True Friendship and the Search for Meaning: Teaching Augustine’s *Confessions*

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Most of my students have never heard of Augustine of Hippo. Very few of them have read a 5th-century text. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when we discussed parts of Augustine’s Confessions in my Created and Called for Community course at Messiah College.

Confessions is the third reading in our “community” unit. The first two readings–Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone“–focused on community in the United States. The excerpts we read from Book II and Book IV of the Confessions focused on Christian friendship as a form of community.

As always, we started by sourcing the text. Here is a taste of my colleague Richard Crane‘s introduction to Augustine and his Confessions:

If you are a Christian, your faith has been profoundly influenced by St. Augustine, even if you have never heard his name. St. Augustine’s theology has set the agenda for theology in Western Christianity since the fifth century.  Born Aurelius Augustinus in AD 354 in what is present day Algeria, Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian.  His father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted to Christianity late in his life. Augstine was of the Berber ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, but his family adopted the ways of Roman culture including the language of Latin.  Augustine is best known for his church leadership and theological writings during the period in which he served as the Bishop of Hippo

The Confessions…is most similar to the contemporary literary genre we would identify as a memoir. The Confessions is a classic of Christian spirituality and theological reflection and is most likely the book that has been read by more Christians than any other Christian writing apart from the Bible itself. St. Augustine narrates the story of his conversion to Christianity and the course of his sinful life of selfish career ambition and sexual immorality prior to his return to God. He tells the story of his life before Christ as, paradoxically, both a flight from God and a disordered and misguided search for God.  But the most important part of the story for Augustine is his conviction that in spite of his flight from God, God was in pursuit of him all along and had so ordered his life as to lead him back to God.

I began class by reading from the opening prayer of Augustine’s Confessions: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Why are our hearts restless? I challenged the students to draw upon past readings to try to answer this question. A few of them connected Augustine’s search for meaning to the effects of sin in the world, referencing what we learned earlier in the semester from Bruce Birch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Alice Walker in our “Creation” unit. We are broken people, living in a broken world, but one day God will make this world whole (shalom) again. In the meantime, we find meaning, purpose, and happiness by patiently resting in God’s promises to us. This, it seems, is what we mean when we talk about Christian hope.

I used one of my favorite songs to remind students that we are all “tramps” trying to “get to that place where we really wanna go,” where we can one day “walk in the sun.” About 75% of my students had never heard this song:

I don’t know if Springsteen ever read Augustine during his Catholic school days, but I am sure that Augustine would have recognized the Boss’s yearning for something “real.”

If Springsteen did not help my students connect with Augustine, the opening lines of Confessions Book II, chapter 2 did the trick. Augustine writes: “My one delight was to love and be loved.” Such a statement speaks to both the 5th-century and the 21st-century soul. As we moved through the text, we talked about how Augustine tried to satisfy his quest for true love with sexual lust. (At this point I couldn’t help but reference our culture’s addiction to online pornography and casual sex). But just in case some of my students could not relate to Augustine’s disordered sexual life, I asked the students to read the text carefully and name some other ways people pursue happiness apart from God. In Book II, chapter 5, Augustine mentions a few: personal appearance, the accumulation of wealth (“gold and silver”), sensual pleasures, and “worldly success.” Human beings have been trying to find happiness through these things for a long, long time. Augustine was now starting to resonate with some of my first-year college students.

Even certain kinds of “friendship,” Augustine argues, cannot satisfy our restless longings for meaning and purpose in this life. He writes,:”The bond of human friendship is admirable, holding many souls as one. Yet in the enjoyment of all such things we commit sin if through immoderate inclination to them–for though they are good, they are of the lowest order of good–things higher and better are forgotten, even You, O Lord our God, and Your Truth and Your Law.” (Book II, chapter 5).  What does Augustine mean by a “lowest-order” friendship?

I asked my students to talk about the values or ideas that ground some of their own friendships. Some of them said they had friendships based on common interests–music, sports, hobbies, video-games, etc.  Others said that their closest friends were people they grew-up with, went to school with, or met in their college dormitory.  Augustine says that theses kinds of friendships are good. In fact, in Book IV he writes about one of his own friendships, a relationship cultivated through childhood companionship and “the ardour of studies” in school. When this friend died of an illness, Augustine grieved his loss.

But as Augustine reflects on the loss of his friend, he simultaneously pushes his readers–including my students–to consider a deeper or higher kind of friendship. In Book IV, chapter 4, he writes: “there is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by our Holy Ghost who is given to us.” I think this was a tough pill for some of my students to swallow. They did not like Augustine’s suggestion that some their friendships–good friendships–were built upon “lower order” things and were thus not “true.” But I also got the feeling that some of them were willing to listen, or at least take seriously, Augustine’s invitation to foster a deeper kind of friendship.

