hello, old friend

I studied in Edinburgh, Scotland in college, during a time of life when my ethic could best be articulated as, Try Everything. Haggis, check. Scotch, check. Backpacking everywhere, check. Driving a car on as many roundabouts as possible, check. From Loch Ness to the Lake District to Brussels to the Ring of Kerry, if anyone offered me a spot, I grabbed my bag and jumped on a train.  It came naturally, then, to agree to join the Hillwalking club at the University of Edinburgh. I like hills. I like walking. I hoped to like the Highlands, which was the location of our first weekend hillwalking adventure. I signed up.

Needless to say, I was taken aback when they handed out crampons and ice picks before we left our mountain lodge for our first walk. 7 hours, a white-out blizzard and some mild frost bite later, I realized that what they meant by “hillwalking” was “ice climbing.” I wanted to walk hills, and previously even wished the club had a more aggressive sounding name, like Mountain Hiking Club. I was ready to walk, to hike, to burn and sweat. But dear reader, I was not ready for ice picks, roping in, or blizzards.

As we ease into 2019 it is helpful to prepare ourselves for the year ahead. Anticipating celebrations of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., many of us will pledge our allegiance to living lives closely aligned with his ethic of life. We will say we are committed to reaching across lines of difference, to pursuing diverse perspectives, to resisting injustice and to responding with non-violent, non-defensive patience in the face of bigotry or hate. Our memory of his work makes it look so easy, and he seems so noble that we want to join him! Many of us fervently believe we must intentionally reach across lines of difference as we big bigger tables with more seats in our effort to build a just society. The work is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Before we pledge our allegiance, it is useful to understand what we are signing up for. When I say I love diversity and want to pursue it and promote it in my spheres of influence, I am saying I love realizing I have bias, that my privilege has blinded me, and that I am often hurtful and offensive. When I say I want more diversity I am asking to actively decrease my own power and control, to increase moments of discomfort and tension as I apologize more, seeing my deficits and bad assumptions. When I say I like diversity, I am saying I enjoy undermining my own perspective.

I assert these truths as a person who actively pursues diversity, and wants to live and work in environments where diverse perspectives influence culture and policy. As such, I am interested in closing the gap between what we claim to want and what we commit to do consistently. We often talk a good game when we begin a new year or role, but it proves difficult to maintain our commitments when they make life uncomfortable or inefficient. We think our fervent desire for certain values will translate into inhabiting those values within our communities; sadly, when relationships prove difficult or messy, we give up. Because we fail to realize the ramifications of the vision to which we say we are committed, we unwittingly reinforce our own sense of disillusionment and inertia. While some dreams are indeed difficult to reach, much of our failure comes not because the dream is unworthy or unattainable, but because we give up when our naïve expectations are not met.

How can we increase our capacity to stay invested even when the dream proves difficult? Passionate reformers have many suggestions, but allow me to offer one piece of advice: If you want to be a person whose stated values reflect authentic aspects of your practical self and habits, it is vital that you honestly reflect on the commitments you make. If I understand all the decentering adjustments and awkwardness a life committed to pursuing diverse perspectives will ask of me, I can embrace such uncomfortable requirements when they arise.

When we speak honestly about our hopes and resolutions, we anticipate the sacrifice such commitments demand, thus preparing us to stay in the game even when it requires Thor-levels of grit. Such honest anticipation offers us a level of comfort, of familiarity, when the task before us feels difficult. In my own commitment to elevating diverse perspectives, I am sometimes caught off guard by how inefficient such a habit is. Now, when a meeting is not moving as quickly as I had hoped because it takes time and painstaking clarity to hear from and honor many diverse perspectives and notions of “normal,” I have a greater capacity to sit in the tension I feel. When I sense the frustration that often comes from people in this type of setting, when I feel the trickle of sweat begin to form down my back, when I wonder if tempers or accusations might soon escalate, I think, “Hello old friend, I’ve been expecting you.”

If I really intend to be a person committed to making space for diverse perspectives at every level, I must expect this moment with every fiber of my being. Such a move offers us the chance to expect our old friends—tension, misunderstanding and inefficiency—rather than abandoning the task at hand when they show up. Anticipate these old friends, and don’t run for the exit when they appear! Instead, think, “Ah yes, and here you are, just as I thought you would be.” The remarkable gifts of collaborating across lines of difference to find the best solutions are worthy of our honest commitment to stay in the game.

