The year was 1963. I was 14 years old. So it could not have been that I was unaware of what was going on in my city, but more likely that I was sheltered from it. I’m referring to two events: the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested and incarcerated in the Birmingham jail; and in that same year — Sunday, September 13 — the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, taking the lives of four little girls as they left their Sunday School class to go into the sanctuary.
It was a white supremacist terrorist bombing, just before 11 o’clock, when instead of rising to begin prayers, the congregation was knocked to the ground. As the bomb exploded under the steps of the church, the congregants sought safety under the pews and shielded each other from falling debris.
Five months earlier, on April 12, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested with SCLC activists Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday wondered what in the world the future might hold.
As a child, I would proudly sing a song I learned in school, “Birmingham’s My Home. In the days of 1963, I was not so proud that Birmingham, Alabama was my home. Today, I feel deep shame to admit that even at age 14, I had no idea what was happening or why it was happening. To be sure, I was not yet “woke” in any sense of the word.
While incarcerated, Dr. King wrote a letter. Some of his most eloquent, scorching, but hopeful words were penned during his time in the Birmingham Jail. These words he wrote from there are quite striking to me:
“. . . in some not too distant tomorrow
the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation
with all their scintillating beauty.”
How is it that we have not yet seen the “radiant stars of love and brotherhood” [and sisterhood] “shining over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty?” Why does the struggle for racial justice still play out in the streets of this nation’s cities as the oppressed still cry out against the injustice that continues to hold them in chains?
I will not attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. I will point out the mountains that still stand ominously before us. We cannot move those mountains, it seems, as they loom over us — immense, towering, formidable, oppressive. The rocks, crags and peaks of them looking like peaceful protests by persons crying out for freedom in June, white supremacists violently storming the United States Capitol just 12 days ago, and the terrifying Coronavirus that still threatens after so many months.
How will we see the radiant stars of beloved community, of hope, of peace when we cannot move those mountains? Words cannot move mountains, but words can give us the strength and courage to try. And so I leave you with Dr. King’s words as we honor him on this day:
“Out of the mountain of despair, the stone of hope.”*
I wish for you radiant stars of love, the sunlight of hope that is new every morning, and the glistening wings of peace to guide your way.
*Dr. King delivered this line during his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. It now appears is one of the most prominently featured quotes on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington.
liminal in American English (ˈlɪmɪnəl ; ˈlaɪmɪnəl )
1. Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2. At a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, ways of life, etc.
“Liminal” used in a sentence:We are in a transitional and liminal time: this makes everything unsettled and awkward, and most of us feel tremendous unrest and a sense of urgency.
I choose to mark this particular time in history as a liminal time that demands my courage to stand — to stand in solidarity with every person who is demanding an end to racial injustice. I cannot choose my partners in this struggle. Instead, I have to accept those that appear in my life, bringing with them a determined will to stand for justice.
I must understand that liminal time does not last forever. Liminal time is a place of transition, a liminal stage between justice and oppression, between life and death. So my choices and yours in this liminal time might very well affect what’s going on in the streets of American cities, in police precincts in every community and rural hamlet, in the halls of Congress and in the White House, in our hearts and in the hearts of those we could see as our “enemies.“
Here is where I must focus. My heart must long for an end to injustice. So must yours, because God’s heart grieves over the mayhem in our streets and the violence that has its way when a white police officer murders a black man or woman, even a black child.
You and I must yearn for an end to racial injustice — any kind of injustice and oppression — because God’s heart yearns to see us living in holy unity as brothers and sisters.
These days have dramatically shown us our liminal time, and it is NOW.
I have a strong sense that this liminal time has brought the widespread unrest we are witnessing, and that unrest emerges directly from a deep desire for change and transformation. It must be now!
Those of us who remember, know that the Civil Rights Movement came to its boiling point when every marcher, every protester, every non-violent activist and every violent one knew when their liminal time had come. Some people, of course, did not like that time at all, but even those who resisted that movement towards justice knew in their hearts that it was the liminal time, the time of NOW.
The fight was fought by people who spoke and marched, prayed and worshipped, who resisted and stood their ground, who preached and sang their freedom songs. Ah, how those songs of the civil rights movement helped motivate people of all ages and races, from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists and Freedom Riders to the thousands who marched on Washington, Selma, and Montgomery!
Yet not one person — Civil Rights leader or non-violent protester — could achieve civil rights alone. It required persons living in the poorest neighborhoods and their affluent neighbors across town. It took white folk and black folk, protestors and preachers, eloquent advocates and those who fought silently, lawyers and congresspeople and attorneys general and presidents. It required a community in solidarity. In fact, during the Civil Rights Movement, the creation of community was the quintessential coming-of-age story for Black people.
