I recently read a book review that piqued my interest (in the positive sense). I am always on the lookout for new books, especially those that challenge me and/or provide me with a different perspective than what I currently have. I should say that the book provided me everything I was looking for, and perhaps more.
I am not going to provide my typical “book review” (although, in a purist sense, I never provide an honest-to-goodness review). What I would like to do is to share some reflections after reading the book, which, hopefully, is what any good book is designed to foster.
The book is titled, A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, and published by Grand Central Publishing (2001). I have only had a passing acquaintance with the speeches of Dr. King, and have never really spent much time learning about the Civil Rights Movement or of Dr. King’s life. So, reading these speeches was truly an eye opener for me. So, on to my observations:
- I was struck how, in virtually every speech, Dr. King urged (even begged?) his audience to maintain the purest form of non-violence. Compared to the vitriolic speech of so many today (both white and black), the tone of Dr. King’s speeches is profound. He knew that acts of violence would not achieve his goals, and indeed would turn many people against his movement who might have otherwise been willing to follow him. These speeches are a case study in the process of working against unbelievable hatred using non-violent processes.
- Reading these speeches clarified for me, perhaps as no other format could, how we as a culture misunderstand the concept of sin. When we (and perhaps I am speaking primarily of the dominant white culture) think of “sin” what we typically visualize are individual “sins” – lying, stealing, cheating, murder, rape, adultery, etc. What we fail to see is that “sin” is systemic, it is a part of the culture in which we exist. I do not want to minimize the reality of individual sins – the Bible is full of lists of individual sins. But what we fail to see is how sin becomes ingrained into the very process of how we live our lives. When we try to eliminate the little “sins” in our lives we are going to be utter failures unless we confront the larger issue of sin. Jesus did not come and die to make us more moral people – philosophers stretching back at least to Socrates (if not further) had been doing that for centuries. Jesus came and died to make us new people. If we lose that reality we have no prospect of addressing the individual “sins” in our lives.
- Reading these speeches I felt, probably for the first time, what it must have been like to have been denied the right to drink from the same water fountain as a white person, or to use the same restroom as a white person. The “Jim Crow” laws were brutally dehumanizing – and there simply is no other way to state it. Those laws declared black Americans to be sub-human, in the exact fashion that the laws enacted by Adolf Hitler declared Jews to be sub-human in the 1930’s. Christians who rightly shudder in horror over the Nazi pogroms shrug our shoulders when confronted with our own racial atrocities.
- As I have stated elsewhere, I shudder to think what I would have done if I had been an adult in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I know how hot-headed I was (and still sometimes resort to being!), and I just cannot bring myself to think about what I would have said and done had I been a part of the white mobs that confronted those who were marching for the right to be considered equal, and not separate. It is easy for me to sit where I am today and to say that I would have marched with Dr. King. I hope I would have.
- I was completely unaware of the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the protest over the Vietnam “war” (we never declared a war, so calling it the “Vietnam War” is a misnomer.) Dr. King expressed some things that I have never heard before, and his words have got me to thinking. I need to study a little deeper – but if what Dr. King said was true, if the Vietnamese were fighting for their independence from France, if they were looking to our Declaration of Independence for inspiration, if they looked to the United States for solidarity in the hopes of becoming a free people, if France did pull out and recommend strongly that we withdraw our military as well – then what I have been told for decades is at the best a white-wash, and outright lies at worst.
- The lives of Dr. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer share a profound number of similarities. Speaking truth to power demands a special kind of courage, and frequently ends in martyrdom.
- I could not help but notice, however, how utterly and completely Dr. King’s vision and mission has been hijacked by his latter-day followers. Dr. King excoriated the southern “Dixiecrats” who worked to keep the black people from gaining any kind of power in the south. Today I see the white power structures in the south as just as racist, yet with a peculiar difference – many black leaders have made their peace with these modern “Dixiecrats” and work just as hard to keep the underclass blacks right where they are. After all, if everyone is healthy, where would the need for a physician be? If blacks are truly given all the freedom and equality that they deserve, where will the need for these modern white slave owners and their black minions be? Somehow, I just do not think Dr. King would be happy with the way modern Democrats push policies that are deeply wounding to the overwhelming majority of blacks (welfare, for example, weakens the family structure by providing help only to those who are unmarried; abortion is disproportionately used by black women). To be honest – I do not see much help from the Republican side either. Both political parties are grossly negligent in promoting the vision of true equality that Dr. King sought.
The title of the book is A Call to Conscience. For me it was a call to confession. I see the world a little differently now, and it is not at all comfortable. The last few days I have been challenged, and I hope (and do pray) that moving forward I will look at my world a little more clearly.
Thanks for “hearing” my confession.