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Last weekend I went to see “The Imitation Game” and it’s a terrific film. Benedict Cumberbatch does a terrific job portraying Alan Turing, the often forgotten  hero of WWII who cracked the Nazi transmission code thus saving millions of lives and shortening the war by an estimated two years while practically inventing the computer in the process. Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke is just as good, in her portrayal of a woman capable of matching and in some ways exceeding Turin’s wit at a time women weren’t believed capable of  the science-heavy  work she was most certainly doing and doing well. “The Imitation Game” was one of the films I didn’t have a chance to see before the end of the year and thus was unable to weigh as consideration in my list of best films of the year. “The Theory of Everything” “Boyhood” and “Selma” waited far too late to show up in my neck of the woods as well but I plan on seeing each and expect each to be phenomenal. These films, along with “Birdman” (which I loved) “Whiplash,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “American Sniper” are all nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I expect that “Sniper” is solid  in that Cooper is an incredible actor and Eastwood has rarely disappointed as a director. “American Sniper”  has generated quite a bit of political controversy which I’ll weigh in on later in this piece. “Budapest” is probably fine, I’m just not a Wes Anderson fan and find all of his films to be basically the same pretentious thing.

I love films and I maintain that good movies are good movies whatever their topic, target, or  intent. Some movies are popcorn-friendly summer smashes that are sheer entertainment; sometimes such films work in deeper content and purpose and when they do that’s great though it’s not always important. Sometimes big summer movies are just asinine garbage, but if someone enjoys them enough to stop worrying about their mortgage or ISIS for 2 hours then no harm done. Fall and Winter are the months reserved for the “serious” films to unroll, those award show contenders. It’s my overall favorite period of the movie-going year and most of my ticket money is reserved for the end of the year and the first part of the new year when the specialty market films finally trickle to the exurbs. Many people complain about this way of fielding films, that some are “serious” and “contenders” and that critics point the way to which those are and award them to their own preferences in a subjective way while unfairly (or elitely) dismissing others. It’s like this with any type of art criticism–literary, music or film–and certainly what one likes eventually boils down to a matter of subjectivity. I’ve defended the role of critics in the past, and I still think film criticism is a worthy task. If you’re paid to watch movies all the time seeing hundreds a year, have studied the history and techniques of film and have devoted much of your life and time to films and appreciating “good” films, then I have a good idea that one you run across in a typical year that you find warrants praise, your opinion is probably worth at least a little consideration. If there’s a growing consensus on certain pictures being worth our time as a viewer, if enough people who devote their time to film agree on certain pictures, I believe those pictures are likely good movies whether they’re suited to everyone’s tastes or not. On the other hand, I have no doubts at all that some truly worthwhile and entertaining films are critically rejected out of hand from pure snobbery, particularly “genre” films far too many critics feel “above.”  So the way I’ve always seen it, those universally raved works are probably good and at least worth a watch while simultaneously not everything panned is necessarily that bad or unworthy of my own consideration.