I am a terrible hill walker, mostly because I gave up after that one measly blizzard terrified me. If I had anticipated the cold, the blinding snow, the burning fingertips, or the uncertainty of losing our bearings, then I might have smiled inside as the winds picked up. “Hi old friend, I’ve been expecting you. Let’s walk together as I figure out which step to take next.” Let us not talk falsely now, but instead pledge our allegiance to ideals only when we have gazed them full in the face, ready for all they might bring.

the destruction of defensiveness: the dodge ad

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, viewed by nearly a third of all Americans, Dodge aired an advertisement found wildly offensive to millions of Americans.  The ad was a mashup of quintessential “American” scenes shown while the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr spoke passionately about the virtue of serving others.  Dodge produced the ad in order to bring awareness to a campaign—called Ram Nation—that is meant to advocate for and celebrate volunteerism in local communities.  In the ad, King reminds us that the desire to be great, to lead, and even to do good are wonderful instincts, but that “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”  

Today King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.

The excerpt was taken from a speech King gave at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, a few months before his death, and is called, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  In it, he discusses the human need to feel superior, and forcefully argues that in individuals this need leads to violent and unjust notions of white supremacy, while at the national level, “the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy,” and that America won’t stop “because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”  The content of King’s speech makes it very clear that he is presenting a new way to find meaning in life, and that new way is accessed when we use our power in order to serve those overlooked by powerful people.  He goes out of his way to reject the idea that abject power and the accumulation of “stuff” (like a Dodge pickup truck, for instance) could ever hope to bring peace.  I’m not here to defend or condemn the ad; instead, I think our response to it offers an excellent showcase of our tendency to get defensive when we encounter points of view that are different than our own.

Defensiveness destroys conversation. 

I understand the instinct.  For many white folks, at times it can feel as if we walk through a field of land mines when it comes to race and history, as if any misstep will cause an explosion.  For many black folks, the constant demand to justify experience, to legitimize a point of view, is diminishing and exhausting.  These common experiences can make everyone feel like their opinions are offensive, or as if they are only safe with “their kind.”  This preference for similarity, combined with countless experiences of being misunderstood or even accused, can make us all defensive instead of patient and engaged when we encounter others. 

I personally found the ad to be an attempt to appropriate a black cultural icon for the profit of a business.  I thought it was in bad taste, as it commodified the words of King in order to sell a brand.  Regardless of my perspective, I am fascinated as I watch the debate unfold.  Friends who live and breathe the work of justice, who see America as King did—a mixed bag of courageous, democratic idealism and hypocritical, oppressive systems—are frustrated by the idea that a company could try to use King to make a profit.  It smacks of a history laden with powerful folks using black labor and creativity to make profits.  On the other hand, I have seen sincere folks begin by saying they were moved by the ad, only to feel attacked, and then react defensively by saying something like, “Am I not allowed to have an opinion? Everytime I even try to talk about Dr. King I end up getting yelled at for doing it wrong!”

Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for.

While millions of people—black and white—have condemned the ad, millions more thought it was a moving tribute to King.  Because defensiveness destroys conversation, we cannot have a productive discussion about why we might (dis)approve of it. Twitter rants about black sensitivity and white appropriation of King abound from every possible angle.

It goes something like this…

Tweeter A: What a moving ad, spot on. Thankful the words of Dr. King are being celebrated and remembered.

Tweeter B:  Only white privilege could make you think that honors Dr. King in any way.

[Tweeter A either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in shame, unsure of why it is bad to celebrate Dr. King.]

Or like this….

Tweeter X: Of course a giant company thinks it’s okay to appropriate Dr. King to help them sell cars, they love black culture but won’t speak up for black lives.

Tweeter Y: You are impossible to please. Only you would complain that Dr. King’s words are being celebrated.

[Tweeter X either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in frustration, feeling unheard and misunderstood.]

Can't we do better than this? It strikes me that this particular ad, and our reactions to it, offer us a fabulous chance to LISTEN to the perspectives of others.  Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for. We love him for his soaring oratory, for dreams he painted in our hearts, for his vision of collaborative respect, his insistence on the power of light, and above all, the centrality of love in the way forward.  We struggle, however, to celebrate the part of him who argued majority culture was “more devoted to order than to justice”; we bristle at his critique of the man who “paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom”; we feel exposed by the man who said the church is in danger of being “dismissed as an irrelevant social club”; we take issue with the leader who proclaimed “we have no alternative but to protest.” 

