“Outside Agitators” and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Background image by EasyGiftWizard, via Pixabay

On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

One of the first things that struck me was that he was writing because he had been chastised by a fellow clergyman for being an “outside agitator.” Why did this strike me so forcefully? Because I live not terribly far from Ferguson, Mo., and I heard people invoke the “outside agitator” argument myself. And at that time, I didn’t know what to make of it.

That argument goes something like this: “Those protests weren’t organized by people from ___. They were organized by national organizations who shipped people in to stir up trouble.”

I don’t think I had fully realized, until reading MLK’s letter, that “outside agitators” is how the civil rights movement works.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a lengthy paragraph in the letter from the Birmingham jail, explaining this. But then he gave the quote above. Here it is, in context.

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.

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 affects 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.
-Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I have to admit, it was really disheartening to realize that after all this time, despite how much honor is accorded MLK across political divides, we are still using the same arguments that were used to try to shame and discredit him and his work.

The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a breathtakingly beautiful piece which remains every bit as relevant today as it was in 1963. Well worth reading.

Archbishop Tutu on Christian’s responsibility to address racism

Photo credit: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com via Flickr

This quote landed in my email inbox this morning within the Center for Contemplation and Action’s daily reflection*. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words here affirmed the convictions that have been growing in me for the past decade and a half or so: that the political issues of our time are part of our responsibility as Christians to address.

The blatant examples of racism in the U.S. are an easy target–the way in which nationalism has become inextricably (and bafflingly!) tied to racism.

But I would argue that stopping there is the easy way out. If we make the Proud Boys et al the scapegoat, then it’s tempting to give ourselves a pass on the subtler manifestations of racism—the ones that make many of us squirm when we are forced to look at them honestly. Things like inequality of educational opportunity and funding, unevenness in the justice system from top to bottom, the generational ripple effect of redlining and discrimination in housing and the GI bill… and on and on.

The “Learning How To See” podcast episode I listened to most recently explored comfort bias—the idea that our brains reject information that makes us uncomfortable. Information that is inconvenient to us.

For sure, the idea that racism is baked into American society, and that I, as a white person, am benefiting from it, is uncomfortable! To accept that would mean that if I want to be a Christian, I am required, by my faith, to do something about it. And it might even mean working against my own worldly interests, i.e., my own comfort.

The static from certain quarters surrounding critical race theory strikes me as a perfect example of comfort bias.

Which brings us right back to Desmond Tutu, doesn’t it? What is a Christian’s response to evidence of baked-in racism? Will we lean into the discomfort and allow ourselves to be made holier by advocating for just and equitable systems in our nation? Or will we dig in to our biases and continue to “spit in the face of God”?

*The reflection carried this note about sourcing: Desmond M. Tutu, “My Credo,” in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 234, 235. Note: Minor changes made to incorporate inclusive language.

Complexity and Confidence

Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.com

Our brains prefer a simple lie to a complex truth.
Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.

These are two of the biases explored in the “Learning How To See” podcast. Everything I heard on the first season was like an earthquake in my heart, but these two line up so thoroughly with my own experience, it reaches a whole other plane.

There are so many times when my kids ask a faith question, and I can think of a glib answer that will take three seconds and wholly misrepresent the complexity and the gravity of the issue at hand. But to do so would be to ignore the reality of the situation. More to the point, it would ignore the dignity of the soul that’s seeking authentic truth. Truth that stands up to their lived reality, which is, let’s face it, complex. Because it’s a complex world.

So I reply with complexity and hesitancy. I pause–to choose my words, to pray and think.

Believe it or not, this is me on Intentional Catholic, too. I know I come across loud and opinionated, and I am. But a lot of thought and inner wrestling goes into these posts. A lot of care for how the things I say will feel when read by different people.

Complexity bias, confidence bias. These two have played out so many times in the years I’ve been involved in discussions (and arguments) online. Through blogging, too. One memorable time, I waded into current events with unshakable certainty and ended up with egg on my face. It taught me to value caution and deliberation. Research before reacting. Well. Reacting in words, at least. Reacting in my heart is a whole different matter. I spend a lot of time talking myself down from initial reactions. But the point is, I do it.

The absolute confidence with which some people of faith respond to complex situations, erasing all complexities and nuance, waters down the Gospel. If people feel that the Gospel can’t address complexity, of course they’re going to dismiss it. It doesn’t help them process their own experiences. That’s not a weakness in the Gospel. It’s a weakness in those of us trying to spread it.

It is in our nature to prefer the simple lie, told confidently (stolen elections, anyone?), but I pray that we can all learn to recognize how much damage it does to be satisfied to wallow in the blindness of those biases.

(And if it’s at all unclear, that prayer is for myself, too.)

Thoughts on nonviolence and how it’s organized

A few years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri was all in the news, I remember various people saying to me, “Those people are bringing in outside agitators from other places.” It was a criticism, suggesting that if “outsiders” weren’t riling up the populace, we wouldn’t be having these racial protests at all.

