Monday, January 16, 2012

Their Backs Against The Wall


When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
Martin Luther King

Some have said that without Howard Thurman there could not be a Martin Luther King. The first African-American dean at a majority white university at Boston University, Thurman took King and other students under his wing and his Jesus And The Disinherited (1949) became a staple devotional read for King throughout the Civil Rights struggle.

Thurman posited that if Jesus had a message for anyone it was for "those with their backs against the wall." Unfortunately, the dominant Western version of Christianity shelved that part. Rather embarrassing considering Jesus was a poor blue collar worker from a powerless ethnic minority in the Roman Empire.

Thurman's compelling interpretation of Jesus stresses a mystical element that is notoriously left behind in many prophetic brands of Christianity. Jesus started with the heart, calling for his followers to work through the fear and hatred that oppressed people always grapple with in Empire settings. No doubt, Thurman knew all about this, growing up in the Jim Crow American South.

Jesus called for a renewal of the heart--to replace their deep-seated hatred of Rome with a fervent unconditional love modeled by God who bestows it upon both the righteous and the wicked. Jesus called his followers to be "born again" (John 3), a phrase that mostly white Christian fundamentalists have used quite differently than Thurman and King.

King connected Jesus' backroom dialogue with Nicodemus to a ripcurrent of rebirth that would deluge human hearts and pour over into a transformation of the societal systems that were (and are) ravaged by the "triple evils" of racism, economic exploitation and war. He called for a higher synthesis of capitalism and communism, one that combined the truths of both.

This vision still awkwardly alludes both major political parties who refuse to courageously and truthfully echo what King actually proclaimed: "dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment." And today, African-Americans continue to experience much higher rates of unemployment and imprisonment that whites of equal criteria (whether resumes or rap sheets) suffer from.

At the epicenter of this rebirth was a patiently cultivated nonviolent Love that King proclaimed would turn the Game around and flip the Script:

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

King didn't just come up with this shit on a whim and he wasn't just rhetorically joysticking when he said:

He who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

His vision of Jesus' world-transforming love was breathed into him by his family, by his church, by Thurman and Gandhi (who, incidentally, started almost everyday by reading Jesus' Sermon on the Mount). The Jesus of the Gospels was a revolutionary who called his followers to do what he did. In the words of Thurman, Jesus came to "make music in the heart" so that the whole world might dance to the sound of peace and justice.

On this MLK Day 2012, we pray for the wisdom and strength to dance with all those whose backs are against the wall. These are the ones who Jesus calls us to strategically and creatively fight for. For the undocumented. For the foreclosed upon. For the conned. For the berated. For the unforgiven. For the abused. For the neglected. For the hopeless. For the suffering. For the bullied.

*See more of Kadir Nelson's artwork here.

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