This year, and certainly not for the first time but perhaps more than usual, race has become a major topic in relation to awards-season and these critical “gate-keepers.” Race has been a large topic in everything this year and with good reason so it is certainly worth bringing to the discussion table regarding film, awards, and Hollywood today. The minute after the Academy nominations were released it became quickly evident and commentated on that there is very little diversity among the nominations. Not a single actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress or director nominated is African-American.  The director of “Birdman” is a Mexican-born film-maker but that’s pretty much it in terms of non-white diversity. “Selma” is of course about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement but its African American lead actor is absent from consideration as its female African-American director. This comes shortly after some of the leaked documents from the Sony hack showcased Hollywood agents and shot-callers displaying a deep (if unconcerned) knowledge of racial disparity in Hollywood as they joked about the President’s likely favorite films (Kevin Hart movies) or discussed why Denzel Washington shouldn’t be cast in a particular film due to the potential loss of overseas returns due to a foreign audience’s perceived racism.
Chris Rock recently discussed racism in Hollywood in a deft piece for the “Hollywood Reporter”. Film buff and critic that he is, he makes the valid point that studio heads have to go out of their way not to hire Hispanics in Hollywood while hardly any Hispanics work on any set or movie company above the janitorial level. Rock himself, whose “Top 5” was one of the best pictures of 2014, is not immune to allegations of racism.*  He describes “Top 5” as one of the “blackest” films ever nationally released yet one that is so naturally and is not a “race” picture. Which of course is the area which needs growth; when Hollywood awards a black film it’s usually a “race” film dealing with slavery, civil rights, or race as a central topic rather than by simply featuring a diverse cast and profiling their lives and adventures naturally.
So is Hollywood racist? Rock details a scene he ultimately cut from “Top 5” in which a black agent (played by Kevin Hart) complains about studio racism (he’s not invited to a meeting) by exclaiming “and these people are liberals, this isn’t the KKK!” Racism certainly exists in Hollywood like it exists everywhere else. White-privilege works itself out by layering a power system at the top of every business, corporation, or political party in the same way it has in the media through concentrating generations of wealthy white male power at the top. Perhaps some of this is unintentional and a product of its formative time. It’s certainly time to shake up the membership of the Academy and bring down the overwhelmingly white, old, and male membership percentage and to boost diversity. Of course, Academy members have to invite diverse people into the academy on a member-to-member basis as that system works and to do that they have to socialize with a diverse crowd in the first place (a fault more than one industry and community shares). More films need to be made showcasing diversity, but ultimately in a natural way that isn’t overt and political. Hollywood isn’t a nonprofit so ultimately an audience has to vote with its dollars. Did those complaining about lack of diversity  pay to go see “Selma” “Top Five” or “Fruitvale Station”? Should it even be their (or our) responsibility? Going to the movies is expensive and even the most politically active diversity-seeking person around might not want to spend their time and money on something just to increase diversity when they may instead just want to see something fun and easy. What Hollywood can do is cast more African- Americans and Hispanics in roles where race is irrelevant (as was done in the great casting choice of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in an upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie). If foreign audiences have a race problem and won’t bother to see a character-driven piece about black life in America or even a romantic comedy starring a black couple, perhaps they will be unable to avoid that multimillion dollar summer action blockbuster even if it is peopled with a diverse cast. Hollywood will still make their money and foreign audiences will be subtly acclimated to diversity and recognition that people are in some ways all the same.

The problem seems to be a mixture. It’s that not enough quality films are made with diverse casts on one end. Should this year’s nominations have not been recognized as top-quality simply because they’re not diverse enough? A lot of wonderful films this year lacked diversity but that’s no reason to boycott good films or to refuse to recognize their excellence or quality. I’m neither gay nor British and did not serve in WWII but can thoroughly enjoy “Imitation Game” much the same way I’m not black nor a comedian but can enjoy “Top Five.” Audiences nor studios can be asked to subsidize films for activism’s sake. Yet those who love film and independently make films can certainly take more risks as they so often do. What films that were made were slighted this year? The glaring omissions by concensus seem to be “Selma’s” director and lead actor. Which others?

And what about that “American Sniper” controversy? Politics most certainly do play a role in who goes to see and praise a move after all, do they not? Some left-leaning critics decried the perceived glorification of war and that a character based on real life with depictions of real war was played for heroic effect. The real life American sniper this film was based on labels the natives of the country he does battle in less than admirably in his book. Many who turned out to see “Sniper” did so in an odd sort of patriotic support of our military. This became an “issues” movie. Oddly, stats show evangelical Christians turned out in significantly higher numbers to see “Sniper” than they did that notable movie about a Baptist preacher living out his faith to lead an equality movement. Yet should such a movie as “Sniper” not be made? Of course not. War is indeed an ugly thing and there is danger in glorifying it and unconditionally praising soldiers regardless of what they may have done in combat and for what reason De-facto. There have been great war movies; ones on the one hand that portray it starkly, realistically, and troublingly. On the other hand, there have been those that white-wash it and portray it as good vs. evil, which is difficult to do with any war effort post-WWII. I haven’t seen “Sniper” yet and can’t personally offer my opinion but I do find the discussion interesting, particularly the fact that for those who don’t see a difference between fantasy violence and violence based on real life narratives and real life violence don’t see why there’s even a discussion over this film.

Politics and Race affect what movies are made, what movies are praised, who sees what movies, and often what someone thinks of a particular movie. This is a reflection of society at large. So ultimately, the issue must be resolved in larger society as a whole and then these reflections will follow suit. Of course, often a bottom-up approach of fixing the symptomatic expressions of racism and class-ism is easier and more effective than seismic large-scale change. So it’s good that we as a society are having this discussion now. Hopefully by addressing it, the coming years will see more diversity in film simply because it’s been so noticed now. In the meantime, as art is always an expression of the place its overall society finds itself, I maintain that good movies are good movies even in the midst of troubling power-structures. They represent their era in explicit and implicit, intentional and subconscious ways. Nothing precludes “Selma” and “American Sniper” from both being good films but maybe watching either should lead to a discussion for the viewers.

Your thoughts?