Of that historically significant time, Father Richard Rohr writes this:
It was the particular time in history when nonviolent initiatives seeded with contemplative worship practices became acts of public theology and activism. You see, activism and contemplation are not functional opposites. Rather, contemplation is the heart’s reflective activity that is always seeking the spiritual balance between individual piety and communal justice-seeking.
Who could have predicted that America’s apartheid would fall as decisively as the walls of Jericho, when the people marched around the bastions of power carrying little more than their faith and resolve? How audacious it was to take just the remnants of a chattel community, the vague memories of mother Africa, and a desperate need to be free, and translate those wisps into a liberating vision of community. The idea of a beloved community emerged from the deeply contemplative activities of a besieged people — the people of the Civil Rights movement. — Fr. Richard Rohr
One would think that such a movement that was so powerful, so eloquent and so determined would see its dream become reality, and that such a stunning reality would last forever. So that every person, from that time to this, would live as beneficiaries of beloved community. But here we are in another liminal space of racial indignity, cities in chaos and families mourning the death of their loved ones in Minnesota, in Georgia, in Kentucky and beyond. We did not really believe we would be in this time and space, a time that would demand a civil rights movement of its own.
The in-between liminal spaces of Scripture are pregnant with God’s transformational possibilities:
Noah and his family rebuilding the world after the flood; Abraham holding the knife above Isaac; Jacob’s struggle with the angel; Joseph in the pit; Moses and the Israelites at the edge of the Reed Sea; Israel in the wilderness; Joshua crossing the Jordan; Jesus suffering on the tree; the women at His tomb; the disciples waiting in Jerusalem.
Scripture indeed is fraught with liminal moments – moments of imminent expectation, infused with both hope and doubt — that lead to transformation and change. So change involves tension, and those of us who are longing for a paradigm shift that insists on justice, know that tension all too well.
Betwixt and Between — neither here nor there. It would be safe to say that this liminal time is mostly uncomfortable and confusing. Liminal time is the time between what was and what will be. And not one of us can predict what will be, either in this struggle against injustice or in the uncertain waxing and waning of the deadly coronavirus. The convergence of virus and death and sickness and distancing with racial injustice, violence and protest is almost too much uncertainty for us to navigate.
In the end, I want to believe that this liminal time and every liminal space is the dwelling place of God, the place where God meets us and says, “I will never leave you or forsake you . . . And remember, the Spirit of the Lord is upon you and has anointed you to announce Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned and renewed sight for the blind, to release those who have been oppressed. [my paraphrase]
Even in our current time of disconcerting fluid borders, God is with us in this liminal time. God is inseparably bound with us in this moment, and it is in this liminal space where heaven and earth, life and death, joy and sorrow, ecstasy and despair, sleeping and waking, justice and injustice, commingle.
So here’s my challenge to myself and to all of us. What if we choose to experience this liminal time, this uncomfortable now, as a time for insisting upon full solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters? What if we choose to make this particular time — with all of its pandemic and death, chaos and destruction, fire and protest, upheaval and violence as if no lives matter — a liminal time for construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation? What if you and I choose to hold hands and march on in solidarity and community until we reach the mountaintop where injustice is no more?
Because of the recent opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I have been contemplating the terror of lynching in our history. The Montgomery site is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with police violence.
“Set on a six-acre site, the memorial uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror. The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.” (eji.org)
But racial injustice is not merely art used to contextualize racism and violence. We also have the cold, hard facts. For instance, The Tuskegee Institute reports that 4,743 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, including 3,446 African Americans and 1,297 whites, mostly white individuals who tried to help their African American neighbors.
Who were the prophets among us who proclaimed in those days a Christian Gospel of justice?
The NAACP reports that today African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of white people.
Who are the prophets among us in these days? Who is calling for justice, for liberation and freedom for those who are oppressed?
Across a range of human rights issues in 2017, the United States moved backward on human rights issues. The current U.S. president has targeted refugees and immigrants, calling them criminals and security threats. He has emboldened racism by promoting white nationalism. He consistently champions anti-Muslim ideas. His administration has embraced policies that will roll back access to reproductive health care for women and has created health insurance changes that would leave many Americans without access to affordable health care. He has undermined police accountability for abuse. He has expressed disdain for independent media and for federal courts that have blocked some of his actions.
The individuals most likely to suffer abuse in our nation include members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, prisoners and other vulnerable groups, who endure renewed attacks on their rights. Issues of injustice include gender equity, poverty, the right to health care, immigration and the rights of non-citizens, sexual orientation and gender identity, criminal and juvenile justice, harsh criminal sentencing and mass incarceration,.
Where is justice today? Who will call each injustice by name? Where is the prophetic voice among us that will proclaim liberation?
