The Rare Word

In our life, we are constantly in conversation with something; whether we like it or not, we hear the voices of the world calling to us all the time; we see people talking on the phone while walking on the streets; some people leave their television on even when they take a nap; people watch their phones checking emails and text messages even at work places.

Yes, words are all over. We live in a flood of words.

We are tuned into the world and constantly in conversation with what is going on around us.

1 Samuel 3 describes the dramatic scene of Samuel’s call to ministry and it says that the word was rare and there were not many visions in those days. I am sure that there must have been a flood of words of all sorts in Samuel’s time just like today. But the word was rare; the word that cuts deep into people’s hearts; the word that gave people the ultimate hope.

As we as a nation are celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, I think of him as one of the most important persons who had the word for us; he had the vision for our nation and his vision is still making our eyes open.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

What can be better words than these that really help us to envision a world and work together for the ideals this country stands for?

Dr. King may not have been a genius or a supernatural person. According to his biography, he never experienced a dramatic call to ministry as Samuel did. He said, ‘I’m the son of a preacher . . . my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher, so I didn’t have much choice.’ His call to ministry was rather a gradual one; along the way of his life, he had sensed the inner urge calling him to ministry.

Richard Lischer writes that when he reached 18, his father made an arrangement for his trial sermon in his church. And in the sermon the 18 year old youngster ‘spoke almost nothing of Jesus;’ and ‘the very fancy words’ he spoke that evening were borrowed from Harry Emerson Fosdick. But God gave him this courage to preach the Gospel and passion for justice and he later became one of the best preachers in the world.

What impressed me the most in the movie Selma was this: when Dr. King led the second march two days after the Bloody Sunday, the police and state troopers were on the other side of the Edmund Pette Bridge waiting for them to cross over and the marchers were standing in a distance quietly. In that eerie-felt-moment of standoff, Dr. King came down on his knees on the bridge for a short prayer and he decided to take the marchers back to the church. And one of the reviewers on the movie said online, “The measure of King’s greatness came not when he pushed forward but when he retreated…” And I agree. And later that evening, people got upset and tried to throw a fit at him asking why he did not move forward. And this is what Dr. King said to them, “What I want is people getting to vote, not getting them killed.”

He did not lose his focus even in that difficult moment; and his focus was peace and justice through non-violence. And he continued to call and convince President Johnson to help. Eventually, Johnson decided to allow the peaceful march toward Montgomery and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 came along.

God used Dr. King to speak the word and showed the vision in the time when the word was rare and vision was dim. God gave Dr. King the wisdom and leadership skill in that critical moment of our nation’s history that we all need to follow his legacy even today to build a society in which all God’s people can live a life of full capacity. And his word and life legacy still speak loudly in our ears. And now, God calls you and me to listen to his word in our own unique way so that your life and my life can be the continuation of Dr. King’s vision and legacy.

Blog on SELMA Movie as an Elderly Black Man Sees It

This post is in response to Dean LeAnn Snow Flesher’s essay on SELMA.

Lyndon Baines Johnson called us Niggers to our face if we were white house employees. Read how Fannie Lou Hamer, a share cropper of the Mississippi Freedom Party, refused to allow him to disgrace her. GOOGLE THE STORY. See the movie The Butler. It is hard for even the liberals to see a strong free thinking black male like Dr. King say no to the president of the country, whom is a political deal maker of political expediency rather than an ethicist with a respect for intrinsic human values.  THE MORAL BANKRUPCTY OF GOVERNMENT epitomized in the a-morality of the FBI is true elephant blindness for those who are in denial of epistemological blindness of racism that legalized white supremacy using the white church and the oppressive white Jesus, and the anthropological arguments of white biological superiority taught in prestigious universities.

The refusal of the recognized scholars of academic privilege who control what is acceptable and unacceptable to avoid mentioning the rich uniqueness of the black church as a paradigm for community organizing. Neither the white missionary efforts nor the liberal white theological academy taught black people effective community organizing or radical theological reflection. These preachers were the children of black religion pioneers such as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many others whose names dis-appear on the syllabi of prestigious ATS professors. These unknown black spiritual predecessors of Selma forged a faith rooted in a fervent black worship tradition of preaching, praying, and singing that produced leadership in Selma, Memphis, and Montgomery.

