Friday, August 29, 2008

Another Odd Twist on Black and White

To the best of my childhood recollection, Channel 17 in Philadelphia would always reserve 2 hours of prime time programming on Martin Luther King, Jr’s day of honor to run video of his speeches. They’d actually shelve the old movies (including “Arsenic and Old Lace” which seemed to play twice per month) in order to inspire the sons and daughters of their city to have their own Dream by featuring Dr. King's passionate speeches. I don’t know that I always sat and watched all the speeches every year, but I spent the better part of more than a few of those evenings listening to that Baptist pastor cry for freedom from the suffering and needless persecution of his people. And I would weep and weep with the knowledge that though my forefathers who fought for independence, freedom and likely the thrill of rebellion had not been effective enough to provide that freedom for all men. And I wept because there were so few white faces in those crowds filled with many Christians, having no regard for skin but only for the Blood of Jesus.

My parents would scatter, it seemed. I remember Mom's stammer when I asked her why she did not go to Washington or Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi and march to help free others, as freedom and liberty for all people were strong values that I’d been given. When you’re eight or nine and have not been any further away than 3 or 4 hours from Eastern Pennsylvania, you don’t understand how far away Georgia or even Washington, DC really are. Add to that the less tangible and more obvious distance. I knew that I was a Christian that loved Jesus and that King, named for Martin Luther, was a Baptist minister. So was Jesse Jackson. By their professions of faith, they were my Brothers in Christ. And I had a dream, too. For different reasons and in different ways, my heart ached because of injustice. After all, in faith we are all sojourners on the way to that Better Country and the City whose Builder and Maker is God Himself. This world is not my home, but my heart sings the song of longing for liberty and freedom as I long to transcend pain and suffering. These were my Brothers in Christ and they were punished for the color of their skin. Only by God’s providence was I born with the advantage of white skin, a roof over my head and food on my family’s table for which my parents both worked long and hard to provide. So I would weep for liberty and freedom to be known to all and that all would have liberty in Christ.

The other day, I had a PBS show playing that I tuned in with my rabbit ears and lost interest in it. I was surprised by wonderful singing of African a cappella voices some time later. When the singing stopped, one of the men explained that they were singing about bringing freedom to all men. And my heart swelled and my spirit said “God wants to bring freedom to all men.” It was such a clear, pure, sweet thought that felt as though it vibrated truth through every fiber of my being and hidden place in my heart. There was no “except for those who hate God and whom God hates.” And I prayed for those men and for Africa and for all men in all countries – that they would come to know Christ in freedom and liberty. I also prayed that if they could not know it in eternal terms, that they might know some temporal freedom in their lives. As the light shines in the darkness and the darkness overcomes it not, I prayed that even if all men will not run to the Light of their Maker that they would at least know as much of the goodness of God that they possibly can. May all men be bathed in the light of God’s love. And my heart swells now with the intermingling of sadness and love that comes with the cry of my heart for all to have the opportunity to taste as much of the goodness of God that they can in this life. How much more does my heart yearn for them to also know Him through new spiritual birth in Jesus, the Messiah.

This is the third day that I’ve wept this week, watching the DNC. On the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the first black candidate for the Office of the President of the United States stepped up on a podium to offer his memorial to Dr. King and to offer a perspective of his own dream. That innocent part of me that hopes and believes all things in love wept to realize a dream that I shared, something that I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr would be humbled and proud and grateful beyond words to see. A very large part of me rejoices to see that though there is still much racism in this world, we’ve come a long way since I wept while watching old Channel 17. I hoped and dreamed for such a thing. Before Barack Obama spoke on Thursday evening, the convention played a video about his youth. When he spoke of his grandparents and his mother, I wept and thought of what it would have been like if God had ever whispered to any of them some knowing that “this little boy will one day be nominated for President of the United States.” And he may become our President. What a wonderful day of celebration. In my innocence, I rejoice.

Surprisingly, I also shed a tear when Teddy Kennedy got up to speak and I was blessed to see him deliver one of the best speeches up until that point on Monday evening. I don’t think there is one politician with whom I have less in common, save for maybe Joe Biden. Yet I was moved for him and realized that this will likely be his last convention, and that is sad for anyone. I do take no joy in watching others suffer or falter, even concerning those for whom I have no love lost. And I prayed for God to show himself strong to Teddy, remembering the campaign button that I still think I have in a box somewhere from Kennedy’s campaign for the nomination in 1980. My family of Democrats loved the Kennedys, and this is yet another melancholy sign of the passage of time and the end of an age while a new one begins. Bitter-sweet seems a terribly inadequate adjective.

Then, bitter reality invaded my momentary fantasy of my unrealistic, earthly dreams of peace and harmony and goodness among all people and especially with our country. I recalled discussions with my mother and others when I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr’s questionable past. He had communist and socialist connections. He reportedly plagiarized large sections of his doctoral dissertation. And then I wonder if there is any way to really know the truth about the man. I so appreciated and identified with Phillip Yancey’s “Soul Survivor” chapter about Dr. King as an unlikely mentor that helped him survive the church. He talked about growing up in Georgia and how his classroom cheered when they announced that I think he said that Kennedy had been shot (not King). Kennedy supported King, though I could have the details wrong about whose death the class applauded. Either way, the class cheered because of the racism so prevalent there. In contrast, my grandmother reportedly opened up a bottle of tranquilizers when Kennedy was shot and passed the bottle around the room. (I don’t want to know who took one and who declined...) I appreciated Yancey’s honest portrayal and discussion of the good and bad aspects of Dr. King, and his concerns and feelings echoed many of my own. As John Donne wrote and as Yancey also writes about in that same book, we are a part of one another, no man is an island unto himself and the bell of others tolls for us.

So with sorrow I mourn that I will not be able to realize a childhood dream, voting for the first black candidate for the President of my beloved country. For I am a citizen of a greater one, and the principles that rest beneath the excellent speeches, the handsome face and the beautiful dark skin of a culture and people that I love in the person of Barack Obama offend me. His positions and philosophies on so many things offend me and cut me to the quick. While part of me rejoices to see such a dramatic sign of healing in our land and true signs of freedom, I mourn.

God bless all of our elected officials and public servants with wisdom and grace. God bless all people, especially the oppressed and downtrodden. God continue to heal our wounds – as individuals, as a church of Believers in Jesus Christ, as a society and as a nation. May we ever more a nation of diligent civil servants, and may Christians be glowing examples of this diligence. And may the Lord keep me ever mindful that, with my father Abraham through faith, I am looking for a city whose builder and maker is God.

And I’ll continue to try to find out if my vote will be discounted if I write in either my father’s name or my cat’s name on my ballot in November. I’m not even impressed with the Libertarian option which I might opt to choose. Time will tell.