While in seminary, I immersed myself in the study of liberation theologies. Not surprisingly, my research led me to the writings of black liberation theologian, The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone. I became what some might call a follower of Dr. Cone. I saw him as a Christ-like superhero. Much of my research and writing in those days delved into the history of liberation theology, so Dr. Cone’s books covered my desk for months.
On Saturday, I learned of his death and experienced both sadness and gladness. Glad, because of his enormous contribution to Christian theology’s imperative response to injustice. And sad, because his voice of justice is now silent. By his death, we lost a prophet, a persevering voice that championed racial justice. We lost a voice that gave the world an interpretation of the Christian Gospel that paid attention to the voices of the oppressed.
YES! “A prophet was among us.”
These words from Judge Wendell Griffen honored the prophet, Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, and named him as the central figure in the development of black liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s.
The prophet and scholar was raised in a small Arkansas town, giving him a clear view of the harsh reality of racial injustice. Dr. Cone rose up from his simple roots to become the foremost voice of his day on black liberation theology.
“Black liberation theology”
The first image you will see is that of James H. Cone. And then you will see image after image of him as well as a list of the plethora of books he has written and a list of the places around the world where he taught and preached.
What is my point?
First of all, I want to add my voice to those who are honoring this prophet of justice. But more importantly, I want to own and name the present reality: that there has never been a time in history that needs the message of liberation more than this day. To be sure, the horrific lynchings of African Americans in this country took place many years ago, between 1882 and 1968.
And this is a new day, is it not?
It is a new day, a new day that has moved our society to the national shame of mass incarceration of African Americans. Consider this research:
By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.
On any given school day, approximately 10 percent of African American schoolchildren have a parent who is in jail or prison, more than four times the share in 1980.
The comparable share for white children is 4 percent; an African American child is six times as likely as a white child to have or have had an incarcerated parent.
TMI . . . Too much information, right? Perhaps it is too much information, but the amount of information here barely scratches the surface of the many ways injustice has gripped our nation in these days. We can turn our backs, stop up our ears, and blind our eyes to it, but that will not change the fact that people are being oppressed, injustice is doing its horrific work, and liberation seems a distant, unreachable dream.
The people of God must bethe people of God and accept the mantle placed by God on our shoulders — being a prophetic voice in a land where injustice has its way.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. (Isaiah 61:1-3 NRSV)
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 6:24 NRSV)
Nothing casts as long and shameful a shadow on our history than does lynching. Lynching is a part of America’s history that we want to ignore. As a people, we cringe at the thought of it, yet do not often allow ourselves to think of it. We do not own lynching. It happened in another time in history, with decades separating us from its shame. We secretly hope that if we do not talk about it, we can move forward without acknowleding the depth of its impact. And above all, we cannot admit that such violence is still possible in this day.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a living reminder for us. The Memorial, which opened today on a six-acre site overlooking the Alabama State Capitol, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy. It demands a reckoning with one of the nation’s least recognized atrocities: the lynching of thousands of black people in a decades-long campaign of racist terror.
At the center of the Memorial is a grim cloister, a walkway with 800 weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.
The magnitude of the killing is harrowing, all the more so when paired with the circumstances of individual lynchings, some described in brief summaries along the walk:
Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman;
Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”;
Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
A grassy hill rises in the middle of the memorial. From there you can see the Montgomery skyline through the thicket of hanging columns, the river where the enslaved were sold, and the State Capitol building that once housed the Confederacy. It is a striking view.
The striking exhibits and sculptures in this Memorial exist to remind us, to challenge us, to create in us a determination to always fight injustice.
May we more deeply understand our tragically unjust and violent history. May we vow to make peace and demand justice. May we never forget what happened in this nation so that it will never happen again. It is very real that our history of lynching innocent people casts a long and dark shadow upon our existence. May we intentionally work for justice so that we will no longer live in that shadow.
This blog post is words, just words. But our words are not enough. Our declarations are empty and meaningless if we do not also immerse ourselves in the hard and grueling work that makes for justice. God does not care about our words and promises. God does not accept our carefully planned events — filled with flags and crowds and songs — held in American cities and counties and town squares to commemorate our history. God demands pure and genuine righteousness that vows to do whatever it takes to create justice in our nation and in the world.
May God lead us in making it so. May God help us to step out of lynching’s long shadow and walk in the light of justice and righteousness.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I invite you to read “Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence,” a provocative opinion piece by our guest blogger, Dr. Bill J. Leonard. Many thanks to Dr. Leonard for prompting us to more fully commemorate the day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If you are willing to challenge yourself, these words will shed the light you need to do so.
Out of Africa: White supremacy and the Church’s silence
OPINION | BILL LEONARD | JANUARY 15, 2018
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled [Caucasian?] masses, yearning to breathe free.”
