When you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side

Today I am continuing in my series of blogs about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of  the anniversary of his death, April 4th. I am exploring what his life can teach us about the experience of the Divine Mystery.

There was a time shortly after the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, when Dr. King was seriously doubting whether to continue his involvement in the movement. He had been receiving threatening phone calls and letters at his home, and while at first he took them in stride, after a while, he began to grow afraid. After a particularly strenuous day, late at night, already in bed, he got a phone call with yet another angry threat. He got up and began to pace the floor and then went into the kitchen.

He wrote about this moment:

I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problems to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

He goes on to say,

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once, my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

Three nights later, his home was bombed, but he was able to deal with it calmly. His experience of the presence of God had given him a whole new strength.

As in the story of the Israelites leaving the slavery of Egypt, Dr. King experienced a divine Mystery that is involved in the struggles of human beings to achieve dignity, equality, and justice. As I said before, there is no way to prove that such a God exists. At least, there is no proof outside of the experience of it. But there is a power in the experience that enabled Dr. King to go on to lead his people with courage and truth. And there is a power in the story, just the experience of hearing that story about Dr. King, that inspires me in my own search for strength in the work for transformation.

220px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTSTo look closely at the story of Dr. King is to see its deep resonance with the story of Moses. God didn’t speak to Moses to give Moses a comfortable life. When Moses heard the voice of God, in the story of the burning bush, it was a voice calling him to free his people. And just so, Dr. King wasn’t praying about material wealth or success in his career, or even protection for his family. He was praying about standing up for what he believed was right—the struggle of black people to be treated with dignity and equality. He was praying for the courage to bear witness to justice. And the answer he received was linked to that justice work—that inner voice said, “when you are standing up for righteousness, God will be at your side.”

Dr. King went on to lead the movement with courage and strength. There were other threats and many troubles that came his way. His God didn’t protect him from all those troubles, but King felt God at his side. And the story of Moses continued to be a constant source of his inspiration.

Quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is from The Strength to Love, Chapter 13, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

A Moment of Healing on a Broken Land

In November of 2006, eight people from my congregation gathered in Orono, Maine with about seventy other people for a celebration of the Giving Winds Capital Campaign. The invitation had mentioned hors d’oeuvres, but it was more truly a feast. We had corn chowder and salmon patties, bacon-wrapped scallops and stuffed mushrooms, veggies and corn fritters, and blueberry cake and fry bread. We listened to drumming by two young girls’ drumming groups, and heard the thanks of several of the leaders of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet tribes. We left with gifts of sweetgrass and traditionally made herbal insect repellent, and beadwork pins.drumming

We heard the story of how the Giving Winds campaign came about. It began in brokenness. The Maine Council of Churches had decided a few years before to oppose a referendum that would have allowed the tribes to pursue casino gambling as a means to economic development. Representatives of the tribes had come to a council meeting to urge them to reconsider, and to speak about the difficult financial issues faced by their communities. But many members of the council had ethical principles against gambling, and they voted to go ahead with their opposition.

It was another painful moment in Indian relations with the non-Indian community here in Maine. But Tom Ewell, then director of the Council of Churches, did not want it to end there. He did some research and discovered the Four Directions Development Corporation that was just getting started. It was seeking to provide home loans and small business loans to Wabanaki people from the four tribes in Maine. Indian people had difficulty gaining credit, because if their homes were on Indian land, they could not be used as collateral for traditional mortgages or home improvement loans from a bank. Four Directions hoped to fill this gap, and to provide financial education and support for start-up businesses.

And so the Maine Council of Churches partnered with Four Directions to create the Giving Winds Capital Campaign. Congregations and individuals across Maine donated money and made low- or no-interest loans that were matched by the Federal Government. The campaign worked to build trust and connection between Indian and non-Indian people in Maine. When we ate with each other at the celebration in Orono, it was a moment of healing on a broken land.

I wanted to share this story because all too often, people feel it must be impossible to heal from five hundred years on a broken land. But I don’t believe it is impossible. Difficult yes, but there are simple steps we can take that move us in the direction toward wholeness. If we can learn to share the pain and share the struggles of Indian peoples, then we also will find ourselves sharing in the celebrations. Sweetgrass

The Theft of the Land and the Stories that Obscure It

As I wrote in my last post, European peoples are new to the land we call North America. Our history includes the theft of this land from its original people. We have tried to obscure that history through many stories, perhaps most notably our Thanksgiving myths, the stories of the Pilgrims and the Indians.Turkey DSC09718_2

The story tells us when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, they were welcomed by the Indian Samoset. He introduced them to Massasoit, chief of the local Indians, the Wampanoag, and to Squanto, who helped the Pilgrims to plant corn, to hunt and fish in their new home, and to survive the first hard year. In the fall, Indians and Pilgrims together celebrated a Thanksgiving for the harvest.