* A quick note on the allegations of racism towards Rock. The ones I’ve heard in most recent months oddly attack him for stand-up material he made popular more than 20 years ago as much of that re-surfaced in a misappropriated manner by white “fans” in the form of social media posts following Ferguson. Simply put, like Chappelle and Pryor, Rock is one of the funniest comedians to ever do comedy and all three have made race a loud, often uncomfortable, but prophetic topic. Sadly a certain white frat-boy culture always misappropriates and wrongly quote such material but I find that hard to be the comedian’s fault. Rock has always been accused of class-ism too, as he has done well for himself and does come from a middle class background. Check Rock now–his most recent stand-ups, his comedy round-table contributions, “Top Five”, and his “Hollywood Reporter” piece to see where he is now. Acknowledging race and tackling racism as always, trying to give a hand-up to other new black comics, etc.

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I’m still heading in the direction I hinted at in my last post, but in honor of February and Martin Luther King Day I want to take a step back and discuss King and later, race just a bit. I will admit that anytime a white male discusses race perils loom from every angle as opportunities for missteps abound; and it’s up for debate whether those who haven’t lived experiences themselves even have a place in such conversation in the first place.That being said, I’m going ahead to do so at least in two posts. The first is an appreciation of Martin Luther King Jr. directly related to my last post. The second will be a discussion of film in relation to race in 2015 (“Good Films are Good Films–What’s Race [or politics] got to do with It?”).

So here goes. I’ve written about King in the past in honor of the holiday we’ve named after him. I focused then on his passionate embrace of nonviolence, rejection of militarization, and the prophetic voice he gives even now decades after his assassination. The “whitewashing” of King remains a danger in popular culture, especially from conservative pundits. It’s easier to celebrate King in a US holiday for a perceived rosy “we’re all one family there is no race” stance. It’s harder for some to acknowledge his struggle to redress poverty, to decry the violence of rampant unchecked capitalism, his opposition to Vietnam, his staunch active nonviolence. This is the man who preached non-violence but kept a hand-gun in his house before receiving his first death threat. At which point he connected the dots and realized he had to live non-violence on a personal level just as he expected society to do so–so against the advice of his companions in the civil rights struggle, he got rid of it. Who does that? Who decides to give up their previously owned firearm at the very moment where even many who refuse to have one consider acquiring one? Dr. King does that–he lived out a “Christian” example of radicality that quickly illuminates the fact that very few real “Christians” have ever lived. It’s hard for mainstream America to celebrate that King.

In the days of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it’s easy to imagine for any scholar or student of King and his legacy where his voice and mission would lay vis-a-vis such events. The reactions provoked and expressed in recent months have quickly shown that in some ways, we haven’t really made as much progress as we’d hoped in the US in regards to race relations. I’m sure the racism and anger expressed by so much of the media and the average white populations throughout the country in recent months seemed eerily familiar to those who lived through the civil rights movement. It’s easy to admire King posthumously–to say what you would have done, how you would have helped and how you would have viewed the overall milieu of King and his action in its heyday now, divorced from that atmosphere. So many who claim they would have been on board with King have clearly shown by their reactions to Ferguson and the conversation it’s brought to the spotlight that they most certainly would not have been on King’s side or active in the civil rights movement even on a vocal level of support.

I’ve read a lot of books about Martin Luther King Jr. and I’ve read a fair share of his original writings, letters, and sermons. He’s been a hero of mine since I can remember. I truly think that learning about him at an impressionable age formulated my views of race and instilled in me the primal feeling that racism is basically just ignorance–and irrational. I truly spoke up about issues of race when I was fairly young and my big mouth often got me into trouble. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in the schools I grew up in, and I remember the racist jokes on the bus and in the lunchroom. I remember how I reacted to those jokes and statements as well. Unfortunately I fermented my own prejudices in doing so that I can sense in me to this day. My reaction to a “redneck” telling such a joke or story was to make fun of them, call them every name I could think of, and usually get punched–I was pretty small before my growth spurt and it took me several punches and altercations to realize that making fun of someone isn’t the best way to advance your cause. My prejudice that formed in such early experiences was a hatred of “rednecks” and I became quite fond of labeling many people “white trash,” which when you think about such words is a pretty de-humanizing phrase.