In our remaining time, I tried to connect our readings on Augustinian friendship to our previous readings in the community unit. Was there a difference between Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship and the kinds of social bonds that Robert Putnam believes are essential to a thriving democracy? A few students argued that Augustinian friendships, built upon Christian love and the power of the Holy Spirit, could certainly contribute to a thriving democracy and create what Putman calls “social capital.” But most agreed that a strong democracy did not require such “true” friendships. “Lowest order” friendships would work just fine. In other words, Augustine was calling Christians to something higher than mere democratic friendship and the creation of “social capital.”

My students thought that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” offered a vision of community that was closer to Augustine’s idea of spiritual friendship. They believed that friendships rooted in social justice and the dignity of the human person were essential to a healthy society.  Yet even these kinds of friendships did not meet the Augustinian standard of friendship unless they were guided by a love of God and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

After class, a couple of students approached me and asked if they could switch the topic of their upcoming “community essay” to  Augustine’s Confessions. I was pleased to hear this.

Thanks for following along.  We are on Spring Break next week and then our focus turns to Exodus 19-20, Matthew 5-7, Acts 1-4, and the Apostles’ & Nicene Creeds. Messiah College has moved all courses online until after Easter. To be honest, I am not sure how I am going to reproduce these kinds of conversations in an online format, so this may be my last post for a while.  Stay tuned.

Teaching MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

King in Jail

After a couple weeks focusing on “creation” in my Created Called for Community (CCC) course at Messiah College, we have shifted gears slightly to focus on the meaning of “community.” Our first reading on this front was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). We read it alongside “A Call for Unity,” the white Birmingham clergy’s statement criticizing King’s visit to the city. King’s wrote his “Letter” as a response to “A Call for Unity.”

There are lot of ways to teach “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In a history course, I would use this text to teach something about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While the past always teaches us something about the present, my primary goal in any history course is to provide students with a thorough knowledge of the past so that their engagement with the present might be richer and more informed.

CCC is not a history course. Since we read and discussed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as part of a unit about “community” in America and the larger world, my pedagogical assignment was to help students see what King might teach us about the meaning of this elusive idea.

But I remain a historian at heart. How could we approach such an important text without some historical context?  As part of the work of sourcing this document, I showed the class a short video from Voice of America:

We began our conversation with “A Call for Unity.” I asked students to read the affixed signatures to the document and tell me something about the men who affirmed it. Eight Birmingham clergy signed it–two Episcopalians, one Baptist, one Roman Catholic, one Jewish rabbi, two Methodists, and one Presbyterian. They were all white.

For our purposes, I asked the students to imagine a different title to this document. What if we changed the name to “A Call for Community?” What kind of community were the white spiritual leaders of Birmingham defending?  Students noted several characteristics of this community:

  1. Birmingham was a community that had “racial problems.”
  2. Birmingham was a community that required members to obey the law. If people in the community wanted to change the law, they needed to do so through the court system. But in the meantime, the law must be “peaceably obeyed.” The law in question, of course, was segregation based on race.
  3. Birmingham was a local community. The people who held power in this community did not look favorably on outsiders telling them how to live. This was particularly the case regarding the aforementioned “racial problems.” These clergy wrote, “We agree with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can be best accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area, white and Negro, meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation.”
  4. Birmingham was a community that did not want Martin Luther King Jr. coming to town with his “extreme measures” designed to undermine the social order.  Of course, white supremacy and segregation defined this social order. King’s “extreme measures” were peaceful protests.

I thought it was important to pause at this point and remind students that Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 was a community. When many of them hear the word “community” they think of something positive. Community is a warm and fuzzy feeling about togetherness and mutual care. Many students who enroll at Messiah College say they are attracted to the “sense of community” they feel when they visit campus.  This is all well and good. But yesterday I wanted them to see community in a neutral way. My students did not approve of the kind of community the Birmingham clergy defended in “A Call for Unity,” but it was a community nonetheless.

A few of them had a hard time attaching the word “community” to a segregated city like Birmingham. As Christians, many were bothered by the fact that the religious and spiritual leaders of this city defended such a community. Two students, in post-class conversations, made connections to the anemic state of the Christian church in 1963 and what they perceived to be the weakness of the white churches today in the midst of suffering, oppression, racism, the environment, abortion, political power, etc.

It was now time to turn to King. Why was King in Birmingham? Nearly all the students who spoke noted that the city’s African-American community invited him to come. Not everyone living in Birmingham was happy about the kind of community the white leaders were advancing in the city.  If Birmingham’s African Americans wanted to end Jim Crow, they would need some help. They turned to King.

Why else was King in Birmingham? King came to this southern city “because injustice is here.” We talked about his comparison to the Apostle Paul, a spiritual leader who left Tarsus and brought the Gospel to the Greco-Roman world. Paul was also an “outside agitator.” He challenged local gods and disrupted the peace in places like Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, Athens, and Thessalonica.  Since some of my students are familiar with the Acts of the Apostles, I thought this might be a good place to linger for a while.

