How Christians ought to respond to major debates in society is always an issue. Some current examples are same-sex marriage, abortion, the war on terrorism, and U.S. immigration policy. We form our positions based on our backgrounds and religious beliefs, but since our faith traditions differ widely, we are often all over the map just as much as people of other faiths or even agnostics or atheists.
Regardless of the sides Christians take, how we address and confront others is an important indicator of our relationship with God. It reflects how our lights are shining or not shining. When we exercise our right to protest, are we yelling at each other? Do we understand the difference between critical analysis, criticism, and judging? A judge is one who has the authority to render punishment upon someone who has broken a law. Are we holding up signs that damn to a hell those who disagree with us or whose behavior we disagree with, even though we own no hell to send them to? Isn’t this why Jesus, the ultimate judge, warned us not to judge? Are we seeking first to model ourselves after Jesus and how He would have us to address these critical issues of our time?
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the author of “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”, exemplified a direct and gracious way to communicate when we disagree with our conversation partners. (Photo Credit: ClarksvilleOnline.com)
Fifty years ago during the civil rights movement, one of the most contentious moments in America’s history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for a nonviolent protest in Birmingham. Many who were against him were fellow Christians who felt his methods were too radical—even ungodly. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King addressed his fellow brothers and sisters directly. In the rhetorical tradition of African American Jeremiads, Dr. King eloquently cried out for justice by using rational, biblically grounded arguments to defend the cause of the civil rights movement. He wrote:
“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
Dr. King also defended his methods and behavior. He wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.”
Dr. King had modeled the “ladder of hope” outlined in 2 Peter 1:4-14 We must have faith in what we believe and that we can accomplish all things through Christ. We need knowledge to apply that faith, so we ought to thoroughly educate ourselves regarding all sides of the issues we are confronting before we act. This faith and knowledge should prepare us to be self-controlled and respectful toward our fellow human beings—to be nonviolent in our interaction and, if necessary, confrontation. We will have the ability to persevere in a way that honors God in our positions and everything we do. And when people who do not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior see our behavior, they should see not hate, but God’s love in us – even if disagreement remains.
And so, as we confront the issues of the day, no matter how much our individual passions are riled, perhaps we Christians, as varied as we are, should remember to consider what we should be modeling. We should model our speech after the direct, but loving conversational approach of Jesus.
GOING ROGUE: Last Sunday, during a 'Meet the Press' panel discussion, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a surrogate for President Obama's re-election campaign, praised Obama's record but went off-message when he scolded the Obama campaign for negative ads.
On Monday night, I was out with friends when my pal Outlaw told me about another person there who’d made some less than flattering comments about him. Here’s the thing: Outlaw is my friend. This random guy running his mouth was not. So from there I went on to joke about the stranger, making assessments about his overall character and so forth. Then Outlaw laughed and said, “We can’t really speculate on who he is based on this one comment he made about me. You’re just saying all that stuff because you’re my friend.”
I replied, “Of course I am, duh! That’s what friends do.”
And I mean it. I believe that’s what friends are for: to love you unconditionally and support you when you need it. When your friend gets cheated on and calls you, your job is to pick her side and provide comfort. Now, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that pesky thing called accountability. When you’re wrong, your friends should tell you and hold you accountable. But when you’re in a fight –particularly physical ones — you expect your friends to jump in and sort out the details later. Right?
Well, it seems the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker, was in a bit of a quandary. I’m sure you’ve heard of him, but if not … Mayor Booker is a progressive young politician who enjoys immense popularity in his hometown and across the country. Many believe he has the potential to hold an even higher position, maybe even president! While he’s managed to appease liberals and conservatives alike in his home city, he primarily moves rank and file with President Obama and has been an outspoken and helpful backer of the Obama administration. When the President voiced his support of same-sex marriage, Cory Booker took to his Twitter feed (as he often does) to applaud and agree. One could say that Mayor Booker and President Obama are pretty chummy.
That was until Mr. Booker was interviewed on Meet the Press last week. Mayor Booker called the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, “ridiculous” and “nauseating.” In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll let you take a look below.
When I saw Mayor Booker’s comments flicker across my timeline, I thought that I was surely misreading it. I mean, it’s one thing for lil ol’ me to disagree with President Obama (I do so pretty often, actually), but I’m not the President’s pal; I’m not an elected official; I’m not a leading voice in the Democratic party; and I don’t have anything close to Cory Booker’s 1,150,727 followers.