Michael Eric Dyson wrote a wonderful book on King, “I May Not Get There With You.” He received a fair share of flack for presenting King warts-and-all and tackling head-on the scandals and less glamorous aspects of Dr. King. What emerges is a completely human man full of faults and frailties–but one who was nevertheless a man who accomplished tremendous things, vowed himself to the highest of causes and selflessly pursued the path of justice. Dyson concludes after mulling over every possible “dark” aspect of King’s character and legacy that nevertheless, King was (and to this day remains) the greatest American to live. He accomplished more for the future and made the world a better place far more so than any US President. He accomplished what he did as a private citizen–he exemplified civic responsibility (even when that responsibility means protest) to the fullest and he lived out a love greater than any one we’ve seen in our country’s history to this point. Recognizing King as a real human being with struggles of his own elevates humanity and showcases the potential we all have. Breaking him free from the shackles of a motionless icon and into a living breathing human is an antidote to the cult of personality and the idleness of hero worship.

My struggle with King now relates to my struggle with faith and religion. Dr. King has always been the example I point to when someone claims religion is the root of evil and destructiveness. Sure there are civil rights advocates outside of organized religion; some  have even been overlooked for their contributions because of their different views (folks like Baynard Rustin). King may have earned a PhD in systematic theology but if that’s all he had done he would be a footnote. He earned his place in history by living out systematic theology. He saw justice as the overall arc of the universe. love as the motivating force, and God intimately concerned in those who populated this earth. He saw his work as being the hands and feet of Christ and he organized with an entire community of faith to bring about great change and progress through radical love. Can such greatness be achieved if it is just rooted in secular humanism? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m going to explore that in upcoming posts but I welcome your thoughts now.

In light of the entries I’ve made so far in this series on scripture in common usage, some readers may be wondering if I see any positive applications of scripture. We’ve looked at scripture being misused by being set up in opposition to science, misinterpreted by being divorced from history, and being misconstrued by flat readings which ignore a text’s intended community, cultural context, and its neighboring texts. Hopefully it has been apparent that there are positive ways of “doing” scripture, even if that has been best seen so far as the  direct contrast to the common misuses described. But in this next leg of the series I plan to showcase concretely a few ways in which scripture can be used positively. Along the way I will continue to push at what the concept of scripture itself might be, what it is that makes particular things function as scripture and what repercussions that may have–not just on those who adhere to a particular scripture, but to everyone. The prologue I did for this series briefly described a conversation on climate change; on issues such as that one, the effects of scriptural interpretation affect not just “believers” but everyone living on the planet. If policy is affected by those who misuse scripture to argue for disengagement (or opposition to proper address of contributing factors) with policy issues affecting climate change, everyone will feel the effects. That is far from the only issue in which this is so; but I aim to argue that the positive applications of “scripturing” can also affect the rest of the world. I begin with a big one, for me the big one–scripture as “peacemaker.”

* What is “Peacemaking?”            

Christian Ethicist Glen Stassen argues that peacemaking is the true call for Christians to engage with the world around them. “Peacemaking,” according to Stassen, is that which the biblical witness (for Christians) truly gives account of, and that it is peacemaking that should best dictate active political  Christian engagement rather than any theory of “Just War” or “Pacifism.” So what is “Peacemaking”? It is active (never passive) engagement with the world to  correct that which is wrong, repair that which is broken, heal that which is sick, and in every possibility make a friend of those who are enemies. It is not the disengaged, inactive stance of pure pacifism nor the following of all orders in carrying out all “necessary evils” of Just War. It is truly a Christ-following path in which one works to actually do what is needed after careful discernment and conversation to determine what that action actually is. Furthermore, Stassen claims, “peacemaking must be understood holistically. It must include economic justice, human rights, [and] defense of the ecostructure.” (Stassen. Just Peacemaking. 1992 ed. p. 28)   Stassen doesn’t leave it at flowery language and move on. He gives constant concrete examples. The first edition of his first major work on Peacemaking focused intently on the nonviolent movement to bring down the Berlin wall, particularly the intense, organized efforts of Baptist and other Protestant groups in East Germany who sought to bring down the wall through nonviolent means, modelling their work after Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and especially for these churches which placed a significant level of importance on scriptural authority, Jesus. Stassen’s work throughout the years has addressed time and again different methods to end war. Stassen’s work cuts clear paths directly from scripture exegetically applied to policy and political actions to redress injustice, all with careful attention on how this is best done in a multicultural and pluralistic society. Nuclear disarmament, the Iraq War, and all manners of economic justice and human rights are specifically focused on in his work. All is done with a constant compass set to careful, for him prayerful, consistent yet creative, context-specific and culturally applicable uses of scripture.