But I also wanted to get to the fourth paragraph of King’s letter.  He writes:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.  Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

My students were quick to note that the Birmingham clergy’s vision was local, but King’s vision was national.  We paused and reflected on words and phrases like “interrelatedness,” “network of mutuality,” “single garment,” “narrow,” and “provincial.” I thought this exercise was important for our understanding of “community.” When King says “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” it should cause us to think about local community with a little more complexity.

This was a lot to ponder, and time was running out. I said that I wish I could do an entire first-year seminar on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because it was such an intellectual and moral feast. I only saw one student roll her/his eyes. 🙂

I continued to push the theme of community. Where do we look if we want to find the things that a given community values? One of the ways we do this is by examining a community’s understanding of right and wrong as embodied in its laws. King had a lot to say about this in the letter. How should we distinguish between “just” and “unjust” laws? Here is King:

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”  Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law….Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statues are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

We spent some time talking about what King meant by “personality.” With a little prompting, they began referencing Genesis 1 and 2 and Bruce Birch’s essay on the “ethic of being.” If we believe, with the Judeo-Christian tradition, that we are all created in the image of God, then the human person (“personality” in King’s language) is dignified.  A law is unjust when it strips people of human dignity.  Several students gravitated to King’s words about Hitler: “We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.'” King added: “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.  Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Powerful stuff.

With only a few minutes left in class, I pointed them to King’s understanding of American nationalism.  National communities make appeals to history. King invoked the ideals of the founding, including Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. If I had more time, I would have steered students toward something I wrote back in 2011:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like Glenn Beck (who despite his Mormonism has joined forces with many Christian nationalists), David Barton, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, or Newt Gingrich. All of these public figures have championed the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Their careers have been defined by the belief that this country needs to return to its Christian roots in order to receive the blessings of God.

Rarely, if ever, do we hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr., included in this list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today. Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (June 14, 1954). It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail….”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

Read the entire piece here.

Today we discuss Robert Putnam’s classic essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” I want to bring my 6th-grade bowling trophy to class, but I can’t seem to find it.

Making America Great Again: MLK Edition

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Justin Rose, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, offers an alternative way of understanding Donald Trump’s famous mantra.  Here is a taste of his Black Perspectives piece “Martin Luther King Jr. on Making America Great Again“:

As a Christian minister, King summarized his life in this manner, because he firmly believed that, “Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” According to King, Jesus taught that the drive to be great is an admirable instinct when greatness is evaluated by how much one serves others. Armed with Jesus’s precept, King called upon his parishioners to redefine greatness by becoming drum majors in the quest for justice, peace and righteousness.Today, as the nation celebrates the life of King, it would behoove us to take a moment to fully interrogate our definition of greatness.

How the nation chooses to define greatness will have grave implications. On the one hand, we can choose to “make America great again” by embracing an ethos of xenophobia, misogyny, and racism, as has been advocated by the current President of the United States. According to this definition of greatness, we should always put America first, even when others are desperately in need of assistance. Thus, when asylum seekers arrive at our borders, the President’s definition of greatness dictates that we give in to a politics of fear and turn them away on the flimsy premise of their proclivity to violence. In contrast, King called upon Americans to redefine greatness by embracing an ethos that he called “dangerous altruism.”

Read the entire piece here.

Out of the Zoo: “I Am A Man”

I Am a Man

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about experiencing the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 through a virtual reality experience. –JF

“I AM A MAN, a virtual reality (VR) experience”

The subject of the mass email stood out from the rest in my inbox. Normally when I log into my college email I’m greeted by a host of messages–Canvas announcements, grade updates, etc.–but this one stood out from the rest. I had no idea what “I AM A MAN” meant, nor had I ever tried a virtual reality experience, but I was intrigued. A quick read of the email notified me that the “I Am A Man VR Experience” was going to be held in Murray Library during Martin Luther King commemoration week. The announcement promised that the experience would allow participants to literally walk in the shoes of the civil rights activists who organized the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Fascinated by prospect of VR history, and realizing that time slots for the experience were filling up quickly, I promptly reserved a session for myself.

On a brisk afternoon the following week I made my way to the Library’s Athenaeum, where the experience was being held. The room was divided in two, with a floor-to-ceiling curtain stretching down the middle. I made my way to the other side of the curtain, which was empty save for the virtual reality equipment and a small X taped in the middle of the floor. The experience attendant fitted my VR headset, twisting the dial in the back until the headpiece was snug against my brow. He showed me how to hold the controls, and as I slid my hands through the wrist straps he explained which buttons I would need to use throughout the program. Finally, he guided me to the X in the middle of the floor, where I waited for the experience to start.

