther $10,000 Bounty

Well, whether some like it or not, we have been thrust into a national dialogue on race, violence, and the legal system. I can’t lie, I can often get very frustrated by the same old story being played out over and over again. How many more young black males have to die? Since slavery has ended thousands and thousands of black men have been killed, being seen as disposable, in contrast very few black killings happened during slavery because we were seen as valuable property. Ida B. Wells, a brave and courageous black woman, spoke up and brought national attention to the lynching crisis that exploded after slavery and went well into the 1900’s (Last recorded tree lynching took place in the 1980’s). In the 1950’s, Emmit Till’s murder became a national symbol after the country reacted to the images of Emmit Till’s 14 year old deformed dead body that was placed on the cover of black magazines. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting family down south when he was dragged from his uncle’s home, beaten, and had an eye gouged out. He was eventually shot in the head, and had barbed wire and a heavy cotton gin tied around his neck as his body was disposed of in a river. His crime, supposedly whistling at a white woman.

There is a long legacy of black life being disposable and unvalued in American life. While there have been tons of senseless murders that have taken black life, some particular names have continued to shape Black American historical memory, probably because of the details surrounding each situation. Let’s remember some folks who have had their lives abruptly ended because of America’s pathological racism. Michael Donald, lynched in the 1981, James Byrd’s dragged to death behind a truck for 3 miles in 1998. Amadou Diallo shot at 41 times (hit 19 times) while unarmed and pulling out his wallet in 1999. Sean Bell was shot 50 times and killed the night before his wedding in the Bronx in 2006. Oscar Grant’s murder while handcuffed and on his stomach by a cop in Oakland was recorded by several camera phones and uploaded online in 2009. And more recently of course we have been mourning the death of Trayvon Martin while also dealing with the unarmed shooting of Ramarley Graham last month. There are so many other folks who have lost their lives similarly, but these names for most are familiar and recognizable names which remind us how vulnerable it is to be a black male in America, and also how the legal system often fails to uphold justice for ALL.

How should we (Black Christians) respond to such a legacy of racism or to the apathy towards black life? The New Black Panther Party supposedly has put out a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman. While I can sympathize with their frustration with our legal system and the reality of how many black people never find justice in it, I continue to believe that we can not utilize the same violent tactics imposed on us if we desire to see a new humanity usher into our world. That said, I find the legacy of the Black Panther Party and the spirit of Nat Turner and his violent slave rebellion as very natural and normal responses to injustice and oppression. While I reject the use of violence, I do share that same spirit of frustration with racial injustice in America. In fact, sometimes, that same natural response emerges in me in greater amounts than other times. I hate the negative ways black people are treated and the apathetic and cold responses that come from some in the dominant culture. And it is hard not to project those feelings onto all people who participate in the dominant culture.

And then I am reminded of the Oppressed and Crucified One being made a public spectacle and shamed on the cross. Jesus, like many other vulnerable Jews at that time, experienced the weight of an unjust and violent system that didn’t value Jewish life. According to all the gospels, Jesus was a threat to the Jewish-Roman power system in Jerusalem. In response, they employed their technique of public torture and humiliation, which was always just as much about intimidating the masses as it was to punish the individual. James Cone in his most recent book, rightly compares Roman crucifixion to American lynchings of black men. This offers us a helpful glimpse culturally into the horrendous nature and role of crucifixion in 1st century Palestine. Yet it is there hanging on the Cross that Jesus cried out…

 Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

He didn’t demonize them, he didn’t call for a violent revolution like Peter or Barabbas. He graciously asked the Father to extend his forgiveness to them. The vision of Christ was a gracialized vision, in that those that his eyes laid on, burdened him, in that even those who were oppressors in the traditional sense, were ultimately enslaved and broken people needing to be shown the way back to the humanity originally intended by God. It’s as though his gaze continually made distinctions between the horrendous acts that he opposed, and the people who were enticed and enslaved by those systems which temporarily benefited them. His ability to see oppressive dominant peoples through gracialized gazes allowed him to make the root of the problem opaque and highly visible, that is he saw the evil systems and forces that enslave humanity rise to the surface, while graciously seeing the transparency of all humanity which desperately is in need of a Victor and Liberator. This doesn’t mean that Jesus responds the same way to all people, it is very evident in the Gospels that Jesus takes sides with and extends extra compassion towards the socially marginalized. However, folks like the young ruler and Zaccheus, who both hoard wealth, are both given the opportunity to accept the grace being extended towards them which would liberate them from the grips of this world. Just like then, some now will accept and some will not accept such grace, but that is not our issue to worry about, that is between them and God. Our responsibility is to hold firm to that same gracialized vision Jesus did, in that we see EVERYONE as needing liberation from invisible yet powerful forces.

