One of my favorite stories in the Bible is found in its early pages – the story of Abram's Call (Gen. 12:1-9). The Lord approaches Abram and tells him to leave everything he knows and loves – his country, his people, his home – to go to a land the Lord will show him. Remarkably, Abram asks no questions. Having no clue as to where he's going, he simply “went, as the Lord had told him.”
The Lord approaches Abram and tells him to leave everything he knows and loves to go to a that the Lord will show him. Remarkably, Abram asks no questions. Having no clue as to where he's going, he simply “went, as the Lord had told him.”
It's frightening not knowing where we're going, but that is precisely our situation at this moment in history. Almost six decades have passed since Martin Luther King's famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and yet for far too many citizens the American condition still bears closer resemblance to the nightmare of Malcolm X than it does to the dream of Martin.
Early this month, on the opposite end of the National Mall from where King shared his vision of equality and brotherhood, a mob of primarily white men stormed the Capitol, some shouting racial epithets, others wearing clothes with racist messages, others hoisting “Blue Lives Matter” flags even as they assaulted law enforcement officers, others carrying crosses and displaying Christian slogans, and at least one parading through those sacred halls with a large Confederate flag.
It was a scene straight out of the 1960s, except it wasn't; it was a scene straight out of 2021, because, like it or not, this is who we are.
The subtitle of King's final book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” identifies two divergent paths for America: chaos or community. If we're ever going to get serious about equality in America, the first step is to stop lying to ourselves.
King writes, “It is time for all of us to tell each other the truth about who and what have brought the Negro to the condition of deprivation against which he struggles today. In human relations the truth is hard to come by, because most groups are deceived about themselves. Rationalization and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our individual and collective sins... In short, white America must assume the guilt for the black man's inferior status.”
This is not the warm and cozy pastoral King we're likely to see on memes today, but it is the prophetic King we desperately need to hear. Many will read these words and immediately clinch up in a defensive posture; if this is you, I invite you to lean in to that discomfort.
We don't have to look far to see the contemporary relevance of King's words. Have you considered why, in any given year, the majority of homicide victims in our city are black (nearly 70% in 2020; nearly 80% in 2019)? Have you considered why there happens to be such a concentration of poverty, among other disparities, in the southeast quadrant of our city?
Many Americans are willing to declare that our social systems are broken; but are we willing to consider the possibility that, perhaps, these systems are actually functioning exactly as designed? Are we willing to confront King's bold proclamation that “the plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness”?
King's legacy of nonviolence offers us a framework for having these conversations and seeking change in a way that sees beyond victories over political opponents. King's vision was beloved community, a radical vision that excludes no one, not even the hate-filled men who stormed the Capitol.
We're only as safe as our most toxic ideologies, and we stand at a defining moment. As King challenges us, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind's last chance to choose between chaos and community.”
May we choose wisely, and may we, like Abram, have the faith to leave behind our self-deceptions and embrace a new land of truth and beloved community.
The Rev. Angelo Mante is executive director of Alive Community Outreach in Fort Wayne.