For the next 15 minutes, I lived the life of someone else.  Surrounded by history, I saw the world not through my own eyes, but through the eyes of a black man deep in the throes of the civil rights movement. Scenes faded in and out, interspersed with narrative interludes explaining the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. One moment I stood in front of a beeping garbage truck backing down an alley, and the next I watched scores of men marching down the street holding signs that read “I AM A MAN.” In another scene I stood in the parking lot at the Lorraine Motel and waved at Martin Luther King standing on the balcony. Seconds later, a gunshot rang out and the scene faded to black. The darkness receded to reveal the same street that I stood on earlier, now in shambles. Forlorn-looking men stood scattered along the street; the signs they once held with pride littered the sidewalk. President John F. Kennedy spoke sorrowfully from a television inside a barred store window about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots. My heart started pounding when police car headlights pierced through the fog, and quickened further when the officer inside demanded angrily that I put my hands above my head.

I thought I knew what it meant to step into other people’s shoes. I thought that by studying history, by reading words and amplifying voices that I could effectively empathize with the struggle of others. Yet it was not until I literally stepped into an African American man’s shoes, until I literally saw the world through his eyes, that I was able to begin to feel what he felt–to comprehend the fear, stress and sorrow that people of color experienced in the 1960s and must still experience today. I thought I understood the struggle that marginalized people have faced throughout human history, but “I Am A Man” made me realize that I’ve only been scratching the surface.

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.

Out of the Zoo: Meeting Minnijean

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about meeting Minnijean Brown-Trickey,, one of the famed Little Rock Nine. –JF

Last week was Martin Luther King Commemoration Week here at Messiah College. From Civil Rights trivia, to a virtual reality experience called “I Am A Man,” to special showings of Harriet in Parmer Cinema, the MLK Committee packed the week with a wide variety of events that allowed students to remember the legacy of the late Dr. King.

The week kicked off with a campus service day Monday and a common chapel service on Tuesday morning. Students, some released early from their morning J-term classes and others gearing up for an afternoon session, filed into Brubaker Auditorium while Messiah’s gospel choir United Voices of Praise sang “We Shall Overcome.” The stands were packed with familiar and unfamiliar faces—most were those of Messiah undergrads and professors, but many more belonged to teachers and students visiting from nearby school districts. So many bodies filled the old gymnasium that someone instructed audience members to shuffle towards the center of their respective rows to make room for more people who continued to trickle in.

The morning’s speaker was Minnijean Brown-Trickey, and I had been looking forward to hearing her speak for weeks. One of the nine African American high school students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 in the face of tremendous opposition, Minnijean Brown-Trickey has since dedicated her life to continuing the fight against social injustice. I had seen Minnijean Brown-Trickey featured in several documentaries, read about the Little Rock Nine from textbooks and museum exhibits, and even used documents detailing Minnijean’s eventual expulsion from Central in a lesson plan. After Don Opitz, Messiah’s campus pastor opened the service in prayer, Minnijean was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation from the lively crowd.

Minnijean’s speech was a delightful whirlwind. She touched on anything and everything in that short half hour or so, from her first interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, to the principles of non-violence, to the puzzling mixture of religion and hatred that she first noticed in 1957 and continues to notice in the present. Minnijean told stories, a few jokes, and called her audience to action; she assured the crowd that there’s no shortage of things to do when it comes to fighting against injustice. I scribbled down notes in my journal throughout her address, trying to capture as many of her words as I could. I usually bring my notebook along to chapel, recording a few scattered quotations here and there. This time I ended up with three pages.

I cleared my evening’s schedule and came back to Hostetter Chapel Tuesday  night to see Minnijean speak again. Like Brubaker that morning, Hostetter was packed—filled to the brim with professors, college students, high schoolers, and even some elementary school children hoping to hear more of Minnijean’s story. After the scheduled hour of Q&A came to a close, Minnijean and her daughter Spirit warmly greeted anyone who stayed afterwards to chat. My friends and I waited in line to shake her hand—she insisted on giving us hugs instead—and to pose for the photo featured above. As history students, we were clearly in our element.

What a good day to be a Messiah College history major! I have never had the privilege to meet someone who truly made history, and last Tuesday I got to do just that. Someday when I teach my students about the Little Rock Nine, I will tell them that I met Minnijean Brown-Trickey. I’m not gonna lie, I’m still a little starstruck.

What White Evangelicals Can Learn About Politics From the Civil Rights Movement

 

MLK GRave

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour. Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement. We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville

Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement. In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates. In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.

In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches. In Birmingham we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair. McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.

In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton, one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on my colleague Todd Allen’s “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics. Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.

As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the ground that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House and continues to garner white evangelical support for his presidency. Hope and humility defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement. The movement served, and continues to serve, as an antidote to a politics of fear and power.

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Those who participated in the civil rights movement has much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs—to name a few. They feared for the lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day. For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved. The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.

King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions. I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m no concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

It was a message of hope. Because of his faith, God had given him—and the women and men of the movement he led—all the strength they would need to continue the struggle. King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward. Was he talking about his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?

No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” An assassin’s bullet took King’s life the next day, April 4, 1968, but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power—not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good? Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.”

I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.

Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes—if not in this life, surely in the world to come. The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far. Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities. I thought of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I saw this kind of hope in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.

I heard this kind of hope in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” from the front of the sanctuary of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.