So that is what “Peacemaking” is. I am not using the term just to reference a church consulting scripture to settle an in-house dispute (though that could be included under the topic of the next post in this series, “Scripture as Communal Conversation”). I am talking about scripture used as a referenced impetus for proactive engagement with culture and society to bring about justice–justice not just for the community who holds a particular text sacred but justice for all and in full.  This is a key use of scripture that has often been ignored by those who wish to castigate all that is in any way related to scripture. I can understand that desire, especially by those who know only the “texts of terror” (as Feminist theologian Phyllis Trible describes them). Scripture has done it’s share of harm and served as a tool of oppression quite often. A healthy discussion on that issue is certainly warranted. Yet it has also done it’s share of good,  and overlooking the role it played in the Civil Rights movement in America is a key result of disparaging scriptural use in its history entirely. Were it not for the serious ways in which Martin Luther King Jr. engaged with scripture and used it in his prayers, sermons, and speeches, a good portion of his audience would not have heard the call to work for justice quite so compellingly and many others may not have followed his methods of active (peacemaking) non-violence either.

Scripture as Peacemaker is a function of scripture certainly not limited to Christian (and Christian appropriation of Jewish texts) either. Jewish movements, including ones grounded in conversations springing out of Torah, Midrash, Talmud, and not to mention Jewish song, prayer and art (all of which are Jewish “scriptures”) aiming at peacemaking are countless. Islam, so often notoriously scapegoated as only a violence-inspiring religion, has a history replete with examples of Qur’anic exegesis inspiring co-existence, acceptance, room for difference, and an umbrella for justice which includes those of other faiths.  Islamic theologians and Qur’anic commentators have often found even in the most troubling texts inspiration for equality, justice, and an extended covenant for others. Speaking of troubling texts, one which in its surface is fully focused on war and the duty one has to play out one’s role in it when found embroiled therein–the classic Hindu work the Bhagavad Gita–was a source of constant inspiration for Gandhi in his nonviolent quest; he even wrote his own commentary on the work and found joy in interpreting it as guidance for the inner spiritual war one has with oneself (very much like the broader, fuller extension of Jihad in Islamic theology and the Qur’an).

Scripture used as peacemaker is a positive application of scripture from which the whole world can benefit. It is also a much broader, more nuanced, more complex topic than this brief foray into it has probably shown. Hopefully we will return to this in additional ways as we progress through the last half of this series.

 

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” —  Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967.

The TV commercials roll on proclaiming 50 % off specials to “honor” this day in which the US remembers the life, dream, and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As ridiculous as that is, it was always inevitable. Every holiday in America eventually (usually sooner rather than later) becomes a marketing tool and the real reason behind the day itself is gradually obscured. But it’s not just the day that is being misrepresented and forgotten; it’s the man himself and the things he stood for, strove for, and died for that are being lost through selective remembrance and rose-colored history lessons. Yesterday in a copy of one of my local newspapers there was a cartoon at the top of the opinion page with a silly caricature of President Obama which lampooned his desire to decrease military spending. Directly below that cartoon was an “Our View” Op-Ed piece memorializing MLK Jr. which praised his dream of “getting out and making the world a better place”–the staff of the paper urged all readers to go and do likewise.

Yes Dr. King worked to make the world a better place. But how did he go about doing so? What were the struggles he faced and who were the enemies he identified in that struggle? Most people today dishonor King’s memory and struggle by boxing him in, by making him one-dimensional and thus more “palatable.” Racial Justice was certainly the first and foremost goal in King’s struggle for equality; the Civil Rights Movement in America found in King a mascot and eventually a martyr for the cause. Those that praise King today in a generic manner usually only mention the Civil Rights Struggle and even then they usually fail to point out how much of King’s dream of racial equality is still unfulfilled; just listen to the dialogue that many use to criticize this holiday or even to condemn the current President; or count how many subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) comments you are apt to overhear in a day disparaging African Americans, Hispanics, or immigrants of any kind–granted the frequency of such comments likely depends on where you live and who you regularly come into contact with but it’s doubtful that anywhere in America, from small country towns to big urban cities, can you be out and about for an entire day without overhearing at least one racially charged comment–and this is 2012.

But it wasn’t just racial justice that King stood for; his struggle for equality led him to the realization that non-violence (and active, non-violent protest) was the best tool for combating racism. His embrace of Gandhian non-violence (and a trip to India) led him to embrace the struggle for world peace in its entirety. His examination of structural racism and inequality led him to realize that poverty, specifically institutional poverty, was the underlying shared source of suffering for people across every color line. Ultimately, King discovered that Racial Justice, Economic Justice, and Global Nonviolence & World Peace were three inextricably linked concepts. You cannot truly have one of these things fulfilled without having the other two fulfilled; racial justice will never be complete and equality will remain unreached as long as there is systemic poverty, classism, and a chasm between rich and poor. World peace cannot be tangible and possible without the problem of poverty being solved or without the full realization of racial equality.