However, when Mayor Booker calls out the Obama campaign’s tactics, it makes us wonder … was it the right thing to do? The media recognized the spectacle right away, declaring that Booker had gone “rogue” and speculating on how damaging his words would be to the Obama campaign. After Booker released a personal video in a desperate attempt to clarify his comments, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough even suggested that Booker is “fighting for his political life.”
From my perspective, this controversy ultimately goes back to those old conflicting questions about friendship. Should Mayor Booker have stuck to his guns and his morals that said, “The political discourse has gone too far, we’ve got to get above the nasty fighting and stay above the fray?” Or should he have stood by his friend and fellow statesman who’s running in a tight race against a man that Mayor Booker surely doesn’t want to win the presidency?
It’s a tough call and one we often have to make in our personal lives. Do you stand by your friend even when you disagree with her cheating on her nice yet gullible boyfriend? Or do you call her on it and threaten to expose her if she doesn’t shape up and act right?
In this case, I too have some critical feedback for the Obama campaign’s tactics. The emails I’m getting from the Democratic National Committee often sound as divisive as a Fox News personality, and there’s an ad out that compares Mitt Romney to a vampire for “sucking jobs away from a steel town.” That type of rhetoric is polarizing and doesn’t resonate with the inspiring picture of our president that draws voters together. Perhaps Obama’s campaign does need to take a couple chill pills. However, I believe Mayor Booker could have expressed his concerns to the campaign without necessarily sharing them with the world. I can’t say for sure if the mayor already tried to do this and had to resort to airing his concerns on Meet the Press, but think about it this way: Drawing on the previous example, if your friend is cheating on her boyfriend, do you tell her to get right via Twitter or over a one-on-one brunch? Obviously, the personal, less-public option is the only way to go if you have any interest in preserving the friendship.
So, Mayor Booker, I agree with what you said; I just question if the setting was right.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney’s campaign now has a new star in their most recent attack ads against President Obama — the one and only Honorable Mayor Cory Booker.
Who. Woulda. Thunk?
If nothing else, this little episode tells us we should be gearing up for an ugly presidential election. Which is exactly what Cory Booker was trying to avoid.
In separate essays, two UrbanFaith contributors take on the critics of President Obama who believe he needs to “raise up” and get ugly with his Republican opponents, who seem bent on sabotaging his leadership. Jelani Greenidge says, wait, Obama’s meekness is not weakness. And DeVona Alleyne suggests that Obama’s quieter, less-flashy approach may be exactly the kind of change we need in Washington.
The marketing execs at Nivea recently caught all kinds of flack for an ad they ran for their new campaign, “Look Like You Give a Damn.” The ad features a clean-shaven black man throwing a head of a black man with a fro, a beard, and a furrowed brow. The ad drives home the point with the slogan: “Re-Civilize Yourself.”
Although it’s no surprise to me that this ad has stirred up charges of “racism” from the Black community, I’m still disappointed that it has. The Urban Daily is one of many sites that have chosen sides on the controversy:
“Nivea wants black men to ‘re-civilize’ themselves by adhering to Nivea guidelines and style experts who think this is how a Black man should look.”
“The imagery coupled with the words offends me on several levels. For one, the implication that wearing an afro or beard is uncivilized is terribly ignorant. Dr. Cornel West, who sports a very prominent Afro and beard, is one of America’s foremost thinkers … you can hardly call him uncivilized.”
To even consider telling a successful black woman to ditch a multi-million dollar contract over your personal beef with Nivea is absurd. That’s hardly a decision you could make for someone else, let alone the highly unlikely chance that you would say no thank you to millions yourself.
So why do we feel the need to respond to every suspected incidence of racial offense, no matter how minor or inconsequential? And why didn’t any one of these writers acknowledge that Nivea also published an ad featuring a white man tossing the head of an untamed white face? Sometimes I feel like we, as Black people, act like an insecure teenage girl who at any given moment will be up in arms because some other girl looked at her “the wrong way” or is acting like she’s “all that.” Curtly put, this is petty people! Let’s act like grown folks and agree on a few facts:
1. If you go into a job interview with an untamed beard and long untamed hair, you will most likely not get the job, no matter how coarse or straight your hair is.
2. Dr. Cornel West, a prominent professor at Princeton University, philosopher, and activist, is unarguably a genius. He could show up in pajamas and we would still listen to what he had to say. This does not mean that if his IQ were lower, or equal to yours, he would get the job either!
