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Writing Our Stories

Last week we celebrated Memorial Day, the occasion on which we honor those men and women who have given their lives for our country during armed conflict. On that day we honor those men and women who, as President Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, gave the last full measure of devotion.

However, we do more than that. We come together to acknowledge and indeed celebrate our shared history. This holiday in particular reminds us of our shared values of courage, sacrifice, duty and honor, values that define us as a people. The day reminds us of what we share

Then Monday is over and Tuesday dawns. Our shared stories will somehow disappear from the  front page. Again it will appear as though our divisions are back front and center. We’ll line up again with our particular tribe, yelling at each other across a divide that seems ever-widening. Instead of shared purpose and unity, our national story will again seem to be one of division, hostility and standoff.

We seem to have fewer and fewer shared stories, ways of interpreting and understanding the events of our lives. What do we agree on?  Immigration? Abortion? Tax policy? Not only do we not even approach agreement, we often refuse to see these differences as divisions of opinion only. No, the other side is venal, ignorant, malicious.

We even disagree on what is patriotic. How about playing the Star Spangled Banner before a sporting event? Maybe so, until an athlete takes a knee in protest.

Our shared understandings about our world are shrinking, or they appear to be. Why is this important? Because our stories define us and unite us.   We use story to pass on our shared traditions and values. They connect us with each other and with our shared past. Shared views and understandings create community.

However, there’s another way to look at it. Perhaps what we took as a shared understanding was in reality simply the majority understanding, and we’re now hearing those stories that did not get front page treatment. That’s a good thing. As these other stories percolate to the top and compete for attention, we take the next step toward a more inclusive society. However, those who are more comfortable sticking with their own story push back.

Making room for other stories is a journey, and the road is not smooth.

What do I mean? Well, one of the other civic stories we celebrate is the Fourth of July, Independence Day. Our country surely has a shared story around that event – the day we declared our freedom from British tyranny, our independence to be a free people.

But what if you were not a part of that story? On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery in Maryland and became a social reformer, abolitionist, writer and statesman, gave a speech at an event in Rochester, NY commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His speech was entitled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”

He said,

“I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

His story was not being honored; was not included in the greater story of this country that professed to be dedicated to freedom and equality. The story of slavery and oppression was uncomfortable, didn’t fit the image of who we saw ourselves to be, the values we said we embodied, so it was marginalized until courageous voices like his refused to be silent. Voices like his made the country see that we could and must take steps to include all within the promise of liberty. The circle of national community had to grow wider.

We live in a world in which the meaning of community continues to change in ways we couldn’t previously imagine. Many of our communities used to be made up of people who looked like us, worshipped like us and believed much the same as we did. No more.

Holidays like Memorial Day challenge us to consider what our story is now, what stories our national community is writing and will write in the future. What’s next? While honoring those who sacrificed is right and appropriate, we also must continue to forge community that makes their sacrifice worthwhile, that honors the vision of wider and more inclusive community.

Now, more than ever, we are challenged to envision what our future national and global community will look like. That is the story we all are writing now.

What will this new community look like? That is up to us.

We do have inspiration for how it may look. Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his life to the struggle for human dignity and equality so that we could live together in what he called Beloved Community. For him, the creation of the beloved community was not some utopian goal, but was an achievable end that could be reached when enough believed in and practiced the principles of love and nonviolence.

The beloved community, for Dr. King, was a community created not by victory over one’s opponents, but by the power of reconciliation and redemption. Beloved community arose by, as he put it, “transforming enemies into friends.”

He said,

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method … is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”

Beloved community is a place where all are welcomed and none excluded. It’s a community of justice and equality, in law, economics, and opportunity. It’s a place where Frederick Douglass’ speech would have been unnecessary and indeed unimaginable.

Dr. King’s journey was not a direct one or necessarily a fast one. The events of his day showed him that the only path that would lead to lasting peace and reconciliation was the path of love and nonviolence.

When Dr. King first arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, to pastor the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the year was 1954 and his goal was to grow the church “to such heights as will stagger the imagination of generations yet unborn.” As author Charles March wrote “Civil rights activism was not high on the agenda.”

And then, on December 1, 1955, an African American seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus to a white passenger. She was arrested and ultimately convicted. The Montgomery bus boycott followed, and he stepped into leadership based on his growing conviction that his mission was to work to end segregation.