Selma is only an eye opener for blind people touching a different part of the elephant by the narrow parameters of their social location by reminding them that humanity is a greater universalism than white exclusivism of manifest destiny and exceptionalism. When people like Pastor James Reeb were savagely bloodied, and beaten to death, followed by other white people of all faiths and good will, then and only after the shedding of precious white blood for black lives that mattered were the blind folds temporally lifted from the oligarchy: the power intoxicated and greedy, immoral power brokers who buy elections and reluctantly change public policy practice. I WRITE FROM THE RELATIVITY OF REFLECTION AND LIFE.

Dr. J Alfred Smith, Sr.
Pastor Emeritus, Allen Temple Baptist Church
Professor Emeritus, American Baptist Seminary of the West

SELMA as Interpreted by One Standing Behind the Elephant

I am not an expert on MLK or LBJ, but I do have some expertise in hermeneutics (i.e., the art of interpretation).  There are many who have called into question the accuracy of the depiction of LBJ in the recently released movie SELMA, claiming that the movie depicts him as far too negative and that people remember the conversations between MLK and LBJ being much more positive; and thus seeking to discredit the movie and its message.

Interpretation is a tricky thing.  Two or more of us might sit through the same meeting, conversation, etc. and each of us come away with a slightly different interpretation of the content, meaning, and significance.   It is entirely possible that both sides of the critiques about SELMA are authentic memories about conversations had, and that what we are experiencing in the blogs and reviews of the movie are the differing perspectives then and now.

My hermeneutics professor in seminary use to explain it this way:  suppose we have four blindfolded people standing around an elephant, then suppose we ask each of them to reach out their hand and explore the entity in front of them and describe what they are feeling.  While each of them is describing their experience of the same object, the elephant, we might imagine that the experience of the person in the front of the elephant will sound quite different from that of the persons on the side or in the back.  There will certainly be some similarities, e.g., the texture of the skin, but there will also be some significant differences.  The person in front will feel the trunk, the person in the back, the tail.  What a different experience each will describe.

It is no accident that I have picked an elephant for this imagery, because the elephant in the room related to our critique of SELMA is the atrocities that have been meted out to African American citizens throughout their tenure in the land we now call The USA.  In particular, the atrocities meted out during the march to the  Pettus bridge in SELMA Alabama; the violence meted out by state troopers in response to the initial very well organized, orderly, and non-violent march toward Montgomery .  To view the blatant brutality administered by the troopers against the unarmed ‘Negroes’ was very difficult for me to watch.

I was 7 years old in 1965 when the SELMA incidents took place.  I do not remember seeing any of this on television.  I suspect I did not see any of it because my parents were protecting me from the extreme violence as they were want to do.  As I watched the reenactment of the brutal beatings that took place over a march that was intended to raise the awareness that ‘Negroes’ were not allowed to vote in the South even though the law said they had every right to, I understood in a new way the anger and actions of my African American colleagues that I have served with for 20 years.

While the movie SELMA seems to present LBJ in a somewhat negative light, in the end he does the right thing and pushes through a bill, the 1965 Right to Vote Act, that would strike down voting restrictions in every location and at every level.  Were the early conversations between MLK and LBJ as negative as portrayed in the movie?  Some say no, and I believe that is their honest recollection of those conversations.  But, clearly others interpreted them as somewhat negative, or we would not have seen them portrayed as such.  From one group we are getting the description of the front of the elephant and from the other a description of the behind.  I don’t believe I need to explain that metaphor any further.

What is clear is that it took several months, several conversations, several marches, and several acts of brutality to move the nation to bring change.  At one point in the movie LBJ tells MLK “the Negroes need to wait.”  MLK responds by saying “we can’t wait.”  Seems that was the message heard over and over again.  James Cone, in his recent book entitled, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, noted a similar conversation with Niebuhr.

From the ‘Negro’ perspective they could not wait any longer, because although the law had been passed that all adults had the right to vote, maneuvers had been put in place to prevent the ‘Negro’ from being among them.  Meanwhile, all the police, judges, and the overall legal and governmental systems were being run completely by whites, who were not amiable toward the ‘Negro.’  How long would it have taken had MLK and the ‘Negro’ population agreed that they should wait?  Would they even have the right to vote today?

Throughout the movie LBJ kept shifting the focus from the ‘Negro’s’ right to vote to alternative agendas, and eventually to the ‘War on Poverty.’   The War on Poverty is an important initiative that LBJ created and one that we are trying to resurrect today; 50 years later.  However, MLK and the ‘Negro’ population were not to be detained.  Had they not stood up for themselves and demanded immediate action it might never have happened.

Let’s not minimize the fact that LBJ did the right thing in the end and went on to create many more positive initiatives, but let’s also not minimize the reality that the 1965 Right to Vote Act came upon the heels of the non-violent resistance movement led by King and many others.  Had King and everyone that participated in the marches not stood tall and firm the bill never would have been pushed through.  SELMA has provided us a glimpse into the events that took place in the South in 1965 from one perspective.  I believe it is an authentic and valid perspective from one who stood blindfolded in the back of the elephant.

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament
American Baptist Seminary of the West

Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith responds here.

Reflection on Sankofa Journey

Dr. Sangyil (Sam) Park
Associate Professor of Preaching and Director of DMin Program

As I am writing this article, a fierce debate is occurring among people in Selma, Alabama, and online, over the effort that the City Council of Selma is making to rebuild the monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a noted Confederate general in the American Civil War and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1860s. Advocates are adamant that a new bust of Forrest, their “hero,” be built on city owned land because a former bust had been stolen from the local museum earlier this year. Opponents want the construction stopped, arguing that the city known as the launching ground of the Civil Rights Movement should not dishonor itself by allowing the construction of the monument to the “brutal racist.”

As someone who has just come back from a contemplative trip to the South, I feel like the stories of painful racial segregation and conflicts that I heard throughout the journey are never a thing of the past but the current reality that still divide people in this country. I feel more frustrated than ever by this and wonder what we should do as the church about these ongoing racial and political divisions among us.

In early August, I joined a group of sixteen Christian sojourners, clergy and laity from across the nation, to take a 1700 mile bus trip from Chicago to the southern cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Memphis to experience the civil rights movement that changed the course of our nation’s history. Not to mention my age, but also as an immigrant to whom all the injustices of slavery and racial segregation before my time were never real, I had wanted to learn and feel what history was talking about with my own eyes and heart.

To name a few places we visited: the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four innocent black girls were killed during Sunday School by a bomb planted by a member of local KKK to stop a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham. We visited Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law organization in Montgomery, that provides legal assistance to condemned prisoners, especially juveniles who were sentenced to die in prison for the crimes they committed when they were thirteen or fourteen years of age. They said that in the United States, dozens of thirteen and fourteen year old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults.

We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where thousands marched to Montgomery, including Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. This march eventually led to the approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We visited a house in Jackson, Mississippi, where a local businessman named Jacob Burkle was believed to have used his house as a haven for slaves escaping to freedom on the underground railroad. We also went to Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now the National Civil Rights Museum, where Dr. King was assassinated while he was visiting to support the economic equality and social justice for garbage collectors.

I have gone on trips abroad to Europe and the Middle East to trace the footprints of those who have handed down the faith we have. But these three nights and four days in our own backyard, America, were more meaningful to me because everything we experienced and shared with one another was related to our lives and work here and now in our communities. It was a difficult journey not because we had to sleep two out of three nights on the bus while we were moving, but because some of the stories we heard from those places. While moving, we watched related videos, shared our feelings and thoughts, prayed, and laughed together. Being honest and vulnerable was a part of the covenant together. 
This trip was called Sankofa Journey and was organized by the Evangelical Covenant Church headquartered in Chicago. “Sankofa” in a West African language means “looking backward to move forward.” Throughout the trip, each of us were seated with a partner of a different race. My partner was BK, an African American pastor; BK and I shared stories of growing up, families, and pastoral experiences, as well as challenges and hopes in our lives. By the end of the journey, it was not just he and I who bonded, but all sixteen people who became an extended family.