3. Entrepreneurs, celebrities, and successful eccentrics are just that: exceptional! If you want to earn a living and be an individual, then you better be darn good at what you do, because, more often than not, the American workplace is a factory and we are all drones. If you want to beat the machine, you’re going to need some tools.
Once we’ve agreed on those three points we can move on to the more sensitive issues at play here. We — and I say we because I am including myself in this too — are sick of dominant culture pulling our strings and making us dance to their tune. I mean, who made them the deciders of everything anyway? Why can’t I wear my natural unkempt hair, name my child whatever ethnic name I choose, and keep it real without being considered ghetto, dangerous, or unsophisticated? This is very frustrating, and it’s a long and complex battle that most likely will only result in short victories in an already lost battle.
There are some Black people who seem to think they can actually solve this problem. To them I say, “Good luck.” But to think that this war can be won one Nivea ad or public racist misstatement at a time is a gross underestimation of the bigger issues at play.
Not every battle is worth fighting, and in this case I’m not sure there’s even a fight to be picked. Sometimes the victim becomes a bully due to the repressed anger they hold. I think Nivea was simply trying to attract a younger audience with a clever campaign. Their word choice for the black ad, “re-civilize,” is unfortunate and maybe careless, but racist is a stretch. They basically were saying young men are a bit slack when it comes to their grooming. Most young men, regardless of race, don’t like to shave or wear a tie. So it’s like a father saying, “Son, get it together! It’s time to grow up. Look like you give a damn.” It’s that simple.
The Book of Mormon, a play by the creators of South Park about two Mormon missionaries to Uganda, won nine Tony awards Sunday night, including Best Musical, but according to an April review that was reprinted at The Root this week, its plot is nothing to celebrate. Observes writer Janice C. Simpson:
If you’re black and your skin is even a little thin, there’s plenty in this show to rub you the wrong way, too. The Ugandans whom the missionaries encounter are plagued by poverty, AIDS and an evil warlord who forcibly subjects women to circumcision. Despite these woes, the villagers are portrayed as good-hearted, if simple-minded, people. One keeps referring to an old battered typewriter as her “texting machine.” Another stomps around talking about raping babies because he believes that doing so will rid him of HIV. A dream sequence is set in hell, where the devil’s main disciples are Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and Johnnie Cochran, who, a song explains, is there for his part in helping to free O.J.
Simpson notes that the material is “played for can’t-you-take-a-joke laughs,” but she didn’t find the subject matter funny.
RACE, RELIGION & SATIRE: The cast of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" during the show's opening night in March.
“Parker and Stone [the show’s creators], who call themselves libertarians, have gotten away with this kind of cavalier attitude toward serious subjects for years because of their ability to sugarcoat it with faux irony,” Simpson declares before accusing the South Park provocateurs of “indulging in cultural colonialism of the most insidious kind.”
Sure, the head villager is seen as a wise man, and his daughter is the doe-eyed idealist who brings the sides together. But the show doesn’t work unless the villagers are seen mainly as noble savages who need white people to show them the way to enlightenment. And in the end, their salvation comes from believing in the white missionaries who have been dropped into their midst.
At The Grio, Earl Ofari Hutchinson read the play differently, writing today that it “skewers Mormons for the church’s decades of racial prejudice and for their prodigious proselytizing activities in Africa.” Hutchinson said the church’s history will “saddle” Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman with “the heavy burden of the religion’s racial history,” which he said includes its refusal to publicly apologize for its “long, stubborn, and dogmatic defense of alleged biblical encoded racism.”
Perhaps in anticipation of the musical’s Tony Award domination, Mark Oppenheimer reported on the black Latter Day Saints Genesis Group in his latest New York Times column. Oppenheimer attended a picnic with 300 members of the group in Utah and told stories of how they, as black Mormons, grapple with their church’s history of racial prejudice.
Oppenheimer quotes Max Perry Mueller, who is reportedly writing a dissertation at Harvard on African Americans and the Mormon church. Mueller told Oppenheimer that the Latter Day Saints have “made a very sincere effort” to welcome blacks, but few African Americans have joined. He also said the notion that until recently Mormons were “exceptionally exclusionary or racist is probably unfair” because “while no other large, predominantly white church barred blacks from the clergy in the 1970s, none was particularly integrated or had notable black leaders, either.”
If you’ve seen The Book of Mormon, what do you think? Is it racist, anti-religious, or just an equal-opportunity offender that shouldn’t be taken that seriously?