Our love of Dr. King rises over a society that has escaped what he called the “inescapable network of mutuality”, a society that struggles to hear and honor the hurt experienced by many people, a society so steeped in delusion that we actively work against our pledge to act “with liberty, and justice, for all.”  Our response to the Dodge ad reveals the truth that King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.  Perhaps we would do well to listen to all of his words, and to reflect on our own defensive postures when we encounter disagreement.  As this debate fades from the public sphere, notice how you listen, how you react, and how you appreciate the experience of others before defensively aborting the conversation. 

the disapproval of Dr. King

I read today that in 1966, a Gallup Poll measured Martin Luther King, Jr’s favorability at 33%, while 63% of those polled disapproved of him.   This was over 10 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched King to prominence and focused the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement.  This was 3 years after King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall, unifying the call for freedom and the need for jobs with his singular voice.  This was 1 year after the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, a march that was attempted 3 times, where white and black civilians linked arms, allowing their conviction and hope to propel them to walk across a bridge and a state, some sacrificing their wellbeing or very lives as civilians and policeman brutally, openly, attacked them.  The violence broadcast in the month of the march woke the conscience of a nation, encouraging the Congress of the United States to support the Voting Rights Bill.  Dr. King was the face of a movement that not only lifted up the spirits of his fellow African American brothers and sisters; he also required the gaze of a country to confront the indignities they suffered by observing the sacrifices they made.

Compassion is the radical form of criticism, for it announces that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.
— Walter Brueggemann

Dr. King and the SCLC forced the country to observe their status quo.  Their bravery was remarkable, but it was effective because it created a setting in which African Americans and their white allies were vilified and attacked for doing every day life: for sitting on a bus on the way to work, for walking across a bridge, or for ordering coffee at a lunch counter.  These acts of resistance were brilliant because they were mundane.  Everyone knows what it is like to order a drink expecting to receive one.  Although not many white folks knew what it was like to be black, they could certainly understand what it meant to be refused service just for existing.  To be beaten just for walking in your Sunday best. 

Dr. King was the face of a movement that not only lifted up the spirits of his fellow African American brothers and sisters; he also required the gaze of a country to confront the indignities they suffered by observing the sacrifices they made.

Dr. King and the SCLC reminded the country of visceral, instinctive compassion.  The images captured and scenes witnessed were so uncivil that they “announced that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann).  Those living in the white majority would most likely have argued that society could not be characterized as full of hate; rather, they were full of civility and kindness and would remain so as long as African Americans stayed in their lane.  This type of delusional break from reality is only possible when compassion and empathy are dead.  This is how the antebellum South could be remembered as a place known for genteel manners, kind hospitality and gorgeous vistas in settings in which bodies were chained, whipped and forced to work in the glare of said gorgeous vista.  We cannot hold onto both ideas at once, so we ignore the ugly and mythologize the good.  Dr. King was both wildly unpopular and most effective because he exposed the average citizen to the flaws in their own mythologies.  Truth tellers are often avoided (Cassandra, anyone?), and Dr. King kept showing the country the truth of the everyday, mundane trauma African Americans experienced, dispelling the delusions that America was a land of respected and kind free people who rewarded hard work.

In 1966, the actions of Dr. King disrupted the status quo in violent ways.  The actions of those in the movement forced people to realize there is a vast difference in order and in peace.  Those “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity”…people “who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” would not and could not find Dr. King ‘favorable’ (King).  Dr. King’s actions boldly broke the beloved mythology of ‘separate but equal’, a centuries-long commitment of society to silence dissent to such a degree that, according to King, “we have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated.”  The demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement proclaimed that the status quo of society destroys the inner lives of African Americans.  They explained that waiting “for more than 340 years for [their] God-given and constitutional rights” leads a person to be “plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’” (King), your own humanity cries out to simply do mundane tasks—like taking a bus, taking a walk, or taking a sip of coffee at a counter—with dignity.  Dr. King’s actions made him unpopular in the moment because he demonstrated the injustice and unsustainability of the status quo so cherished by white people with power.  His actions, and the violent reactions to them captured on film, forced society to engage compassion as they realized everyday, mundane hurt is “an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann).  63% of Americans didn’t favor him because his actions destroyed their delusions.

The demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement proclaimed that the status quo of society-protected and nourished by powerful white people-destroys the inner lives of African Americans. 

Dr. King’s words also made him unfavorable with a very powerful group of people in the South: White Christians and their churches.  Dr. King, always willing to collaborate with those who followed Christ in the work of doing justice and making things right for their neighbors, forcefully outed those in the church who chose power over sacrifice, acting as the “arch supporter of the status quo” (King).  Indeed, his words claimed that—especially for Christians—the measure of peace cannot be the absence of trouble, but must instead be the flourishing of all people in great and mundane tasks.  He wrote, “somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny….I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”  For a Church committed to theologies of victory and favor, committed to a status quo maintains power for their glory, such words of interdependence wound deeply, demonstrating why he was unpopular.

In our decade, Gallup found that Dr. King has a 94% favorability rating: He is celebrated, loved and quoted by many.  Next week I will explore the roots of this ‘favorability’, and discuss what honoring his legacy must mean for us. For now, let’s allow the words and actions of Dr. King to expose our delusions about our status quo.  Are we facing the mundane trauma of the marginalized or do we discredit and ignore their hurt?  Do our words and actions honor or destroy his legacy?