I wasn’t prepared to answer that argument at that time, and I haven’t heard it again since the Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. But as time goes on, I realize that the entire Civil Rights movement was structured the same way: national organizers identifying places where their presence could make a difference, and going there to support the local population.

(What we learn about history really does get distorted—whether it’s a concerted effort, or whether it’s because there’s so much of it and it gets oversimplified in an attempt to boil it down to its most important message, is another question. I’d hazard a guess the answer is “both.”)

In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean quoted from another book, “Wild Justice,” by Susan Jacoby, which appears now to be out of print. This passage really struck me.

Nonviolence, as employed by Gandhi in India and by King in the American South, might reasonably viewed as a highly disciplined form of aggression. If one defines aggression in the primary dictionary sense of “attack,” nonviolent resistance proved to be the most powerful attack imaginable on the powers King and Gandhi were trying to overturn. … King was even more explicit on this point: the purpose of civil disobedience, he explained many times, was to force the defenders of segregation to commit brutal acts in public and thus arouse the conscience of the world on behalf of those wronged by racism. King and Gandhi did not succeed because they changed the hearts and minds of southern sheriffs and British colonial administrators (although they did, in fact, change some minds) but because they made the price of maintaining control too high for their opponents.”

Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice, pp. 336-337

Every once in a while, someone points out that Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was the polar opposite of passive acceptance of injustice. (Read this for that mind-blowing take on a very familiar passage.)

This passage from Wild Justice also turns on its head the idea of nonviolence as passive. It made me rethink the whole movement. This describes a whole new level of courage: to go in, intending to provoke violence against oneself, which you will consciously not react to, in order to show the violence inherent in the system? Wow. Just… wow.

It was what Jesus did, too. Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion was about salvation beyond the things of the world. But God could have accomplished that any way he liked. The fact that the chosen way to get there was through nonviolent resistance to earthly injustice has to mean something for us.

Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

Photo by Alvin Decena GCASH 09561687117 on Pexels.com

I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

The more things change…

If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.

The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.

Freedom and Fraternity

There’s a lot in this section of Fratelli Tutti that should make us squirm in America. In #103, Pope Francis reminds us that freedom and equality are insufficient without dedication to concrete love of neighbor. Without making a political (he does use that word) priority of taking care of each other, liberty is nothing more than “living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” Liberty, as God intends it, is directed toward the welfare of the other.

And then, of course, there’s the excerpt above. What follows it is a reminder that efficiency is often at odds with the common good.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply convicted about the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” #109 addresses this. Plenty of us don’t, in fact, need help from a “proactive state,” because we’ve been born into functional educational systems and families that can get us to the doctor.

We all stand on the backs of our parents, grandparents, teachers and communities. Within our communities, we support each other; this is good. It WORKS. I certainly didn’t need any of those COVID stimulus checks, and how to use them in a way that best served the common good was a matter of no small debate in our household.

But it’s a mistake, and I would argue, contrary to Christian discipleship, to assume that simply because many of us don’t have need for a proactive state means nobody does. Look at the injustices and inequalities that litter America’s history:

These are just a few structural realities whose consequences have rippled down through history. If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then some among us are fighting a way, way bigger battle than others.

These are hard realities to accept in a time of such profound division. But the Cross IS hard, and the Holy Spirit gave us a shepherd at this time who’s calling us to confront the things that make us uncomfortable.

The Meaning of Mercy

Photo by Mauru00edcio Eugu00eanio on Pexels.com

A few years ago, when Pope Francis declared the year of mercy, I spent some significant time pondering this on my personal blog. I’ve fallen off the radar here of late because, as we all either know or need to learn, “balance” means sometimes one thing has to give to make room for another, but eventually it will swing back. My writing life is buried right now under fiction work, with a book releasing in the next few weeks, and I simply haven’t had time to come over here.

So I went back to my personal blog to harvest a few more posts to fill in the gap, and the mercy posts really struck a chord. So here you go.


I once attended a workshop on writing liturgical texts in which the presenter challenged us to take out all the church-y words and see if anything of substance remained.

“Mercy” is one of those words. A throwaway word, overused into gibberish. At least, it has been for me. So when I heard about an extraordinary jubilee year of mercy, I went, “Mercy? Why mercy? What does that even mean?”

It was that last question that turned out to be the most important. The problem of this simple, hackneyed word has been gnawing at me until I’ve realized that prising apart its significance for me—both as a recipient and as a giver—is meant to shape the coming year.

I have always viewed mercy as synonymous with forgiveness. The mind, hearing “mercy,” goes straight to sin and unworthiness: I’m a pathetic, undeserving wretch whose sins have been forgiven despite my general loser-li-ness. (I can coin words late at night with the best of them.)