The story of this celebration hides other stories. It hides the plague that wiped out the village of Patuxet, and 90% of the people living on the Northeast Coast. Squanto, whose name was actually Tisquantum, was a survivor because he had been earlier carried off as a slave to England. Did you ever wonder why he could speak English to the Pilgrims? The story hides his capture as a slave, his years in Europe and his attempts to come home, only to find his people gone. But most of all, this story hides the next four hundred years, which were filled with betrayal and enmity and war.

The Pilgrims did not share the Indigenous belief in the sacredness of all beings and places. They saw their own society and ways as superior, as a progress which must be forced on other so-called “inferior” beings. This is the spirit of colonization, from which we haven’t yet recovered. From the Indian side, the colonization of North America has been a long saga of unbearable loss and grief. What irony, then, to watch as non-Indians each year have a holiday celebrating the bond between the Pilgrims and the Indians. Many Native peoples think of Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning.

Now, the first reaction European Americans sometimes feel when we hear about this loss and grief is defensiveness. After all, we think, it wasn’t me who stole Indian land, or caused disease among the people, or killed anyone. Perhaps the second reaction that comes is a feeling of guilt, because of what our ancestors have done. But neither defensiveness nor guilt is really very helpful. We must go deeper than that. How do we acknowledge and heal the brokenness? How do we restore wholeness to this broken land and all of its people? 

Choosing the Honorable and the Just

…To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
Wendell Berry

Rev. Bill Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International, wrote eloquently about the power of human resistance to evil. I want to share his words:

In every situation of incomprehensible terror there are always a few people who have cast their lot with the Honorable and the Just… Such people need not be well-educated or sophisticated or even successful in their witness; they simply need to be those who, in the face of sorrow, choose honor and blessing and life. And when they do, they redeem if not humanity, then at least their generation. …For if even only one person in a generation or a country or a culture chooses honor and blessing and life—even only one—then it means that anyone could have made that choice; it means that the Radiant had not completely died in those days; it means that Glory has not been silenced.

We are challenged to respond to the horrible situations of our time with a courageous endeavor—to remember that we are connected. There might be occasions when remembering this connection demands great heroism. The sufferings of the world are so big, and we feel so small. It is frightening to contemplate. But most of the time we are responding to smaller divisions; we must practice finding relationship in the everyday world of conflict and difference—the neighbor whose dog barks too much, the family member whose religious beliefs are contrary to our own, the person whose culture we do not understand, the child who is asserting her own independence.

The promise is that whenever we stand up for human dignity and connection, we bring the power of Grace into the world, we bring the power of God into the world. Whenever we choose mutual respect instead of violence, we strengthen the possibility of Goodness. Whenever we reach out to one who is suffering, we keep alive the Radiant for one more day.

Sunset Winslow DSC02433

Bill Schulz quote from his sermon, “Too Swift to Stop, Too Sweet to Lose”
Wendell Berry quote from “To My Granddaughters,” in A Timbered Choir

Loving Nonviolent Action Is Always a Force for Human Dignity

When African American students sat down at the segregated lunch counters, they were asserting their own dignity by refusing to obey a law that treated them with contempt. They were holding onto the dignity of their harassers by refusing to engage in violence or harm. They were harnessing the power of love to make a change in an unjust system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the many heroic civil rights activists, used loving nonviolent action to restore the dignity of an oppressed people, and also to restore the soul of the oppressor.  

Loving nonviolent action is always a force for human dignity. Whether the political outcome is successful or not, a change has already taken place. The night before Dr. King was killed, he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. It doesn’t matter what happens to me now. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” I used to think this meant that in some mysterious way he had seen the future, and he had faith that black people would eventually win their rights.

But I saw it differently after I was involved in the struggle for equal marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. I believe the mountaintop is less about the future, and more about the present. When lesbian and gay people began to imagine that they might get married, they had an inner experience of equality. It didn’t happen all at once. Two members of my congregation on Cape Cod were part of the  lawsuit for equal marriage. They told me how terrifying it was, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, to ask the town clerk for a marriage license when they knew the answer would be no. It was also terrifying for many others to carry a sign in public, or to have a conversation with their legislator or their neighbor.

Wedding of Linda & Gloria Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

Wedding of Linda & Gloria
Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

But each new act in honor of love lessened their fear and strengthened their dignity. Same sex couples became aware of the burden they had been carrying, the hidden assumption that they were somehow less than the others. Once they felt a glimpse of equality, they couldn’t go back. They had put down the burden, and they were free. So even if there were opponents holding signs that said, “Homosexuals are demons,” it didn’t matter. A young lesbian woman carried another poster that said, “Your signs are mean but we love you anyway.” No matter what happens next, such love releases an inner power that is indestructible.

I think that is part of what Dr. King was talking about. It was visceral and immediate. By tapping the power of love through non-violent action, he felt first hand a new way of being in the world. He fully experienced his own dignity and the dignity of his people. After that, what else could matter? He had been to the mountaintop. As he said, “whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere.” He knew there was no turning back.

King quotes from “I See the Promised Land”, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.