As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that political scientist Glenn Tinder had described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we can never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the carnage of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.

A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear, as Trump once described them, like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real

But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, draws us into the future, and in this way it engages us in life.

*****

It is nonsensical to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power. Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight. But when the movement leaders entered the halls of power, they were usually there to speak truth with a prophetic voice. King, for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble of means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods. Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the great social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. They offer us a beautiful illustration of what scholar James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence.”

For Hunter, a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to serve the people and places where they live. The call of faithful presence, Hunter writes in his book To Change the World, “gives priority to what is right in front of us—community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. It is in these places, through “the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, co-workers, and community—where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here, Hunter adds, “where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible with which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context in which shalom is enacted.”

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to us the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown Chapel AME church. This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches began. For Bland, who was raised in a housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred space.

The humility on display during the civil rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now. This is usually the case with nonviolent protests. Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.

Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old music major at Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959. Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest. Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched, covered with ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.

Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, but he was also the high priest of a spiritual movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.” They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own.

Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power—the power of the cross and the resurrection. This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness to the world.

The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: “The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t have solved any problems for me to hate whites because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

****

Where does all this reflection leave us? Where did it leave me as I got off the bus and headed back to my working-class, central Pennsylvania neighborhood. How might hope and humility inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?

It is time to take a long hard look at what we have become. We have a lot of work to do.

This essay draws heavily from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which was recently released in paperback by Eerdmans Publishing

What to Expect at the “Evangelicals for Trump” Rally. (Or the People are Always Right).

God's megachurch

Trump will be at a Hispanic Pentecostal megachurch in Miami tomorrow afternoon for an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally.  There has not been a whole lot of details released about who will be present at the event or what Trump will say, but I think we can expect a lot of contractual language.  In other words, Trump will remind evangelicals about his Supreme Court nominations, his pro-life views on abortion, his defense of religious liberty, and his support for Israel and then he will ask evangelicals to vote for him in 2020.  I am expecting that there will be some digs at the Democratic candidates and Christianity Today magazine.

I will be on NBC News Now (live stream) with Alison Morris around 3:15pm tomorrow (January 3rd) to talk about the event.  Trump is scheduled to speak in Miami at 5:00pm.

Court evangelical Robert Jeffress will be in Miami for the event.  He talked about his appearance earlier today on the Todd Starnes Radio Show.  Jeffress makes no bones about the fact that the “Evangelicals for Trump” event is a response to Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office.

Starnes mentions “a couple of professors from Oklahoma Baptist University who have been bashing President Trump and his supporters.” (I am guessing that this is a reference Matt Arbo and Alan Noble).  Starnes also references Wayne Grudem’s response to Christianity Today and calls is “terrific.”  He also brings up Beth Moore’s criticism of Trump.  Here is Jeffress’s response: “[Sarcastic laugh] These people are losing such credibility and its very obvious one motivating reason as to why they are against Trump is that they were wrong about Trump and their pride won’t allow them to admit that.”  Jeffress goes on: “It’s those ivory tower elites that just don’t get it….”

I am continually amazed at how this has now turned into a class-based war on “elites.” The assumption is that what “the people” want is always morally correct.  There is some truth to this idea.  This is why many of our founding fathers feared the growth of democracy.  After all, in a democracy 51% becomes the highest moral good.

Let’s remember that the opponents of slavery were “out of touch” with the majority of people of the South in the 1850s.  Martin Luther King was also “out of touch” with the majority of people living in the South in the 1950s and 1960s.  And Andrew Jackson was “in touch” with the people (white males Democratic voters who wanted to settle on Indian lands) when he sent the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears.”

This morning I was reading Alexander Hamilton’s June 1787 speech at the Constitutional Convention as recorded by Robert Yates.  A taste:

The voice of the people has been said to  be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact.  The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.  Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government.  They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.  Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily  to pursue the public good?   Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.  Their turbulent  and uncontrouling disposition requires checks.

Sometimes I wonder if Hamilton may have been right.

John Turner on David Garrow’s MLK Essay

Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the Web and Elsewhere

Like John Turner, I am really surprised by how little conversation has taken place about historian David Garrow’s bombshell article about Martin Luther King Jr.’s  moral indiscretions.  If you are unfamiliar with the argument or the debate, get up to speed here and here and here.

The George Mason University religion professor has weighed-in at The Anxious Bench blog. He is correct to note that “we have an obligation to think through the issues involved in this unsavory subject, which is bound to turn up the next time we assign Letter from a Birmingham Jail or discuss King in the classroom.”

His post is worth reading in full.  Here is a taste to whet your appetite:

6. The most explosive charge, though, relates not to adultery but to King’s presence during an alleged rape and his encouragement of this violent crime.

From Garrow’s essay:

The group met in his [Logan Kearse’s] room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister [Kearse] immediately and forcibly raped her,” the typed summary states, parenthetically citing a specific FBI document (100-3-116-762) as its source. “King looked on, laughed and offered advice,”Sullivan or one of his deputies then added in handwriting.