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, that is something people remember; most fail to mention (and have usually forgotten) that he was there to protest the mistreatment of Memphis city garbage collectors, to speak out in favor of a union for garbage collectors and city employees, to demand better treatment and pay for those workers, black and white. Most people forget that King was becoming a very polarizing figure near the end of his life (even amongst many fellow civil-rights advocates) with his out-spoken condemnation of the Vietnam War. Dr. King realized one cannot insist on non-violent tactics at home in the struggle for equality while supporting violent tactics abroad. Near the end of his life, Dr. King was organizing another march on Washington. Yet this time he was asking poor people of all colors and creeds to march not only to D.C. for the day but to bring tents and sleeping bags–he planned to “occupy” Washington in a massive sign of civil protest demanding something be done about poverty in America. Dr. King realized that the current form of hyper-capitalism beloved by America (which is still popular today) was out of control, that it worked itself out as Social Darwinism creating an uncrossable chasm between rich and poor, one which feeds huge profits to a small percentage at the top of the system by hurting and negating a bulk of people at the bottom of the system. King began to embrace a form of Democratic Socialism as the only form of government that could deliver on the promises America made in its Constitution and Bill of Rights. Only by embracing a form of Democratic Socialism in which the necessities of life–including basic food, clothing, housing, and healthcare–are removed from the competitive arena of for-profit capitalism and instead provided to the neediest citizens of this country through taxpayer funding can the goals of racial and economic justice and peace be truly apprehended. As King was fond of saying, “it is a cruel jest to insist to a bootless man that he must pull himself up by his own bootstraps.”

All of these issues King strove for are still a factor today. Now, in a presidential campaign year, it is the perfect time to have a serious discussion on wealth and privilege in America. Will this happen? Likely not. The masses are speaking out vehemently and they are denouncing the things King stood for. The masses want smaller government by any means necessary, they mock the consideration of decreased military spending, they see no connection between violence, racism, and poverty. King, like any religious or social hero or icon, was a complex figure; as he is one of my ten most admired people I have read many biographies and reflections on him and I know that he was far from perfect and that many of his flaws were tragically and banally human–some of the most out-spoken on those human flaws have been African-American theologians and social critics (like Michael Eric Dyson) who have tried to bring all of those issues into the light to paint a fully human and complex figure of King the man. So it’s not neccesary that one admire and agree with everything King did, said, or thought to appreciate his committment and accomplishments in the Civil Rights Struggle. Yet anyone today who praises the memory of King and overlooks his committment to Peace and Economic Justice does his memory a great disservice because for King, those things were inescapably connected to Racial Justice. I’ m ending this piece with a few quotes from King that are just as relevant today as they were when he made them.

 

* “It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill, while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about $53.00 for each person classified as “poor”. And much of that 53 dollars goes for salaries of people who are not poor. ….

We are isolated in our false values in a world demanding social and economic justice. We must undergo a vigorous re-ordering of our national priorities.”

 

*“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has every thing to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” …. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. ….”

*”What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

For all the talk of inclusion we often hear at the “progressive” end of the spectrum, I think there are notable exclusions to who we truly want to “include.” I’m not pointing fingers though, not without having the other four point right back at myself anyway.

Once we jump through the hurdles of gaining a little rationality and sense, once we strip away are inherent prejudices that we have developed simply by living and growing up in our environments, we can begin to learn how to extend our care, love, and welcome to those typically outside of the circle of inclusivity. The “least of these” in our midst become in; and that group of folks can be a lot of different things depending on where you live in this country. The battle for gay rights, though far from over, has at least finally extended a “place at the table” for LGBTQ folks, at least in most progressive factions of the field. Muslims in America, as recent news has shown, have a way to go before a good portion of America welcomes them, but many in the religious and political landscape of America see their place at the table as undeniable and welcome. Those of races, creeds, and countries of origin different than our own can clearly be seen as those we should include. The homeless, at least at face value, are obvious contenders for those “least of these” that our love and care must extend to—though it’s doubtful that in the flesh they will often get a “spot at the table” in many places. Most churches and social organizations have grown past the stigma of a disease like AIDS so much so that fundraising charity walks in support of AIDS patients and research are now the norm.

This is all well, this is all good, and the work to be done on behalf of and in cooperation with all of the above-mentioned communities is far from over; those of us in traditionally “liberal” churches and political groups certainly can’t pat ourselves on the back with a “mission accomplished” affirmation in this regard yet. But there’s a type of person that we all find difficult to extend this sort of care too—in fact, a sort of person(s) we find it difficult to extend even basic conversation to.