I am not sure how much longer this national dialogue will go on. We continue to be the United States of Amnesia, quickly forgetting recent history, or as Dr. King called it, “a 10 day nation”, which moves on to the next big thing after 10 days. But for me, I am in it for the long haul. I will be like a persistent poor widow demanding justice from an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). And as I confront empires, systems, and forces that enslave people and oppose God’s Kingdom, my prayer is that God would help me have Christ’s gracialized vision towards others, especially for those in the dominant culture who participate in oppressive practices and who are blind in their ability to see Jesus in those they harm (Matthew 25:31-46).

The Hoodie: Racialized Gaze and My 90’s Hip Hop Subversive Spirit

Given my vocational contexts, most people these days probably associate me with wearing jeans, a button up shirt, and a sports coat when they see me. However, when I was in college, the uniform I wore most often was a hoodie and jeans. I loved and continue to love hoodie’s, there is something familiar and comfortable about hoodie’s for me.  The hoodie for me goes beyond comfort, and begins to transcend into the awareness of my identity, formation, and social place and posture in the world I live.  The clothes I wear, in many ways, has as much significance to me as Time and Space do for Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination. My hoodie communicates to me, and reminds me who I am, how people perceive me, and how I defiantly respond to racialized and stereotypical gazes.
As I stated, I most often wore hoodies throughout college. I also received the most constant racialized gazes there on my Christian campus, than I did anywhere else in my life. I knew myself to be a young bible geek excited to have the opportunity to study the scriptures as my major and to be among other believers in Christ. However, what people most often saw was a suspicious, scary, and dangerous young black male in a hoodie. I can still remember the awkward way people avoided eye contact as they awkwardly moved to the edges of the sidewalk when I came by. This was in contrast to the extremely generous smiles and greetings being displayed on campus normally between students. One of the most encouraging things that happened during my last year as a student, was two separate white female friends of mine on campus admitted on separate occasions that when they first met me freshman year, they used to be afraid of me. They also admitted that it was ridiculous for them to have thought so, after now knowing me. My only caution was to make sure that this revelation would be applied to humanizing all black males rather than making me the exception to the rule.  I applaud these two young women for their courage to admit to me, which I had experienced more broadly throughout my time there as an undergrad. The racialized gaze that interpreted my young black male body in a hoodie as dangerous and suspicious until proven otherwise, is not merely an isolated issue to Christian College racism, but it pervades the racialized American experience, in that black male bodies are always seen as more threatening than their white counterparts. The same act performed by differently pigmented people, especially when hoodied up, is interpreted as two completely different acts. This is the case, even when merely walking down the sidewalk of one’s own Christian College Campus as a Bible major.
For me, my hoodie reminds me simultaneously of the stereotype projected on me by the dominant culture and the rebellious spirit of early 90’s hip hop, that positively reminds me that I must resist such dehumanizing elements in my life. The hoodie for me then, has interwoven well with my embracement of the prophetic tradition. In the same way that Jesus often utilized and borrowed the revolutionary terminology of taking up the cross from the zealots of his day, so too can we as Christians employ the hoodie with it’s 90’s hip hop subversive spirit to thrust us into a faithful prophetic witness against hegemony, tyranny, and oppression in all forms as followers of Christ.

Martin & Malcolm

This picture was taken during the one and only time these two great men met. No one knows what exactly was said between them and so we are left wondering what was shared in that moment where their destinies briefly crossed. Was it a friendly exchange or was it one of tension and disagreement? We know that they were drastically at odds during most of their lives, however both went through monumental shifts in idealogy in the final stages of their lives.  Malcolm X clearly began moving away from his radical ideology which endorsed hatred of white people, to embracing all people who were willing to struggle for equality. On the other hand, Martin Luther King became more aggressive, realizing that the injustices and racism in the North were more resistant to justice and equality than he originally thought.  Many have even suggested that the ideological trajectory of the two men would have eventually met in the middle had their lives not been ended so abruptly (both where murdered at the age of 39).

I personally appreciate both men.  I love that Malcolm X was able to affirm his humanity and manhood in the face white supremacy and hatred. He did so with courage and strength, which is why he has and will continue to be an important icon in the black community.  I love what Martin Luther King did and stood for.  When I imagine someone taking serious the life, teachings, and death of Jesus Christ I think of Martin Luther King Jr., because of his commitment to peace, justice, nonviolence, and love for all humanity even to the point of death. Both the Church and all of American society are indebted to him for his example and unwanted progress he accomplished.

Freestyle with me, what are Martin and Malcolm’s significance to you…

According to Glenn Beck, I’m a Nazi!

According to Glenn Beck “Social Justice” and “Economic Justice” are code words for communists, socialists, and Nazis.  He warns his listeners to beware of churches and religious leaders who dare to talk about such things. Here is a part of his dialogue…

“I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

Well, if he is right, then that would make me a Nazi.  Not only me, but I would have good company with Jesus who started using justice as a code word. Take a look at Luke 11:42 and Matthew 23:23. Jesus not only talks about justice, but he curses those who neglect justice, which he calls a “weightier matter” to other religious activities.

If I am going to be slandered, I am okay with it if it is in following Christ.  “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).