Ransby’s analysis here is spot-on :

Mr. Garrow walks the reader through the graphic details of what 1960s F.B.I. agents described as Dr. King’s consensual encounters with numerous women. Whether or not Mr. Garrow intended it, the attention in his essay to these reports reads to me as an effort to offer circumstantial evidence to support an allegation of a rape that purportedly occurred in Dr. King’s presence.

Moreover, Ransby observes that Garrow rests his most explosive claim on a parenthetical comment. I would add that that parenthetical comment would almost certainly be difficult to derive from the audiotape.

The claim is a bombshell. Is it outlandish to think that there might be some chance of learning corroborating (or non-corroborating) evidence from other sources, even from interviews with the children of the people allegedly involved in this crime?

If more evidence comes to light that King egged on a rape, then, yes, of course, Americans would have to collectively think through how we commemorate this man.

7. All of this points to the danger of making saints out of historical figures. Undoubtedly, humans have a need for heroes, but we have every reason to be very cautious in our construction of heroes. Historians have an obligation to sift through all of the available evidence when it comes to reaching conclusions about the people we study. Christians, moreover, have a mountain of examples from the Bible about the likelihood that humans will exhibit  feet of clay. Abraham. David. Peter.

8, and finally, I entirely agree with David Greenberg’s denunciation of the “troll-like schadenfreude peppering right-wing media in the last few days.” It’s not even just right-wing media. It’s the human desire to see those on pedestals taken down a notch or two (or in this case ten). Sometimes this serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Or sometimes we just enjoy the salacious details and drama of a story such as this. These sorts of reactions are mean and misguided. No one should take pleasure in this story. Even setting aside Garrow’s bombshell, think about the pain that King’s extramarital behavior must have caused many individuals. There’s a subset of Americans who have never come around on the Civil Rights Movement, who feel about King much the way that many white Americans felt in the 1950s and 1960s, or the way that Jesse Helms felt in the early 1980s. It is a shame that they would relish the potential posthumous fall of an American hero.

Read the entire post here.

Another MLK Scholar Weighs-In on the Garrow Article

fc141-martin_luther_king_jr

Jason Miller, an English professor at North Carolina State University and a King scholar, defends David Garrow’s controversial article on MLK’s moral indiscretions.  (See our coverage of Garrow’s article here).

Here is a taste of Miller’s article at The Conversation:

It’s natural to want to defend King – to say, “let’s wait and see.”

Others might try to argue that abuse precedes abuse, and that the long legacy of slavery still informed the actions of these revered black clergy who subconsciously became like their oppressors. This legacy, of course, often included white men raping black women and sometimes disowning their children.

But I don’t think any filter of rationalization can soften this portrait of King. I’m not prepared to wait eight years, and I’ve halted my two scholarly projects about King.

I’ve also started thinking about what happens next.

What will the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations look like? Will other details emerge? Will more women come forward? Will community centers, schools and streets need to be renamed? Will statues come down, or will they remain – and give fodder to those who justify keeping Confederate monuments?

King espoused nonviolence. If these memos are true, such a stance feels hypocritical.

The narrative has just changed. And if scholarship and true biographical research matters at all, one thing is clear: These FBI memos may have forever damaged King’s legacy.

Read the entire piece here.

More Context on David Garrow’s MLK Article

Hoover

Historian Trevor Griffey of UCLA puts the Garrow article on Martin Luther King Jr. in the larger context of the FBI investigation of the civil rights icon.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation: “J. Edgar Hoover’s Revenge“:

An article just published by the U.K.-based Standpoint Magazine alleges that civil rights icon Martin Luther King witnessed and even celebrated a woman’s rape.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow, one of King’s biographers, the claim relies upon recently declassified Federal Bureau of Investigation documents that summarize tape recordings of King’s extramarital affairs.

The allegation that King witnessed a rape and did not stop it is a serious one. Its impact on how we understand and tell U.S. history, and King’s role in it, is likely to be debated for years.

It’s important to reevaluate King’s legacy in light of this new information.

But as an historian who has done substantial research in FBI files on the black freedom movement, I believe that it’s also important to understand how this information came to be public.

Read the rest here.

How is David Garrow’s MLK Article Faring Today?

King preaching

We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions.  I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.

Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story.  In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes.  (The tapes will be released in 2027).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians.  Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research.  Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos.  (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.”  Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources.  He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”

From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute.  It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.

I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this.  I will monitor this as best I can.

Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true.  Historians will offer interpretations.  The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications.  I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks.  And, I might add, this is a good thing.  Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.

Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos.  They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.

Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources.  This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover.  I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments.  The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process.  I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes.  Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.

We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife.  Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.

And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King?  This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people.  Stay tuned.

This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly.  (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here).  Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.

Garrow’s MLK Article is Here

Garrow

We blogged about this yesterday.  Now you can read it for yourself.  Here is a taste  Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow‘s piece on Martin Luther King Jr.”

Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in the mid-1960s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his “parishioners”, while King “looked on, laughed and offered advice”. The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.

The FBI documents also reveal how its Director, J. Edgar Hoover, authorised top Bureau officials to send Dr King a tape-recording of his sexual activities along with an anonymous message encouraging him to take his own life.

The complete transcripts and surviving recordings are not due to be released until 2027 but when they are made fully available a painful historical reckoning concerning King’s personal conduct seems inevitable.

On January 31, 1977, US District Judge John Lewis Smith signed an extraordinary court order requiring the Federal Bureau of Investigation to surrender all the fruits of its extensive electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr to the National Archives. “Said tapes and documents,” Smith instructed, shall be “maintained by the Archivist of the United States under seal for a period of fifty years,” or until January 31, 2027.

However, in recent months, hundreds of never-before-seen FBI reports and surveillance summaries concerning King have silently slipped into public view on the Archives’ lightly-annotated and difficult-to-explore web site. This has occurred thanks to the provisions of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which mandated the public release of tens of thousands of government documents, many of which got swept up into congressional investigations of US intelligence agencies predating Judge Smith’s order. Winnowing the new King items from amidst the Archive’s 54,602 web-links, many of which lead to multi-document PDFs that are hundreds of pages long, entailed weeks of painstaking work.

Read the entire piece here and read the links to the apparent FBI documents.  If Garrow’s story checks out, this is bad–really bad.  Of course some of this documents provide evidence for stories that have been circulating in the African-American community for a long time.

Dinesh D’Souza Thinks He Knows Something About How African-American History is Taught

David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., will drop a bombshell tomorrow (Thursday) when Standpoint magazine will publish an article, based on memos that discuss FBI tapes, that paints the Civil Rights icon in a very unflattering light.  Here is what Garrow claims:

  • FBI documents from the 1960s allege Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with 40 women and stood by as a friend raped a woman, a new report said.
  • An article by the King biographer David Garrow set to be released on Thursday in Standpoint magazine will detail the FBI memos, London’s The Times reported.
  • Garrow said the memos say King engaged in orgies, solicited prostitutes, and “looked on and laughed” as a pastor he knew raped a woman.
  • The memos were part of a huge US National Archives data dump in early 2019.
  • The FBI secretly recorded King in a years long effort to discredit him. The tapes themselves remain under seal in the US National Archives. And Garrow’s article was rejected by more prominent news outlets. So the story carries many unanswered questions about the accuracy of the FBI material.
  • The King Center, which chronicles King’s life, has not yet commented on the allegations.

Learn more here.  Let’s see how this unfolds tomorrow as Civil Rights historians respond to Garrow’s article.

In the meantime, Laura Ingraham and the Fox News crowd are all over this story.  I am guessing they could not find a legitimate historian of King or the Civil Rights movement to comment on Garrow’s article so, as Fox News is prone to do, they turned to conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. Watch:

D’Souza seems to be basking in all of this.  By the way, who are all of these progressive historians who “hate” and “do not want to teach” Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, and Harriett Tubman?  I don’t consider myself a “progressive historian,” but I certainly consider myself a critic of D’Souza. I have been teaching Douglass every semester for two decades.  David Blight of Yale just won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Douglass.  Douglass’s Narrative remains a fixture on history syllabi across the country.  I am sure scholars of Wells and Tubman can weigh-in as well.

And D’Souza continues to think the Republican Party has not changed on issues related to the plight of African Americans and race since the Civil War. I wrote about this here, but I will defer to Princeton’s Kevin Kruse.

Highlander Research and Education Center Torched. White Supremacy Symbol Found.

Highlander

MLK, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and Charis Horton at Highland Institute, 1957 (Source: http://www.highlandercenter.org)

I am surprised that this is not getting more news coverage.

The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 in Grundy County, Tennessee to train labor organizers. By the 1950s, it became a center for training civil rights workers. Rosa Parks prepared for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the school.  Septima Clark, Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, Pete Seeger, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis also studied there.

Today it is known as the Highlander Research and Education Center (it moved to New Market, TN in 1971).

On March 29, 2019, the Center burned to the ground.  Here is NBC News:

A Tennessee social justice center that has hosted iconic civil rights leaders was destroyed in a fire and a “white power” symbol was found on the site, the center said.

The symbol, which officials did not describe but said was connected to the white power movement, was discovered after the main office was completely destroyed in a fire last week, the Highlander Research and Education Center said in a news release Tuesday. It was spray-painted on the parking lot connected to the main office.

No one was hurt in Friday’s blaze.

“While we don’t know the names of the culprits, we know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally,” Highlander said. “Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, and we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt.”

And this:

Highlander’s main office was home to decades’ worth of documents, speeches and memorabilia that was lost in the fire, the center said on Facebook.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said in a statement that investigators were working with state bomb and arson agents to determine the cause of the fire.

“We are investigating a symbol that was painted in the parking area of the office to see if it has any affiliation to any individual or group,” the sheriff’s office said.