Will D. Campbell is a Baptist preacher who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement—he was one of the four people who escorted the black students in the first integrated class of Little Rock, Arkansas and he was the only white person present when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Later in Campbell’s career he made a move that angered many of his friends on the Left and many of those same friends he marched with for Civil Rights—he befriended and ministered to many members of the Ku Klux Klan. This was not because he developed white supremacist ideologies of his own, it’s because in his opinion, “anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian” (as he wrote in his “Brother to a Dragonfly” book).

Now, there are aspects of Campbell’s political and theological positions that I myself do not fully agree or identify with, but both of these above-mentioned facets of his character and work are things I deem to be very admirable traits that all who connect with Christianity whatsoever should aspire to at some level. Seated where I am in my ideologies and as I hinted at from the beginning of this essay, I find his work in the Civil Rights Movement—as difficult, daring, and brave as it was—to be an easier pill to swallow, an easier struggle to commit to than the latter act, that of befriending and ministering to the bigots themselves.

An example of what this type of mindset might entail can take the current LGBTQ rights movement as a concern; straight people who take the concerns of that community and work for their inclusion and equality are viewed as “allies.” I don’t know how much work done for the community is required to earn such a term, but let’s assume someone is working tirelessly for LGBTQ equality—on a “small” scale by making choices in their daily lives that seek advancement for that community and on a large scale by making certain political decisions, etc. That someone, I feel, would typically not befriend many blatantly heterosexist/homophobic individuals. Should they? I say yes. Granted, it might be too much to ask for such a person to befriend a member of a hate organization, say of Fred Phelp’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church. That type of commitment would come from this movement’s equivalent of Campbell. But everyone knows people in their own lives who hold prejudiced views on this issue and a social networking explosion like what has gone on in Facebook has brought a lot of people in contact with a lot of friends they haven’t communicated with in years—odds are, the most progressive rights campaigner in the country was good friends with someone in High School that held some pretty homophobic opinions, opinions that person has yet to “outgrow.” Taking Facebook as an example might seem a bit generic, and it is in many aspects, but for the sake of simplicity let’s work with it. The above mentioned rights worker typically will “defriend” or ignore the old friend once they realize how disparate their adult views are now. Someone like Campbell wouldn’t though. Such a person can opt to remain in casual conversation with the other; always going after their opinion won’t typically work, so why not wait for topics of conversation that are relatable and dialogue with them there? You certainly shouldn’t pretend to think something you don’t, and if asked you should always bluntly speak truth; you shouldn’t waiver in expressing your own opinion about the issues they would disagree with to others where they might see or hear it either, though. The first step to overcoming prejudices is often finding that the “other” isn’t really that different from you in the first place.

I spoke of how we on the “progressive” end find a certain kind of person difficult to talk to, and that person is the “non-progressive,” a term which sounds insulting. But if we arrogantly think we are “progressive” and they are not, we are apt to lump all sorts of prejudices their way. It takes time to fight against prejudices, they’re instilled deep in all of us whether we like it or not—they’re a gut reaction probably rooted in our evolution, a way of taking care of our own tribe and banding together with those like us so that we can fight against those not like us. I think being inclusive must extend across to everyone, even the person with the most heinous opinion and shrill tone—we might not agree with them, we might loathe what they say, and we might be working our best to end much of what they are standing for. But we can “love” them on an individual, personal basis. Christian Ethics are built on a framework that asks the individual to do things that don’t always seem logical—after all, the leader of this group was a martyr who did nothing to avoid that martyrdom and according to the opinion of many segments of this camp went to that martyrdom purposefully and willingly. Loving the enemy is a result of that. Hell, doing away with the term “enemy” is probably a final result of that too.

Once again, I find myself commentating on a set of ideals I feel least able to live out on—I find it difficult to communicate with a Fox News fan at points in my life, much less with a Klansmen. But if I can’t be friends with someone with different political opinions than myself (when the entire political spectrum seems warped in relation to the kind of Ethics I’m talking about here anyway), then I don’t think I’m much of a Christ-follower even in the most peripheral of ways. It helps to remember though, that we all grow and learn and we all have many people that we’ve known and that have been important to us in our lives whose views were far less “enlightened” than the ones we currently think we have gained that have “figured it all out.” Peace.

Definition of a Prophet

August 10, 2009

In light of the work of Dr. Cornel West ( I recently read his book “Race Matters”) and an article from a current issue of “The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy” by Gary Dorrien,  I’ve been pondering what a true “prophet” is, who some examples in our past are, and the (possible) absence of current examples in our society today.

