Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Engine of Hope

Nothing was going to make me break my series this time. Then I went to the New York Times, and opened this op-ed by Taylor Branch:

Many of Dr. King’s closest comrades rejected his commitment to nonviolence. The civil rights movement created waves of history so long as it remained nonviolent, then stopped. Arguably, the most powerful tool for democratic reform was the first to become pass√©. It vanished among intellectuals, on campuses and in the streets. To this day, almost no one asks why.
Take that in for a moment, alone; then move on to Mr. Branch's second paragraph:

We must reclaim the full range of blessings from his movement. For Dr. King, race was in most things, but defined nothing alone. His appeal was rooted in the larger context of nonviolence. His stated purpose was always to redeem the soul of America. He put one foot in the Constitution and the other in scripture. “We will win our freedom,” he said many times, “because the heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” To see Dr. King and his colleagues as anything less than modern founders of democracy — even as racial healers and reconcilers — is to diminish them under the spell of myth.
Several things going on there at once, not all of them compatible with the prevailing sentiments of left blogistan. Take the center of that paragraph: "He put one foot in the Constitution and the other in scripture." We are told, over and over again, by many voices, that such a stance is not only impossible, it is flatly unconstitutional. I suppose that throws out the baby with the bathwater, because, as Branch goes on to say in the very next sentence: "Dr. King and his colleagues [are nothing] less than modern founders of democracy," and to see them as anything less, "is to diminish them under the spell of myth."

Which is not to say religion is essential to the defense of democracy, or to its founding; but perhaps, again, it is. Perhaps religion that teaches that all people are equal under God, that all are children of God and that in the kingdom of God the first will be last and the last first, is a core belief necessary to embrace democracy. It isn't necessary that all those in the democracy embrace that belief, anymore than it was necessary that all who lived in Israel in the time of the judges and kings embraced the God of Abraham. It was enough that those who did, understood that God to be the God of all, and concerned with all. There are more than a few stories of non-Hebrews in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they are not despised. There is no superiority in Christians in a democracy, but there is certainly a power in Christian belief that can make democracy what it should be, that can make the goal of freedom Dr. King proclaimed was the goal of America, possible.

Or it can selfishly destroy it, under the leadership of unrepentant and unreconstructed racists like the late Jerry Falwell. Every coin always has two sides. Which is, of course, also the great lesson of Iraq. This morning NPR tells me President Bush and Prime Minister Putin made at least public statements indicating they want less tension, not more, between the US and Russia. The statement is clear: Iraq or Iran the US can push around; but Russia is another matter, so let's be nice to them. Anyone else remember how quickly North Korea slipped off the 'Axis of Evil' once it had a nuclear weapon? As Mr. Branch says:

There is no more salient or neglected field of study than the relationship between power and violence.
We've had another object lesson in that field of study for the past 7 years. Whether we have learned anything from it, or not, remains to be seen. What we have learned, sadly, is that power is more important than right, that authority trumps democracy, and that control is the whole point of politics. Dr. King thought otherwise, and for those thoughts, at the end of his brief 39 years, he was labeled "Chicken à la King" and "one of the most menacing men in America today." We truly don't like the lessons of non-violence, because they put us out of the center, they leave us without control. And that thought terrifies us more than the consequences of violence itself. But consider where Mr. Branch ends his speech; with the story of Lazarus and Dives, from Dr. King's last sermon at Riverside Church.

Dives is the rich man, who wouldn't even feed Lazarus the scraps from his table. When they both die, Lazarus goes to heaven, to sit with Abraham, and Dives is sent to hell, to suffer eternal torment. Dives pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to life in order to warn his still living brothers of this fate, that they might avoid it, but Abraham says they have the prophets, they should listen to them:

Dr. King said Dives was a liberal. Despite his own fate, he wanted to help others. Abraham rebuffed this request, too, telling Dives that his brothers already had ample warning in Torah law and the books of the Hebrew prophets. Still Dives persisted, saying no, Abraham, you don’t understand — if the brothers saw someone actually rise from the dead and warn them, then they would understand.

Jesus quotes Abraham saying no. If the brothers do not accept the core teaching of the Torah and the prophets, they won’t believe even a messenger risen from the dead. Dr. King said this parable from Jesus burns up differences between Judaism and Christianity. The lesson beneath any theology is that we must act toward all creation in the spirit of equal souls and equal votes. The alternative is hell, which Dr. King sometimes defined as the pain we inflict on ourselves by refusing God’s grace.
Equality, of course, means vulnerability. It means I don't have as much power as you do, and what does that do to me? It is a vision well beyond that of the "Founding Fathers," with their restriction of the vote to white property owning males, and with a republic, not a pure democracy, in their Constitution. It isn't too much to say today that Republic is going the way of Rome, with the diktator of Roman law becoming the "unitary Executive" who, in time of "war," has all powers necessary not to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution," but to declare enemies on every phone line, and the power to discover them and imprison them without trial or warrant. It is the very fear of vulnerability that our government has played on since September 11, 2001. It is that fear that a man with one foot in the Constitution, and one foot in Scripture, would show us how to overcome.

For Dr. King, to answer was a patriotic and prophetic calling. He challenges everyone to find a Lazarus somewhere, from our teeming prisons to the bleeding earth. That quest in common becomes the spark of social movements, and is therefore the engine of hope.

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