Highlander’s office burned one day after the Oklahoma Democratic Party headquarters and a Chickasaw Nation office were vandalized with racist graffiti. The offices were spray-painted with messages that included a swastika, “1488” — which is frequently used by white supremacists and refers to Adolf Hitler — and anti-Chinese slurs.

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars of the civil rights movement:  How devastating is the archival loss?

Can the Civil Rights Movement Serve as a Model of Evangelical Political Engagement?

king grave

An excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

If you picked up this book and have made it this far, you will not be surprised that I think about evangelical political engagement from the perspective of a historian.  While we always need to be careful about taking lessons from the “foreign country” of the past and applying them to contemporary issues, we certainly should not ignore our natural inclination to find a usable past.  What kind of historical examples can we find of Christians living faithfully–and engaging politically–from positions located outside the corridors of power and privilege?

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.  Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement.  We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis , and Nashville.  Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement.  In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates.  In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original  Freedom Singers.  In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  In Birmingham, we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Lisa McNair.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.  That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.  In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton , one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics.  Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.  As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the grounds that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House.  Hope, humility, and a responsible use of American history defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement.

HOPE

 Those who participated in the civil rights movement had much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs–to name a few.  They feared for their lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day.  For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved.  The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this.  When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized  and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.  King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions.  I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anything.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

It was a message of hope.  Because of his faith, God had given him–and the men and women of the movement he led–all the strength they would need to continue the struggle.  King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward.  Was he talking ab out his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?  No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  An assassins bullet took King’s life the next day…but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power–not just his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good?  Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch  once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicker will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it. ”  I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip.  It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates.  Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.  Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity , but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand these purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come.  The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far.   Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities.  I saw this kind of hope  in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.  I heard this kind of hop e in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me’ Round” from the front of the sanctuary  of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.  As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge  in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the fact of terror on Bloody Sunday.  Such audacity requires hope.

Humility

It is nonsensical  to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power.  Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight.  But when movement leaders entered the “court,” they were usually there to speak truth to the king, not to flatter him.  Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods.  Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the greatest social movement in American history.  These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them.   And they offer us a beautiful illustration of what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence”:

A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us–community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these constituted….It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation–family, neighbors, co-workers, and community–where we find authenticity as a body of believers.  It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy….

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to use the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown AME church.  This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches began.  For Bland, who was raised in the housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred place.

The humility on display during the civil  rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now.  This is usually the case with nonviolent protests.  Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.  Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old  music major at  Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959.  Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest.  Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched , and covered in ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.  Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this.  Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment.  In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love.  Many in the movement practiced with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.”  They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own  .   Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power–the power of the cross and the resurrection.   This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness in the world.   The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: ” The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate.  It wouldn’t  have solved any problems for me to hate white because they hate me.  Oh, there’s so much hate!  Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

HISTORY

As we saw in chapter  5, many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they recognize that there is little in our nation’s history to yearn for.  The leaders of the civil rights movement could not make appeals to a golden age.  They could only look forward with hope….When they did turn to the past, it was often an appeal to ideals such as liberty, freedom, or justice, ideals written down in our nation’s sacred documents that had yet to be applied to them completely.  History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction at the heart of the republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'”  As I listened to to the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories, I was surprised how often I heard them describe America as a “Christian nation.”  But this was not the Christian nationalist nostalgia of David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or the court evangelicals.  It was a gesture of what they hoped the United States might become….

The early civil rights movement needed its leaders to have a working knowledge of American history, but these leaders did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project.  They knew there was little to reclaim.  Instead, they used the past as a means of  moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on.  While many white Americans today succumb to the narcissism that tells them that their place in the story of the nation is not worth serious reflection, King and his followers had a clear-eyed understanding of the past.  They desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story.

The Cornel West–Robert George Road Show Discuss MLK

West and George

Robert George and Cornel West at Arizona State University, January 2018 (Creative Commons)

Check out Adelle Banks’s piece at Religion News Service on a recent event sponsored by Baylor University’s program in Washington D.C.  I am encouraged when I hear conservative Robert George and progressive Cornel West working together to find common ground.  At this event they discussed the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of Banks’s article:

West said he’s had to answer critics who can’t understand how he travels around the country with George: “I say, ‘Have you met him? Have you sat down and talked with him?’”

They sat onstage, comfortably taking turns highlighting how King had crossed divides in search of his goal of a “beloved community.”

West and George agree that the emphasis on King should be on his role as a Christian minister, though his civil rights activism is also grounded in his being a product of the black community.

“The last thing we ever want to do with Brother Martin is view him as some isolated icon on a pedestal to be viewed in a museum,” said West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. “He’s a wave in an ocean, a tradition of a people for 400 years so deeply hated, but taught the world so much about love and how to love.”

Read the rest here.

If you enjoyed this piece, you may also enjoy West and George discussing the liberal arts and the purpose of education: