In today’s economy, we hear a lot about the financial struggles of the country. But while we often debate issues of white-collar economics, the struggles of lower-income groups are disparaged.
It is nearly impossible for the average blue-collar worker to make a living wage to support her family. In most states, minimum wage is well below the living wage (there is a big difference) for most households.
There are serious consequences of this disparity. Workers skip meals so that their children may eat. Folks turn to loan sharks to make ends meet, which entrenches them in a spiral of debt. Families make tough choices to cut out “non-essentials” like medicine, clothing, and nutritious food.
When folks are desperate for work, they will endure any number of abuses or indignities. A friend of mine spends an hour on the bus to get to a potential job, only to arrive and find out he isn’t needed that day. Sometimes he’s able to work for a couple of hours, but then gets sent home. “Try again tomorrow.” And if he doesn’t show up for that chance, he knows he’ll lose the opportunity for later.
Or conversely, employees will be held at work hours after their shift is over, if that is what boss deems necessary. My neighbor needs to be able to be home when her kids arrive from school. But when her boss holds her late, she doesn’t dare risk losing her job by leaving at the scheduled time. And she is required to maintain open availability to be placed in a shift as is convenient for the company, but she is not told the schedule until the last minute, and so cannot arrange for child care or line up other jobs.
It also happens that workers are paid less than what they were promised. Or are given insufficient training and made to feel like fools when they don’t perform to standards. And yet, as more states put an end to collective bargaining, the wealthy receive a smaller tax burden now than they have in the last 80 years.
Take a close look at the words of Jeremiah 22:13-16. Woe to we that profit from injustice and gain economic security at the expense of others! We “who make our neighbor serve us for nothing and do not give them their wages.” Jesus himself urges that “the workers deserve their wages.”
Part of our problem is that we have a warped perspective of economic reality. Particularly since housing in the United States is largely segregated by economic standing, people look around themselves and feel that, on the whole, there is equal opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
Last year, PBS NewsHour conducted an informal survey, asking people to identify the sort of economy that exists in the United States. The findings were telling. Watch the segment below.
Also, in his ever-insightful way, Jon Stewart points out the huge economic disparities that most folks gloss over. His analysis of Warren Buffet’s crusade to close the wealth gap is both humorous and sadly revealing.
For even more insight, I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, or play this excellent interactive game to see what economic choices you would make given some stark realities about your circumstances. (If you do play, please share your thoughts about the experience in the comments section below.)
There’s obviously much more to this issue than I’m able to address in a brief blog post, but the important thing is having frank and honest conversations about the unjust situations around us. We may not be able to immediately see the inequalities in our midst due to our own privileged positions, but it won’t be long before those realities affect our own situations. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:
All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t emerge on the civil rights scene fully formed but drew from a rich spiritual and intellectual heritage that he owed, in part, to his mentor, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. Mays served as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta for 27 years and delivered the eulogy at King’s funeral. In the first full-length biography of Mays, Dr. Randal M. Jelks, associate professor of American and African American studies at the University of Kansas, provides an in-depth look not only at Mays’ meteoric rise from humble Southern roots to international acclaim, but he also sheds new light on the fertile soil out of which the Civil Rights Movement grew. UrbanFaith talked to Jelks about the book earlier this week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Why is Benjamin Mays important?
First, most people think of the Civil Rights Movement as being born in December 1955 with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. In point of fact, it had a long and winding road to becoming a fully understood national movement. You had to have teachers and people who laid out the groundwork for what began in ’55, and so I wanted remind readers, particularly those readers who are not familiar with institutions within the Black community, of the great intellectual leaders and teaching that went on to fully fuel a movement.
Mays grounded his civil rights philosophy in the Christian faith, but moved away from his conservative Baptist heritage into Social Gospel theology.
That’s correct. The Social Gospel emerged from a German Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch, who was a minister in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. When you see people dying everyday from disease and impoverishment (these were European immigrants) at an alarming rate, you say, “How is this individualized gospel helping these people? Is it only teaching them to be saved for the moment and live through this hell on earth?” Mays concluded the same thing from both the impoverishment he faced in rural South and the kind of totalizing exclusion that he saw in Jim Crow America.
You write that Rauschenbusch didn’t say much about the sin of racism, but that Mays saw in Rauschenbusch’s theology something he could use. Did Mays express any resistance to adopting the Social Gospel in light of Rauschenbusch’s relative silence on race?
Mays is like all people in that you find a creative spark. You read somebody and their experience is different than yours, but you find something in that text that triggers your thinking. I think that’s how Mays used Rauschenbusch. If he was going to remain Christian, then the gospel has to speak to societal issues; it couldn’t just speak to individual issues. If it was just personalized and just a communitarian voluntary organization, it could not be a force for mobilizing social change. That’s what Mays would probably say.
You said Mays’ emphasis was more on Jesus’ humanity than on his divinity. Did Mays believe in the divinity of Christ?
If you use the old theological terms, people with high Christology hold to the divinity of Christ; with low Christology, they emphasize the humanity of Jesus. So Mays would have had a low Christology in the sense that what he sees as important about Jesus are the actions that he took and what he stood for. For Mays, Jesus’ death on the cross is because of his actions in facing the state. It is the ethics of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus that are far more long-lasting than whether Jesus arose from the dead. He doesn’t have this sort of Anselm theology of the Middle Ages that says Jesus is the sacrifice for all of us.
That sounds consistent with his belief that faith is action. Is there a direct link there?
Yes, I think he would be much more aligned with 1 and 2 John than with the Apostle Paul.
Why did Mays think it was so important to ground his arguments for racial equality in the Christian faith?
Mays could rightly assume that the American narrative began with religious freedom and the theology of those English Protestants of all stripes coming to the British colonies of North America. So, even if we had Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in the United States, that narrative sort of shapes American life and culture. And, in his era, people still went to church in great numbers. So it made sense sociologically for him to speak the language of the people and through these institutions that had moral influence.
Later when the Black Power movement arose, Mays seemed to be skeptical that civil rights could be achieved apart from a moral or spiritual foundation. Is that correct?
He wasn’t skeptical. I think the generation coming after him was much more skeptical about the ideas of moral suasion in light of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and other things. They begin to see that political power, and some would even argue revolutionary struggle by means of arms, was much more important. You can see everyone growing tired of state-sanctioned violence that was done against young civil rights activists. So there’s a real move to say that faith is power. Mays is now in his 70s as the Black Power movement emerges and he begins trying to figure out if it is right to speak in this language. What I was trying to show was that in that moment, everything was really kind of confused and here was a man who had spent his life trying to mobilize Christians to tackle the problem of race. Mays was trying to give them some grounding.
A huge part of his work involved educating Black pastors. Has that legacy been born out?
There is still the need to educate Black clergy. Mays wanted to educate them in a certain way. Black people are like everybody else in America; they have a diversity of opinions. I don’t think he was as explicit as he might have been that he wanted to educate Black pastors in a liberal, progressive way in order to empower a social movement. There are lots of pastors who go to conservative seminaries and who buy whole hog the arguments. I would think that would be short-sighted if they really looked at the conditions within Black communities.
He seemed to have some prejudice against the low-church experience.
RANDAL M. JELKS: The Civil Rights Movement “had a long and winding road to becoming a fully understood national movement.”
Mays, as a part of his generation, really didn’t look favorably on the experience of Pentecostals in particular and people in store-front churches. I think his own biases came out there. Also, he was biased because he was a Baptist. In his era, even though he was trying to be non-denominational, he doesn’t quite know what to do with people who are in ever-growing numbers becoming Pentecostal store-front preachers. He hadn’t thought that out. And, of course, you’re shaped by your education, and here he was a University of Chicago PhD. I don’t think his teachers at that time would have given much thought to the growing numbers of Pentecostals. Even some of his critics, when they were criticizing the negro’s church, saw that bias.
He had a strong commitment both to Christianity and democracy that you connect with his Baptist ecclesiology.
That’s right. It’s very much rooted in the long history. Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about this in Democracy in America. One of the things that we don’t give enough credit to is the Protestant dissenting tradition that is a shaping force in American democracy. The constitution of the United States very much resembles the way the Presbyterian church is ordered and the governing structures of the country very much resemble long-held patterns that govern the Calvinist tradition. Freedom of conscience is also very much an inheritance that he picked up on as a dissenting tradition.
I thought it was fascinating to read about how Mays’ trip to India to meet Ghandi and his debates with the Dutch Reformed South African theologian shaped his view of the American experience.
He didn’t see the problems of the United States as separate. This is the privilege of being able to travel at a time when most Americans would not have seen the world. He very much realized that the problems of Black liberation were the problems of liberation for people around the world in many different settings. He was particularly drawn to the affinity between Apartheid and Jim Crow. He had heard those same debates about whether the Bible condones a separate reality. He wanted to strike that down. In terms of Ghandi, what he saw was that black people in America were a racial minority, so to pick up 1917 Bolshevik-style revolution would have been tantamount to signing a death warrant. This is where his Christian ideals come in. Non-violent struggle keeps people’s dignity and personhood in tact. This is something very important for him, coming out of the Baptist tradition, which teaches that God is no respecter of persons, but every person is precious in God’s sight. That’s what struck him about Ghandi in his long struggle against the British.
His connection with Martin Luther King Jr. went back to when King was a high school early-admission student at Morehouse.
King’s father was a trustee of Morehouse and a graduate of Morehouse himself. And so, for young King to be entrusted to Benjamin Mays was a very good thing for his family. The Mays’ consistently had not only Martin King, but other young students over to dinner, and introduced them to national figures from A. Philip Randolph to Dorothy Height. They’re all at dinner listening to these conversations, soaking them up. What a wonderful education. So King becomes very much persuaded through Mays that ministry could have a social application, because, as he writes, he had planned to go to law school. He had not planned to pick up things like his father, who he thought was too conservative in his approach to ministry. So Mays becomes this new model of a highly educated Black minister and socially connected to world-wide issues.
You write that King modeled his early civil rights persona after Mays. In what way did he emulate Mays?
The reason I write that is we forget that Martin King was 26 years old when the Montgomery bus boycott starts. When I was 26, I was an adult, but I was still very much a young adult with no experience whatsoever. And so you take on personas as you are trying to find your voice, sort of like painters and musicians. They play like other musicians until they find their own creative spark and energy. King was already a really fine young orator, but in terms of being fully formed, I don’t think so. I think he was still trying to give homage to Mays as a kind of father figure. That’s why he was very much trying to be poised and deliberate like Mays. Biographies kind of annoy me because they are written as though this man has no developmental history like all of us. When King’s home is bombed in Montogmery, Mays has to persuade his father to back off, because his father wants him to pack up and move back to Atlanta. Mays becomes an intervening force.
And yet, Mrs. Mays complained at one point that King was borrowing from Mays without attribution.
Preaching is an art like music. If you hear a lick, and that’s good, you’re going to borrow that lick. But she certainly was not worrying about the greater cause. She was like, “That’s my husband’s work and he should be giving more credit where credit is due.”
In your estimation, what do we owe Benjamin Mays?
I don’t know that he would say we owe him anything, but for me, both as a religious person and an intellectual, I first wanted to show that there were a variety of models out there. It’s very important that we hear from different voices within the community. Of course there are conservative pastors who come on, like E.V. Hill in Los Angeles. Certainly E.V. Hill back in the day was very conservative. Mays also is a critic of people like Billy Graham and Reinhold Neibuhr.
Second, if Benjamin Mays had been president of Harvard, there would have been 1000 books written about him, because in a 27-year stretch, he graduated and was looked up to by people like Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright Edelman, Julian Bond, David Satcher, who was Surgeon General of the United States, and on and on and on. If he had been president of Harvard, people would say, “What kind of educator does that? What’s the shaping force for him to make this place so rich?” But it’s a little Black school for men, and he saved it from closing its doors. I think one of his great legacies is this connection between education and religious faith and thought.
Lastly, long before this term “public intellectual” was coined, he was indeed a public intellectual, writing primarily to Black people. I don’t think you would have seen too many White writers, like Neibuhr, saying in a column that the Korean War is wrong. There have been thousands of books written on Neibuhr, who said that the Cold War was a good thing. I was trying to say there are other voices out here who had significance and who have historical legacies that are important.
HARRY BELFAFONTE: “They have turned their back on social responsibility,” opined the activist and actor about today’s black celebrities. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikipedia)
Harry Belafonte is a legendary entertainer, known for his iconic performances in films like Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher, and Calypso. And who can forget his award-winning “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”? However, in a long and distinguished career, Belafonte’s greatest accomplishments arguably may be his involvement with the civil rights movement.
During the ’50s and ’60s, Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest supporters and endorsers. He fully believed in the message and movement that King worked so tirelessly to establish. Belafonte provided financial support for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC), and he also participated in several rallies and protests alongside King. Still a civic-minded crusader today at age 85, he continues to live his life as an outspoken activist for social justice and equality.
Belafonte has never been one to shy away from social commentary or hold his tongue in conversation. He has been known for his honest comments and straightforward critiques about politics, show business, and society.
In an interview last week with the Hollywood Reporter, when asked whether or not he was happy with the images of minorities portrayed in Hollywood, he caused a stir by calling out two famous black celebrities by name. “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities,” Belafonte began. “But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Zand Beyoncé, for example.”
JAY-Z AND BEYONCE: Is it fair to compare the altruism and social involvement of today’s stars to those of the civil rights era? (Photo: Ivan Nikolov/WENN/Newscom)
Belafonte believes that industry heavyweights like Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a social responsibility to be outspoken regarding issues of race, prejudice, and civil injustices, mainly because they have the social influence and public platform to do so. Janelle Harris at Essence echoed those sentiments. “There’s been an ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and addressing pertinent issues, even having empathy for and interest in what’s impacting our community. It’s an attitude of detachment,” she said.
She added: “I agree with Harry Belafonte. I think young people could be doing more. Twenty, thirty, forty-somethings. It’s not just the celebrities, though they’re certainly part of the vanguard for making philanthropy and activism cool, which is unfortunately necessary for some folks to get involved.”
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are definitely the closest thing the black community has to pop-culture royalty today. The hip-hop power couple topped Forbes list this year as the world’s highest-paid celebrity duo, raking in a staggering $78 million. But are they giving back?
Guardian columnist Tricia Rose wonders as much. She writes, “It is undeniable that today’s top black artists and celebrities have the greatest leverage, power, visibility and global influence of any period. It is also true that few speak openly, regularly and publicly on behalf of social justice. Most remain remarkably quiet about the conditions that the majority of black people face.”
Many celebrities often take on a non-controversial role or use their celebrity indirectly as a fundraising tool, rather than taking an overt stance to engage civically. Rose continues to say that her previous statement is not intended to, “discount their philanthropic efforts,” but to raise awareness. And Belafonte’s lament illuminates a fundamental shift in black popular culture.
“As black artists have gone mainstream, their traditional role has shifted. No longer the presumed cultural voice of the black collective social justice, it is now heavily embedded in mass cultural products controlled by the biggest conglomerates in the world,” says Rose.
FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Belafonte (center) with fellow actors Sidney Poitier (left) and Charlton Heston at the historic civil rights March on Washington, D.C., in 1963.
Rose notes that individuals like Belafonte willfully sacrificed their safety and lives by marching with civil rights protesters under threat of police violence. His commitment and contributions are rare among modern superstars.
She adds: “In the history of black culture popular music and art has played an extraordinary role in keeping the spirit alive under duress, challenging discrimination and writing the soundtrack to freedom movements.” Visionaries like Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone are a few that Rose believes understood that responsibility and made a conscious effort to better society through both their art and fame.
As for Beyoncé, the singer’s representatives did respond to Belafonte’s charge by citing a litany of the singer’s charitable acts, including funding of inner-city outreaches in her hometown of Houston, as well as donations to hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and humanitarian campaigns following the Haiti earthquake.
In fairness to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it is not for any of us to judge how they use their money, nor to pressure them into being more generous than they already are. What’s more, the issues in today’s society are quite different than they were during the civil rights era. So, it might be unfair to impose those kinds of expectations on today’s African American celebrities.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that we do need more influential people with Belafonte’s mindset to help us reenergize the black community. His contributions over the course of his career have changed the world for the better and have proven that entertainers can be important difference makers for change and justice.
FRIEND AND PASTOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Rev. Joel C. Hunter stands in the foyer of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida. Hunter is one of President Obama's closet spiritual advisers. (Photo: Phyllis Redman/Newscom)
The Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter grew up in small town Ohio, the son of a widowed mother who loved black jazz musicians. Now he is a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama and pastor of 15,000-member Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida. “Cooperation and partnership are hallmarks of Dr. Hunter’s ministry,” his church bio says. “Together, he believes, we can accomplish more because of our differences than we would on our own—without giving up our unique identities.” UrbanFaith talked to Hunter about how this kind of cooperation is possible, and about his unique testimony of coming to faith after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his friendship with the president, and what Sanford area ministers are doing in response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: You have a unique testimony in that you were involved in the civil rights movement and came to the Lord after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. You also recently wrote an op-ed for Charisma about the Trayvon Martin case. Has racial reconciliation always been a thread in your ministry?
Joel C. Hunter: Yes, it has been. The little town I came from in Ohio didn’t have one ethnicity other than white. I think it was one of those Midwestern towns that had a law about the exclusivity of races. But my mother, who reminds me in some ways of President Obama’s mother, was one of those free spirits who loved everybody and thrived on jazz: Nat King Cole and all of those greats—back in that day they were called “Negro geniuses” with music. And so, when I went to Ohio University, it was a natural thing for me to go to the other end of the spectrum and get involved almost immediately with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t from a faith perspective that that first happened, but when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I went to Galbraith Chapel, a little generic chapel at Ohio University, and came to Christ. Caring for those who are left out was at the core of my calling to ministry and that’s always been.
Now that there has been an arrest in the Trayvon Martin case, have things settled down in the Sanford area?
We are in the same county and I’m actively meeting with ministers from Sanford, being led by the African American ministers. We have another meeting scheduled for tomorrow night about how we can take our community toward, not just reconciliation and healing, but toward improvement because of what has happened here. We’ve had ongoing meetings together: prayer meetings and brainstorming meetings. We may have a community memorial service with the Martin family. I’m not sure. The publicity has somewhat died down now, but the ministers and spiritual leaders are much more conversant, active, and cooperative than we’ve ever been. So, I’m thinking God is really going to do something wonderful from this.
As a pastor who comes from a relatively humble upbringing, how do you keep being a spiritual adviser to the president of the United States in perspective?
I don’t know how this happens, but it’s really true: people are people to me. The president is a person. He’s great about this; he has a great sense of humor and he’s very personable, so it’s not like this is a lot of work. I realize that to the world, it’s a long way for a kid from Shelby, Ohio (where the largest buildings literally are the grain elevators for the farmers), but to me he’s a person and the job of a pastor is to help the person in front of him or her to get closer to God. And so, that’s exactly what I do.
I remember a time when I had had a conversation and a prayer with the president and within 24 hours I was back at my church talking to a AIDS-infected prostitute who wanted to get closer to the Lord. It struck me that my conversation with her resembled very closely the conversation I had had with the president less than 24 hours previous. To me, that was the ultimate. That’s what a pastor does. Each person has the same value in God’s eyes. I didn’t count one of those conversations more valuable than the other.
When your five-year-old granddaughter Ava passed away from glioblastoma in 2010, the president called you and prayed with you. How do you respond to criticism of his faith when you’ve been so personally engaged with him on a spiritual level?
The president called me when Ava was first diagnosed and then, of course, he called me when she passed away, so it was very tender and kind thing for him to do. I understand that people are ignorant, that is they lack knowledge about his faith walk. I realize there is some political agenda when people accuse him of not being a Christian. I’m not naïve about that, but the president and the candidate Barack Obama chose—even more after he was president—not to make his faith walk very public because he knew it would be politicized and that’s an area of his life he didn’t want politicized.
I always say that nature hates a vacuum and when you don’t have a lot of information, you will fill it in with your latest email. That’s exactly what happens. I know from personal experience and from many personal conversations that they’re wrong. I know his daily practice of reading Scripture. I write many of those devotions. Our prayer times in the Oval Office, over the phone, and on special occasions have been just as sweet and participatory as you can imagine. Of course, there’s always the defensiveness for a friend. I consider the president a friend and any time a friend is wrongly accused, you want to defend them. But, by the same token, I can’t really go much further, because this is the president and I don’t want to give a lot of information that is not directly related to his role and official duties. So, I have to be very careful about not saying too much.
You were on a press call defending President Obama’s faith around the time the Rev. Franklin Graham publicly questioned it. How do you address other Christian leaders who cast doubt on the president’s faith?
I can and do openly tell them about my personal relationship with the president and my personal knowledge of his spiritual life. Sometimes I say I wish most of the people in my congregation were as attentive to reading the Bible every day, praying every day, and trying to put their faith into practice as the president is. Some of them are really taken aback, because they just don’t have the knowledge. It’s not covered in the media by design. That’s fine. I’m very open about my personal knowledge of his walk.
AN OVAL OFFICE CHAT: Last February, Rev. Hunter shared a light moment with President Obama and Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Photo: Pete Souza/Newscom)
I heard the president debate Sen. John McCain at Saddleback Church in 2008. He seemed more articulate and comfortable talking about faith than McCain then and continues to sound more comfortable and articulate talking about faith than some other candidates now. Do you attribute doubts about his faith to politics or to his policy positions on issues like abortion?
It’s kind of all of the above. I think a lot of it is politically driven. I also think there’s some racism attached in this. I don’t play the race card, but I do think that because his father was from a different country (not faith, because his father wasn’t a man of faith) and with the hyper-sensitivity about Islam, there’s been an effort to paint this man as being very different because he does come from a unique background.
In that particular debate with McCain, he said something that didn’t quite come out right; he was a little too flip about it. When questioned about when life begins, he said, “That’s above my pay grade,” or something like that. Because he is such a respectful thinker in terms of religious questions, he won’t give the reflexive responses. When he didn’t say the axiom that “Life begins at conception,” he was hearkening back to something that is not particularly addressed in Scripture. If we don’t come from a particular faith tradition that says this is the dogma of my church and you simply look to Scripture, “Does life begin at conception?” is an open question. And so, part of this is because he is very careful not to give just the patently religious responses, or the religious platitudes. When people don’t get those, then they begin to say, “Maybe he’s not a Christian like others that have given us boiler-plate Christianity.” I would say to that: he doesn’t pretend to be a theologian, but he really does want to search the Scriptures authentically and personally, and it’s because he takes it so seriously and so personally that he won’t automatically give the response that everybody is looking for.
Is there a level of theological illiteracy on the part of the general public that contributes to this kind of misunderstanding?
Absolutely. In cultural Christianity in general there is, but specifically, the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity have shibboleths: “You have to say the right thing with the right accent or you’re not really one of us.” Part of the problem is not his level of sophistication, but ours, not his level of thinking, but our lack of more broad-based responsiveness to the depths of the theology of Scripture. When you don’t come with automatic or dogmatic sound-bite answers, that’s a good thing. That’s a sign of personal engagement. But because we would rather just have a category of correct belief and many people are satisfied with that, then we are the ones making ourselves upset. It’s not because he’s not answered adequately; it’s partially our discomfort at not having simple answers. That’s part of the unease with his particular faith walk.
The president comes down on the side of keeping abortion legal and you are pro-life. How do you, or anyone else, preserve relationships with other believers when there are such deep disagreements over these kinds of issue?
Abortion is probably the premiere issue where we see this. I am pro-life; therefore I think that’s a baby. I don’t happen to subscribe to “It’s a baby at conception,” because I don’t see that in Scripture, but I do believe that soon after that baby is implanted in a womb, it becomes a person. So I think abortion is homicide. Having said that, the way that I want to work with other Christians who don’t have the same theological presumption that I do about the personhood of a developing fetus is to keep my eyes on the goal. My goal is to have no abortions some day, ultimately because no woman decides to do that.
Other people say, “How can we reduce, by practical common sense, the number of abortions?” I’m on board. Every baby that can be saved, I think, is invaluable. And so, if I talk to somebody who is pro-choice and they say, “A lot of abortions come from feeling financial pressure or because people are afraid they won’t be able to complete their education, and if we could relieve that kind of pressure, they would carry their baby to term,” I’m all over that. I don’t have to have an all or nothing. That’s why the president and I, even though we would disagree probably on who should be able to get an abortion, we still can agree on the reduction of abortion as a very important goal together. That’s kind of how I walk that through.
In his excellent new book, Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.(Fortress Press), Vanderbilt University religion professor Lewis V. Baldwin examines an undervalued aspect of the civil rights movement’s effectiveness. With vivid stories and a scholar’s eye for the telling detail, Baldwin brings to the forefront the centrality of this vital spiritual discipline in both King’s public ministry and his personal devotion. Baldwin’s tome is a worthy and necessary addition to the annals of MLK scholarship. The following is an excerpt from the book. Prayer helped Martin Luther King Jr. to discover the activity of God not only in his own daily life and activities but also in the needs of humanity and in the challenges of the world. He saw the many movements for freedom in his time as outpourings of God’s spirit on the nation and the world, and prayer went hand in hand with his spirited call to resist systemic, social evil in all forms. This view of prayer’s connection to God’s work in the world, perhaps more than anything else, reflected King’s vital and distinctive blend of spirituality and social vision as well as his keen sense of the tremendous value and creative potential of prayer. It also explains why King made prayer central to the struggle for civil and human rights.
As far as King was concerned, he was involved in essentially “a spiritual movement” and not simply a struggle for equal rights, social justice, and peace; this invariably meant that prayer and praying, much like the spiritual discipline of nonviolence, had to be for him a daily activity and a total way of life. Otherwise, the quest to redeem and transform the moral and political spirit of the nation and of humanity as a whole would ultimately prove futile and perhaps even counterproductive.
King’s encounters with crisis after crisis in his protest against the personal and institutional racism of white America reinforced his conception of prayer as lived experience and as part of engaged spirituality developed in the midst of conflict and action. It is often said that the movement began with a song, but in King’s case it actually began with a prayer.
Visions and Victories
The date was December 5, 1955; the scene was King’s private study in his home at 309 South Jackson Street in Montgomery; and the challenge was a speech that he, as the newly-elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization formed to lead the bus boycott, had to hastily prepare for the very first mass meeting held at the Holt Street Baptist Church in connection with the bus boycott. Having only fifteen minutes to prepare what he called “the most decisive speech of my life,” King, “obsessed by” feelings of “inadequacy” and in “a state of anxiety,” turned to that “power whose matchless strength stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature.” King prayed for God’s guidance in delivering a speech that would be “militant enough” to arouse black people to “positive action” and “moderate enough” to keep their fervor “within controllable and Christian bounds.”
The speech, which called boycotters to courageous protest grounded in Christian love and democratic values, evoked more applause than any speech or sermon King had given up to that point, thus reinforcing his belief that God had the power to “transform” human weakness into a “glorious opportunity.” This experience confirmed King’s faith in what his ancestors had long declared about the sheer discipline, immense potential, and enduring power of prayer; and it highlighted his sense of the significance of prayer as lived theology.
As the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a leader in the bus boycott, King increasingly came to see that secret communication with God in his private study or “closet,” so to speak, was as important as praying publicly in his pulpit. Evidently, he had other private experiences during which prayer translated a paralyzing impotence into unshakable courage, frustrating uncertainty into incurable hope, and life’s hardships into amazing vitality and feelings of triumph. In January, 1956, as the fervor driving the Montgomery bus boycott reached fever pitch, King received a telephone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “nigger” and threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home.
Deeply disturbed and unable to sleep, King retreated to his kitchen for coffee, thinking that this could possibly provide some relief. Love for family and church, devotion to the struggle, and feelings of utter helplessness gripped him in that moment of deep restlessness, painful stillness, and desperate searching. Knowing that the theology he had studied in the corridors of academia could not help him and that he had nowhere else to turn, King had a face-to-face encounter with what he, in the tradition of his forebears, called “a Waymaker,” exposing his fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with sincerity and humility. Great comfort came as an “inner voice” spoke to King, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to “stand up” for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”
This serendipitous experience further convinced King that hardship, frustration, and bewilderment are often the points at which one meets God through solitude and prayer, a notion clearly substantiated by the black experience in religion. In that moment of quiet brooding, commonly referred to as “the vision in the kitchen,” King found new life in prayer, was reminded that prayer indeed mattered, and began to believe anew in how the sovereign work of the Almighty was being manifested in both his own life and in the bus protest. Moreover, the experience deepened his sense of what it meant to follow Jesus Christ as a passionate disciple, and he came to see that prayer would be a vital dimension of that which enabled him sufficiently to carry out his work. In a general sense, the experience in the kitchen further equipped King to speak from experience and thus authoritatively about the saving power of prayer. The spiritual growth wrought by that experience would become increasingly essential in sustaining King’s commitment to nonviolent struggle and in determining the nature of his responses to crises in his life.
Public Acts of Prayer
Considering the social, economic, and political dynamics at work in the 1950s, King was always willing and eager to assume the role of public prayer leader. In fact, he felt that praying publicly was central to his calling as a national leader and especially to his role as the voice of spiritual people imbued with a messianic sense of vocation and mission. He saw that public prayer, like the singing of the spirituals and anthems of the movement, was a powerful aspect of the spirituality that bonded his people in the face of oppression and that gave them the will and determination to survive, struggle, and be free, even against seemingly invincible odds. Again and again, King received practical lessons in the unifying power of public prayer from ordinary church folk who were forced to drift in and out of the disturbed world of white racists, who were the embodiments of lived faith, who had literally built churches and kept families and neighborhoods together by “talking to de Lawd” and making painful sacrifices.
King’s role as public prayer leader extended into his activities as both a pastor and civil rights leader. Much like the worship experience at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the board meetings of the MIA always included prayers, songs, scripture readings, and speeches, all of which reflected a nonviolent tone, and King, as the organization’s chairman, often gave the opening or closing prayer. At times, MIA board members such as Willie F. Alford, Ralph W. Hilson, G. Franklin Lewis, and B.D. Lambert, all clergymen, were asked to offer the invocation and prayer as part of the benediction. King constantly highlighted the need to remain in a prayerful mood and considering the challenges his people faced daily, and he insisted that MIA decisions regarding the boycott be carefully “thought about” and “prayed over” before being implemented through practical action
King himself occasionally became quite emotional while praying at mass meetings, especially after protesters were attacked and homes and churches bombed by white bigots. “Discouraged” and “revolted by the bombing,” and feeling “a personal sense of guilt” for all these problems, King was on one occasion close to tears as he asked the audience to join him in prayer. While “asking God’s guidance and direction,” King was caught in “the grip of an emotion” he “could not control” and actually “broke down in public.” His prayer built an exuberant sung finale, with the audience crying out and rejoicing. “So intense was the reaction” that King could not finish his prayer. With the help of fellow ministers, who put their arms around him, King was slowly lowered to his seat.
Here was an occasion when the traditional prayer meeting served to solidify a despised and abused people around a common faith, hope, purpose, and strategy for change. Though caught in the web of guilt and emotion, King did not stand alone, for the sense of being both suffering community and divinely ordained instrument for much-needed social change proved overwhelming for all who participated.
The emotive qualities of the black church, which often exploded into handclapping and joyous shouts, and which King had frowned on as a boy, took on a new and more personal dimension for the civil rights leader. Prayer rose to sermon, tears gave way to rejoicing, and King’s calm manner surrendered to an infectious frenzy. Hence, King’s connection to the ecstatic side of the black prayer tradition and to the African American worship experience as a whole became amazingly real. Clearly, scholars must take this and other of King’s experiences concerning public prayer in the civil rights crusade more seriously if they are to bring a true sense of the richness and power of the black church experience to the daunting work of King interpretation.