Following Ms. Parks’ arrest, the leadership of the African American community formed a committee to organize what everyone thought would be a brief boycott of the Montgomery city buses. It wasn’t – as the boycott continued, white city fathers became more draconian, arresting drivers for giving rides to those boycotting the buses, threatening white families who gave rides to those who worked for them. The police dispersed those waiting for rides on city street corners, cracked down on cab drivers who didn’t charge full fare, arrested people on trumped up charges of loud talking, walking on lawns, or, in the case of maids waiting for cabs, congregating in white neighborhoods.

The mayor of Montgomery announced he was joining the White Citizens Council, a white supremacy organization formed in Mississippi two months after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. He announced that the protesters were after no less than “the destruction of our social fabric.”

The tactics of fear and oppression started to work. Some protesters backed out – the boycott was taking too much of a toll, they didn’t think it would succeed. Dr. King despaired. He didn’t know how to proceed, how to communicate with those in control. He still believed that a negotiated resolution was possible; he continued to think he could reason with hatred, fear and violence.

On January 26, 1956 Dr. King was arrested for driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone, and was incarcerated. It was his first arrest of many.

He was released that night. The following evening he received an anonymous telephone call full of profanity, as well as a threat that “before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” At that point he was getting thirty to forty such calls a day, and he worried about the safety of his wife and infant daughter.

He writes that he was overcome with fear, and started pacing the floor searching for “a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.” He was ready to give up – all his resources were tapped out. He wrote “something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.”

He put his head in his hands and said out loud:

Lord I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership and if I stand before them without strength and courage they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

He then writes that he heard a voice, a voice that said “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you. Even unto the end of the world.”

An amazing event, lifting him up when he was at his lowest. He wrote “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Three days after that experience, he abandoned what had been a gradualist, cautious approach to desegregation.

Later that week, as he addressed an audience at the First Baptist Church, he began to speak in support of what he would later call the Beloved Community. He said “we are a chain. We are linked together, and I cannot be what I ought to be unless you are what you ought to be.” The movement was joined by more than shared goals or strategy – the community represented the love of God in lived reality.

The love of God was grounded in speaking for truth, for justice, for human dignity. There lay his power – not in speaking against a person, a policy. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you. Even unto the end of the world.

It didn’t get easier.

During that speech, he received word that an earlier threat had been realized and his home had been bombed. When he got home, he saw that his wife and baby daughter were uninjured. A crowd had gathered, the police had arrived, and the mayor and the chief of police were in his living room talking to reporters. The situation threatened to turn violent and ugly.

He stood on his porch, with a hole blasted into it, and told the crowd to take their weapons home if they had them and leave them at home if they were inclined to get them. He said

“We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.

We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”

Civil rights activist and author Jo Ann Robinson recalls that as he spoke a hush came over the crowd. Even the police quieted and listened. Author Charles Marsh writes “King’s words and the congregation’s response drew together the parsonage and the street and wrapped the expanse of the Montgomery night into a unifying evocation of peace.”

Dr. King’s stance for nonviolent reconciliation, even in the face of such violence, turned a night of potential injury and death into a demonstration of peace.

The bombing was a turning point for Dr. King. This moment in which the power of love turned aside the certainty of violence showed him the absolute limitation of the power of fear and hatred. His wife and daughter had nearly been killed, his house nearly destroyed, and he refused to hate. With his very body he demonstrated the power of love.

He realized that we don’t create lasting peace by shouting louder. We do it by changing the paradigm altogether. Love is the path that “makes a way out of no way.”

How do we build such community, today and now?

What is your answer to this question? Here is mine – we build it by committing ourselves to love, even when it’s so difficult and it looks like we’re wasting our time. We do it when it’s hard, as it will be. We do it by committing to the principles of nonviolence and reconciliation in our actions, words, and intentions. We do it when we move past the need to win, and instead seek to include former enemies in our circle of friendship.

Think of the reach of that. Nonviolence espouses not just the absence of physical violence, but also verbal and emotional violence. No more shouting across the divide, no more vilification of those who disagree. This is truly spiritual heavy lifting.

We build beloved community not by working to crush those who oppose us; we do it by working to include them. Defeat creates bitterness, resentment, and a desire for vengeance. Beloved community calls for the creation of new relationship that brings home to us all the promise of peace, hope and opportunity.

Let’s honor this holiday by writing our new story of reconciliation, hope and peace.

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