The idea of confronting our own brokenness is really important, especially in these days of “what’s right for you may not be right for me.” Built into our identity as modern men and women is a deeply-held resistance to admitting that we treat ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our world with careless disregard for our/their/its innate dignity. Mercy speaks to the humility of admitting we do crappy things sometimes. It speaks to the recognition that we deserve just consequences for our actions and instead we’re blessed—in fact, showered—no, deluged—with goodness. Goodness we usually fail to recognize, because we’re too busy asking for more, more, more.

But if that’s all there is to the word “mercy,” then what’s up with those “corporal and spiritual works”? How do they fit into all this? What do they have to do with undeserved forgiveness?

I’m not the only person wrestling with this question. I’ve been reading anything I come across on the blogosphere, and this single quote is the one that caught me:

“Mercy is being willing to enter into the chaos of another.”

I thought, Yes! That’s it! I understand that!

Image by Kasun Chamara from Pixabay

It’s far easier to pass judgment on the guy on the street corner begging for money. To say, “He doesn’t really need it, he’s trying to take advantage of people’s gullibility.” But mercy says, “Okay, I will enter into his chaos by contemplating the decades of days and hours and influences I can’t possibly know, the countless steps that brought him to this particular intersection on this particular day, and pry my brain open to admit that I simply cannot know whether he is or is not truly in need, and as such I am compelled, by virtue of his dignity as a human being, to give him the benefit of the doubt…and help him.”

Mercy.

It’s far easier to cling to the distance separating us from the chaos in the Middle East–to say, “We can’t possibly ensure that Those People are not terrorists; therefore it is only prudent to keep Them all out and send our riches Over There so Someone Else can take care of Them.” But surely I’m not the only one whose conscience whispers, If not us, who? Where is there a place of refuge for so many? Mercy responds to worldly prudence with a call to dismantle the geographical wall we’ve been hiding behind for two centuries and enter into the chaos that the rest of the world already knows so well.

Mercy.

I’m finding that mercy, far from being meaningless, is an enormous, life-altering word. Terrifying, too, because it shoves me out of my safe, familiar, comfortable world full of safe, familiar, comfortable platitudes. To live mercy is to enter into the chaos of families shattered by abuse. To enter into the existence of stomach-turning poverty that, if viewed head-on, would force me–even chintzy, never-spend-a-dime-if-you-can-make-do-with-a-penny me–to confront my own excesses and make changes I don’t want to make.

Mercy, I am beginning to realize, is a shortcut to a darned uncomfortable conscience.

The chicken and the egg (or: double standards in Christianity)

“Hey,” my husband whispered to me before Holy Thursday Mass. “I forgot to tell you. Pew research did a new survey and the number of people who go to church is below 50% for the first time ever.”

My first reaction was: And Christianity will blame the secular culture instead of looking in the mirror and examining whether our own failures are the problem.

Actually, it’s probably a chicken-and-egg situation. The culture is definitely getting more hostile to religion. But then again, religion keeps giving more reasons for the hostility.

I know. Them’s fightin’ words, but painful though they might be, I think they’re fair.

The trouble is that the Gospel tells us we’re SUPPOSED to expect hostility from the world. But somehow, we’ve translated that into a persecution complex. We never stop to examine our own attitudes, words, and behaviors for how well they reflect the Gospel. We just assume that any pushback we encounter must, by definition, be the culture’s problem rather than ours. It couldn’t possibly be that we are misrepresenting our faith.

Meanwhile, Christianity fails to recognize how incredibly uneven we are in HOW we choose to stand at odds with the world. There are these huge double standards.

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, EXCEPT when it requires taxpayer money to support people most at risk of feeling the “need” for abortion (because of generational poverty and inequality of opportunity, etc., etc).

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, except when it infringes on “personal freedoms” (cough-cough-masking).

Like: Government should stay out of my business, except when it’s about homosexual relationships or abortion, and then of course it’s the government’s business, absolutely.

Or: Sexual assault and harassment are sinful, but how dare we ruin the life of the accused? (Never mind the life of the victim. Whatever. We’ve been sacrificing them for millennia.)

Or: Honesty and integrity are fundamental to Christian belief—they’re in the Ten Commandments—but how many people have wholeheartedly, even rabidly, embraced a lie about stolen elections that has zero basis in fact?

I’ve been trying not to write these kinds of posts lately. Nobody needs me haranguing them; it’s not particularly effective at anything except making people mad. So I’ve been trying to focus my posts here on working out my own spiritual journey instead of lambasting everything that’s wrong with the world. I have spent this Lent praying for “enemies,” and more importantly, for the heart to do so authentically while remaining in union with God’s will. So much is happening in my heart this year—I am journaling it, bit by bit, but I’m deep in the weeds and I can’t synthesize it yet.

But there are times when my frustration comes out. And this is one of them. And maybe, after all, Good Friday is not a bad time to have our collective conscience stung.