Three days before the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. memorial observances, and in the 50th year after Dr. King’s assassination, the plague of racism in America continued, even as white supremacy, long lingering just below the surface, reasserted itself with a vengeance.
On Jan. 12, the president of the United States, at a White House meeting on immigration, allegedly asked why “all these people from shithole countries,” specifically Haiti and Africa, should be admitted to the U.S. He was also said to have wondered aloud why the U.S. could not secure more immigrants from countries like Norway (83 percent Caucasian). Confirmation of his remarks vary from those in attendance. Some confirm the alleged statements; others deny them. Somebody’s lying.
The mere report of the comments was immediately celebrated across the country’s white supremacist network, much as when Trump affirmed “good people on both sides” in last year’s violent neo-Nazi-led demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va. White nationalist Richard Spencer chastised Trump’s defenders for suggesting the statements were related to law or economics, since they were actually “all about race.” Spencer was, of course, delighted. The Neo-Nazi blog, the Daily Stormer, hailed the President’s words as “encouraging and refreshing” since they indicated that “Trump is more or less on the same page as us” regarding “race and immigration.” In America, 2018, white supremacy is now apparently “refreshing.”
Dallas Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress defended the president, noting that “apart from the vocabulary attributed to him,” Trump’s comments were “right on target” with his presidential responsibility “to place the interests of our nation above the needs of other countries.” That’s unlike Christians’ “biblical responsibility” to “place the needs of others” above themselves. (Racism’s OK; it’s vulgar language that’s the problem.)
Amid debates over the veracity of witnesses to the White House event, the fact remains that the dogmas of white supremacy lie at the center of America’s long night of racism, in politics, social structures, and racial stereotypes. At this moment in history, how can American Christians, themselves deeply divided over scripture, doctrine, sexuality, abortion, and other culture war accoutrements, foster a common compulsion to speak out against white supremacist fiction before it gains an even stronger implicit or explicit influence?
Even if President Trump did not use vulgar words to highlight his views on immigration, did he in fact wistfully promote a 21st century America where Aryans (remember the history of that word?) are preferred to immigrants of color? Surely it is time to break the silence, not simply because of those shameful remarks, but because they are part of a larger litany of racial dog whistles from Trump’s birther campaign, to attacks on a “Mexican” judge and a Gold Star Muslim family, to the infamous Charlottesville slurs.
We have many reasons to break the silence: First, because white supremacy itself is an inherently evil yet an enduring vision of the nature of humanity, and must be resisted for that fact alone. It has polluted our national psyche long enough!
Second, we break the silence on this matter because we hear again Dr. King’s words from that Birmingham jail: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Third, we Aryan Christians cannot be silent because it’s our racial ancestors who first planted the banner of racism in our laws, our institutions (churches included), and in our hearts. And some among us still won’t let it go. We need to get “saved” from it.
Fourth, we speak out now because American churches, at least many of them, remained silent for too long. Indeed, Trump’s only a symptom; we scapegoat him at our peril. When his remarks hit the fan, I returned to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a book that has taught me, shamed me, blessed me, and broken me for decades. Baldwin writes: “It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible) must first divorce him[her]self from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has had any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (Whatever God is, it damn sure isn’t white supremacy.)
Mercer University professor Robert Nash illustrates Baldwin’s point in a superb essay entitled, “Peculiarly Chosen: Anglo-Saxon Supremacy and Baptist Missions in the South,” documenting that ecclesiastical collusion with the case of James Franklin Love, corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1915-1928. Nash notes that Love “was profoundly influenced by the concept of Anglo-Saxon supremacy … that white races possessed a superior intellect, religion, and civilization.”
Love’s mission strategy focused on evangelization of Europe since white Christians could more readily convert the darker races. He wrote: “Let us not forget that to the white man God gave the instinct and talent to disseminate His ideals among other people and that he did not, to the same degree, give this instinct and talent to the yellow, brown or black race. The white race only has the genius to introduce Christianity into all lands and among all people.” (In 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention went on record condemning white supremacy then and now. It’s about time.)
Finally, we break the silence, confronting white supremacy and its accompanying racism at this moment because we will neither deny nor sully the African heritage of our African-American sisters and brothers, who as W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “would not bleach … [their] Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism,” since they know “that Negro blood has a message for the world.”
On what would have been his 89th birthday, Dr. King retains his prophetic voice for black and white alike, declaring from his jail cell then and now: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [women] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
Today, we read again Matthew’s haunting assessment of the Holy Family’s immigration from Herod’s not-so-holy-land:
“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Sweet Jesus, Egypt’s in Africa! Amen”
Bill J. Leonard is the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies, Professor of Church History, School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.