Contrary to the perception most people have when they hear the word “prophet,” a prophet is not a fortune teller or prediction giver, at least not in a magical sense. Of course, a true prophet may well be able to tell what will happen to their current society if certain changes are not made but it’s not a parlor trick.

A person can be a prophet of rage; a prophet of justice. A prophet of truth, revelation, social gospel, love or peace. Most often a prophet will be a mixture of all of these things. Prophets may be teachers, preachers, rabbis, clerics, doctors, thinkers or writers. They may be singers, poets, artists or activists. They may be religious or irreligious. Pious or plagued by bad habits. Many prophets don’t live full lives; society has a way of using violence to remove them.

Prophets seek truth, regardless of how that truth will be received by those that hear it. Prophets are consumed with purpose, driven by genuine emotion and spirituality. Prophets have connection to the past and a vision for the future. Prophets seek the advance and fulfillment of the entire group, culture and ultimately of all people. Prophets aren’t figures confined just to ancient history and scriptures. Certainly there were figures from those sources: Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, Elijah and Elisha, Amos, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad (for many people), etc.  But in more recent history there have been plenty more: Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk.

We need Prophetic figures, certainly. Yet we need Prophetic Movements and Prophetic Religion for those figures to emerge from (or perhaps start?).  Such a religion, church or movement calls out greed, apathy, disregard, waste, prejudice, subjugation and hatred wherever it sees it. Such a movement seeks justice, equality, love and progress everywhere. Such spirituality is more concerned with people than dogma, spiritual fulfillment than pious regulation, love rather than misplaced judgment. Of course, judgment pours forth from a prophetic movement but rarely towards specific individuals (unless that individual is a political or religious leader) for specific missteps, but rather towards entire cultures, countries and groups (usually from which the prophet emerged from—critique from within) for their lack of effort toward justice, their acts of oppression, their mistreatment of those with the least…almost every single Prophet in history has called out nations for their mistreatment of the poor.

Okay. What brings in the recent article from the AJTP is that it concerns “liberal Christianity,” which other writers have more accurately captured with the name “Progressive Christianity.” Gary Dorrien published “The Crisis and Necessity of Liberal Theology” in the spring issue of the above mentioned journal. He describes the history of liberal theology and progressive Christianity which in modern forms was predominant in many areas of the country throughout the 1800s and up to the 1930s. The great Depression and the culmination of two world wars reduced its popularity at a time when many people wanted a more concrete, definitive, and unquestioning and strictly rooted religion. The modern problem facing progressive theology and Christianity is, to paraphrase Dorrien from his article, that it’s too religious and spiritually minded for our secular friends who we may otherwise share opinions with on the social issues facing us, it’s too full of openness, doubt, searching and interpretation for our more orthodox traditional Christian counterparts, and it’s too wordy, complex and academic for those that are unversed in philosophy, theology and academia. Dorrien noted that most of us enamored with Liberal Theology feel that Progressive Christianity would spread tremendously if only we could express its message more succinctly, truly and simply. Yet, he writes, it’s wrong to think droves would “flock to our doors” if only we could better express our beliefs. Most people DON”T WANT a Prophetic Religion that seeks to address social change and progress. Most people want a religion that acts as a personal security blanket, reinforcing pre existing thoughts, beliefs and prejudices. But as Cornell West calls out for in his writings, we need those prophets to enlighten those that don’t even seek such progress. We’ve had them throughout history and we’ve made great steps in their wake. When they’re not here we grow complacent. Yet as West writes, we can’t look towards a single person speaking prophetically and say we’ve got it. We must have that entire movement. For there surely are voices crying out now that speak the truth that seek to transform communities, culture and countries. In very recent years West himself as been such a person as well as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Marcus Borg…the list can go on and on and include writers, musicians, poets, teachers and preachers who maybe don’t always live in and think of themselves as prophets, but seize certain prophetic truths and address them to entire groups of people in the hopes of causing positive change. Yet we need an energized movement that speaks to more people and inspires them to do more for others; the more people inspired to do even a little more is like water rolling down hill, the work done for others may inspire some of them to get involved themselves. The point is, we live at a time when drastic prophetic social change truly can occur. We’ve been stuck at a point in which it was possible for some time now, yet it really hasn’t happened. Dorrien may be write that Progressive Christianity may never be fully widespread, and that’s okay. If it’s a niche corner, then it needs to be a strong niche corner in which good work is done, truth is spoken and it needs to partner with like minded niche corners in every sector, religious or irreligious, secular and spiritual, political or communal.