by Mark Sandlin
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” proclaimed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It may bend towards justice, but it does not bend gently. It bends behind sweat of the brow, creativity of the mind, and love from the soul of those who believe that every living soul not only desires justice and equality, but has a right to it. You see, justice is not a passive pursuit. The moral arc will not bend without encouragement.
Dr. King was a living example of the kind of person who encourages the moral arc of history to bend toward justice. He is also an example of the only effective way to bend that arc: non-violently. We cannot hope to bring about justice by unjust means. Might, physical confrontation and other forms of domination will ultimately only result in nurturing an understanding that domination is an ineffective way to resolve issues of justice – and domination is the exact opposite of justice. As King says, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”
King was a Christian minister and I see his bias toward the least of these, the bullied and the marginalized; his preoccupation with justice; and his insistence on non-violent ways to bringing about justice as results of his attempt to live out a life guided by the teachings of Jesus. For certain, that is not the only impetus for doing the hard work of bending the moral arc of the universe, but I believe it is the only sincere way to be a follower of the teachings of Jesus.
Author and theologian Walter Wink also understood this moral imperative for those of us struggling to devoutly follow the teachings of Jesus. He helped us to see that not only is the idea of violence being redemptive a myth (violence, as Dr. King pointed out, begets violence), but there is a better way. He called it “Jesus' Third Way,” which is also the name of a small publication he wrote in the 1980s to show Christians a way to non-violently resistance apartheid. In it Wink points out:
In 1989, there were thirteen nations that underwent nonviolent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year, 1.7 billion people were engaged in national nonviolent revolutions. That is a third of humanity. If you throw in all of the other nonviolent revolutions in all the other nations in the twentieth century, you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in nonviolent revolutions. That is two thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that nonviolence doesn't work. It has been working like crazy.
One of the fun things many bloggers miss out on is figuring out what Google searches bring a person to their blog. Until recently one of my favorites for The God Article was “is Mark Sandlin gay?”
I had just posted my Clobbering “Biblical” Gay Bashing
piece (which was ultimately picked up by Believe Out Loud
) and it would seem that someone thought the best way to to disprove what I said
, would be to prove that I am gay
I know, the problems with that kind of logic are mind-boggling, but it happens all the time. If you can't attack the message, attack the messenger. In this case, it also happens to be impossible to prove, because I'm not. And, at the same time, it really shouldn't matter if I were. It's like arguing that Newton's theory of gravity simply can't be believed because he directly benefits from it being real. Hogwash.
So, as I mentioned, Believe Out Loud picked up my Clobbering “Biblical” Gay Bashing
piece and it kind of had a second life. I've even heard that it's making its rounds in some Mennonite circles. That's pretty cool. Along with it came a whole new set of Google searches bringing people to this blog. And among them is my new favorite. Are you ready?...
I'm a PROPHET!!! Woo hoo! And there was much celebration and general-merrymaking.
Actually, the Google search was for “false prophet mark sandlin.” But still, "prophet" – woo hoo? And there was mild joviality and arbitrary-frolicking.
Like I said, if you can't attack the message, attack the messenger. So, someone doesn't like what I say, or doesn't want to grapple with whether or not it is actually biblical, or whatever – so they Google “false prophet mark sandlin.” So, now that's a thing. Google databases have me and “false profit” forever linked. And I just don't care.
I am no prophet. False or otherwise. Big surprise, right? But I am just the littlest bit humbled by the whole thing.
"I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work." -- MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
It is no great secret that mainline, Protestant churches are on the decline. A great deal of effort and energy are put into reversing this process. Call it Emergent Church, Transformation, or a whole host of other buzz words, we church leader types seem convinced that change is the key to forgoing what increasingly looks like a certain (be it slow) demise.
So, we invest money, time and talent into the latest sure-fire program with the best of intentions. Quite frankly, it feels good to be doing something about it rather than sitting hopelessly tied to the past and repeating the mis-takes of yesteryear over and over again. We slowly make a case to whatever power structures there may be (formal and informal), get as many people as possible on board with the “new vision” and then begin the process.
Here's the thing, once the “process” moves beyond reading books about what this “change thing" might look like, and we get down to actually changing things, people (the very people who were “on board” with the new vision) start criticizing the change once they see that it will actually change things. (I know that seems ridiculous, but it is actually very human. The idea of change is much less challenging than people actually mucking about in our comfort zones).
As people begin to detract from the change, detract from forward progress, we pastoral types feel a deep need to not only bring them along with us, but to sooth over the tension that such disagreements cause. The thing is, each time we halt to address the criticism, we also halt the forward motion, we cease building a new future and focus on mending the past, we shift gears from the macro-management of the church's future to the micromanagement of every concern expressed.
It's almost hard to think about not doing exactly that, but when you do stop to think about it, when you choose to handle change this way, you are choosing to let go of the vision for the church and to get caught up in the everyday concerns of the world. Said differently, when you are trying to move a body forward, focusing on the detractors (even earnest ones) subtracts greatly from your ability to actualize progress. In many ways, life has taught those who object to change exactly that; preventing change does not take being right, it only takes being loud enough (or concerned enough, or hurt enough, etc.) to garnish attention, because it causes those working toward change to loose their vision and focus their energy on you.
