I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate… who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” …
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from Birmingham Jail. 1963.*
In my life, I have watched this third Monday in January – this day off from school and white-collar work – shift from a day of celebration of our accomplishments, to a day of service. In the past couple of years, the service comes as a culmination of protests and marches, with the recognition that although we have made strides towards equality, there are still deep divides between those who have a day of rest today, and those who have no respite from the presence of injustice.
As I read again the words of the man whose life is honored this day, however, it strikes me that what is missing is repentance, without which both celebration and service lose their meaning.
Where is the day on which we are called to look deeply into our own participation in the status quo? In how we benefit from, and are hurt by, systems that value whiteness and masculinity? Where is the day when we examine how we react to experiences that do not mirror our internal narratives – the hidden tensions brought out in the open before our very eyes?
I am troubled, this weekend when we honor a man who fought for racial justice, at the tension between the narratives around teenage boys. I am troubled, as I think back on the narratives that surrounded the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. These boys who were deemed “men” at 17 and 12; these boys who were deemed threatening by virtue of their skin color; these boys, who would never become men. I am troubled when I remember that their existence was never excused, that their deaths were considered justified.
I am troubled, this weekend, as I read the coverage of another teenage boy, Nick Sandmann, still a boy at 16; this boy who was deemed innocent before any details emerged; this boy who knew the protection of “boys will be boys;” this boy who was deemed unthreatening by virtue of his skin color, but deemed threatened by the people of color around him; this boy who was allowed to give unchallenged voice to his own experience, a PR statement that erased the words printed on his own hat and the garments of his classmates.
I am troubled when skin color is a justified threat, yet the choice to wear the insignia of a racist and sexist administration is an unremarkable detail.
I am troubled when we are, as a nation, content to let the narrative of whiteness override the narrative of justice. I am troubled when we are content to keep these deeply rooted tensions hidden, when we refuse to lance the boils of our culture and atone for the infections we have allowed to fester. I am troubled that we still, 56 years later, prefer the absence of tension to the presence of justice; the maintenance of white supremacy to the creation of a just and repentant society.
It strikes me that what we are celebrating and serving this weekend is not the cause for which Dr. King was willing to give his life; is not the faith for which Jesus was willing to give his. For while hot meals and neighborhood clean ups are good for a day, it is in the examination of how we participate in the underlying systems – the ways we react to the tensions raised, the narratives put forth – that we will truly live into our faith, and honor the prophet who still calls us to the positive peace of dignity and worth for all of humanity.
*the letter can be found at http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Rev. Eliza Tweedy is Pastor and Teacher at First Church Congregational, United Church of Christ, in Rochester, NH. She blogs at http://www.sermonizing.wordpress.com.
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