In the end you, at the very least, slow down the change to which you object and in the best case you wear down those working toward change so much they they throw their hands up in frustration and walk away. With the exception of earnest objectors who might actually just be trying to understand, a great deal of the detractors are not interested in what is best as much as they are interested in getting what they want. Those working for change frequently, out of genuine concern, make the mistake of believing that with enough dialogue and nurturing the detractors can be brought on board. While this is certainly a virtuous perspective, and early on is worth putting some energy in (but not the majority of energy), there is a point at which you have to face reality and boldly move forward into the direction you understand God to be calling you, realizing that people you care about will probably choose to take a different path and that the split may be rocky and even less than cordial at times.
I can't help but wonder if that is part of the wisdom that Dr. King saw as he looked at the new vision, the change, he was trying to usher in in the U.S. “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk...I would have no time for constructive work.” With progress, detraction is subtraction. It is painful work and goes against every fiber of your being. It literally hurts, but Jesus never promised us that it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.
Probably my favorite sermon from Dr. King was, "The Drum Major Instinct." The great line, "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. (Amen) That's a new definition of greatness," comes from that message.
If you haven't heard or read "The Drum Major Instinct,"
before going any further take a moment and click on the link.
Another fantastic read, is this speech by Valerie Smith
, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and director of the Program in African-American Studies, entitled "Memory." In it she, among other things, speaks of "The Drum Major Instinct." I particularly like her perspective on how we try to reduce Dr. King to an icon.
Once, after listening to that sermon, I started thinking about High School. You see, I am embarrassed to admit that in High School – um... in High School, I was a drum major. There I said it. Not the impressive strutting to the rhythm kind of drum major you will find at the A&T Aggie’s football games, mind you. No, my shirt was made of silk and the collar reached my shoulders. The pants were just a bit to form fitting for my taste and I wasn’t there for show, my only job was to direct the band.
Not to bore you too much with the story, but I was a reluctant drum major. In Junior High (I guess I’m supposed to call it Middle School now), I was a drummer. Technically I was a “percussionist,” but I really could not read a note, so I preferred to think of myself as a drummer. I was pretty good at it and the “easy A” certainly didn’t hurt my GPA.
When I moved to High School, I was one of the first ever sophomores at Asheboro High to earn the right to play the tri-tones (that’s the set of three drums) in the marching band. To be quite honest, I really loved it and, as I said, the “easy A” certainly didn’t hurt my GPA.
By the end of that year I was put in a very uncomfortable position. The Band director had called me in after school one day. “Mark,” he said, “I grade people here on their ability to live up to there potential.” “No problem there,” I thought, “I put everything I have into those drums.” He continued, “And I believe you have the potential to be a drum major.”
Now here’s the thing, I’d say there were a good number of the people in the band would have paid good money to hear those very words. I, on the other hand, felt like I had been told that Jesus would be appearing in the auditorium next week and I had been elected to run the coat check. It was devastating. I didn’t want to do it. I liked how things were going. I didn’t know anything about being a drum major. The very thought of it frightened me. I was a reluctant drum major.
Thinking of "The Drum Major Instinct" and what Dr. King teaches us about human behavior and the behavior God expects from us, I believe that we, each one of us, are reluctant drum majors. I believe that there are two sides to the drum major persona. One lives out the Drum Major Instinct. That instinct, as Dr. King puts it, is on a “quest for attention and recognition and importance.” That’s the part of us that tries to one up the neighbor and feels like many of those who are less fortunate are probably either getting what they deserve or are trying to take advantage of the system. It is also the part of the persona that likes Dr. King as an icon. It likes to wrap him up in a few clever remarks and keep him buried in 1968.
I believe however that there is a second stronger part of the drum major persona. It is that piece of us that was formed by the very breath of God in the very image of God. It is the reluctant drum major. It isn’t seeking attention or recognition or importance. It is a reflection of the God who made us; the God who loves us, all of us; the God who suffered here on earth through the person of Jesus. That part of us does not seek attention or recognition or importance – it only seeks justice and peace and righteousness.
We, all of us, have let the less Godly part of the drum major in us win out. We, all of us, have reduced – yes,reduced Dr. King to the status of an icon – a logo if you will, a picture of a time gone by, no longer relevant. Oh, we say the right words. We talk the right talk, but the status seeking drum major in us is only playing the game. For if we were to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk – well, we might have to stoop down from the heights of our comfortable lives to look into the eyes of those who, contrary to what we might think, are not trying to take advantage of the system but rather are being taken advantage of by the system.
The reluctant drum major in us sees that. It sees the ills of the world. It sees how God’s children are marginalized as the band plays on as if nothing is wrong, or at the very least as if all is right. That part of us calls out, “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.” That, that is the message of Dr. King – not the icon, but Dr. King the reluctant drum major.
Truly answering God’s call to be instruments of justice on this earth – to let justice roll down like mighty waters – means, for every one of us, living life differently than we do right now. It might feel devastating. Many of us don’t want to do it. Most of us like how things are going. For heaven sake, we don’t know anything about being a drum major. The very thought of it frightens us. But if we don’t do it, in the words of Dr. King, “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.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963)
So, on this day, the day we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I ask you to look at your life, look at your heart and answer this one simple question: Which one is winning? The status seeking drum major…or the reluctant drum major? Have you turned the legacy of King into to an iconic tomb or are you marching to the tune of his biblically inspired message? What I can tell you is that in life there is no “easy A” but God still wants us to live up to our potential.
Let us take up the march as reluctant drum majors. Let us shout to the world, not only in words but in our daily deeds, “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.”
My Family Gathered Around The Spot The Dream Was Announced