On Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kingdom

Grief has been trickling east along I-70 for months now. It started as a flood back in August, out from underneath the body of a dead boy in the streets of Ferguson, and it’s been flowing ever since. First a flood, then a river, now a trickle, seeping into the soggy winter Indiana soil.

Maybe it would be easier to bear if there weren’t similar streams creeping along every highway. They come from the west where we honeymooned in St. Louis and from the east where I ran on a whim one summer to stretch my legs among the Old Rich in Pennsylvania; up north from my university in Chicago and down south from my father’s father’s land in rural Alabama. They swirl around the Circle City like a drain and pour into a reservoir somewhere in me until I feel like I’m drowning.

My sister Sarah and I are having a girls’ day out. We’ve just been to the salon and are now camped happily in the corner booth of our favorite Mexican restaurant drinking margaritas and contemplating the lunch specials. We order way too much food, then talk about religion and racism – typical lunch conversation fodder these days.

“I was afraid to go to church after Michael Brown was killed,” I confessed. “I was afraid that everyone would act like nothing important had happened.” Sometimes, for me, being around church people is like being in a nightmare where I know something is horribly wrong, and I’m screaming, trying to get someone’s attention, but everyone just keeps smiling like idiots.

“It’s probably good I stayed away. I wasn’t there, but Kinsey texted me that Pastor Steve said there’s no such thing as race – that God doesn’t see it – which is bullshit. I think Pastor Steve has the best intentions, but the only reason he gets to say that is because he’s a white man, and he never has to see race.

“If God didn’t see race or gender or class, logically Jesus would have hung out with an even sampling of his local population. But I was reading this blog post about how Jesus obviously saw cultural disadvantages because he deliberately sought out women, the diseased, foreigners, the poor, the social outcast. He healed them and then made the religious authorities hear about it through the nobodies. If the privileged didn’t make contact with the disadvantaged, they didn’t know what God was doing.”

I wondered a lot, after reading that post by Christena Cleveland, how much of God I couldn’t see because I was rich, white, straight, cisgendered and able-bodied and had, largely, stayed in a little privileged bubble most of my life.

“I think that’s why we see miracles in poor third world countries and not here,” Sarah said. (Sarah talks less than me, but says more. I am pretty sure I annoy her most of the time.)

I put down my taco and my mouth hangs open for a minute. “Oh my god…I never thought about that.” I had a lot of theories about why people were casting out demons and raising the dead everywhere-but-here, but Sarah’s theory made the most sense.

It’s not that I think God hates rich, white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied people. I just think he wants us to live in community, so he makes those of us who have it easy seek out those who have it hard.

Well educated black women are discussing the history of the Civil Rights Movement after the events in the film Selma take place. We are in the bathroom outside the theater, and the movie has just ended. They’ve cheered and clapped and uh-huh’d the characters triumphs and failures. I don’t look at them. I’m busy blowing my nose after trying not to cry through the last hour and a half.

(I failed.)

When protesters in Selma voluntarily got down on their knees and put their hands behind their head in front of the courthouse, I saw the Ferguson protesters: hands up, don’t shoot.

When Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper, I saw Michael Brown die. And then I heard his mother wailing.

But those respectable white people – the ones on the sidelines too weak to pick a side or even comprehend what they’re witness too? They were me.

I cannot meet these women’s eyes.

Long before Martin Luther King Jr. informed me on racial issues, he was my teacher on the Kingdom of God. This photograph changed me.

I grew up with guns in the house. We have guns (and use them responsibly) because people who want to hurt us have guns, and they can only understand violence. We keep guns because even if they were made illegal, the people who do illegal things anyways would illegally purchase them and then have the advantage. We are gun owners because we want to protect our families, our most precious assets; because we will not see our children be hurt when we could have stopped it by pulling a trigger. People who refuse to see this live in a world completely removed from reality.

All of these things are true. And maybe, when I have a family of my own, I will buy and responsibly use a gun. But for now, I can’t.

I live in two worlds – and one is completely removed from reality. The first world is the earth, where people hurt people for no reason and the general inclination of population is evil. This is reality right now as I know it. The second world is the Kingdom of God, where hate and violence have no place because Christ conquered all on the cross. This is a sort of “not yet” reality – or maybe it exists outside of time. I don’t know.

This photograph is about a man who lived in earth reality, but chose to dwell in the Kingdom. People hated him and what he stood for so much they frequently threatened to kill his innocent children. If anyone had reason to keep a gun on him at all times and employ an army of bodyguards, it was Dr. King. But here he is, calmly removing a cross someone had burned in his yard. His son is standing next to him.

I thought, How much more did MLK accomplish for his son through non-violence than he could have with an army?

How justified that violence would have been. How justified after hundreds of years of murder and rape and slavery. How justified in the face of deadly political and cultural oppression. How justified in the defense of that little boy. But he chose the Kingdom, and then he died for it.

I woke up the next day, after fighting Brian for years about the necessity of a firearm in the house, with the realization: I can no longer fire a gun with a clear conscience.

“Maybe we deserve to burn.” My dad says this darkly offhand, in the way you announce to the stranger behind you in line for coffee that you hear a snowstorm is coming. Remnants of this southern accent draw out the word burn.

We are in downtown Indy eating with family at a new restaurant. Ferguson is on fire.

We’ve been talking about grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson and the riots that are currently tearing the town apart. My Aunt Patricia spent most of her teaching career in downtown Birmingham, Alabama (a.k.a. in the shit). She’s a “grace and forgiveness” sort of person – like Dr. King – and she’s seen how her students have been eaten up by the violence and hopelessness in their community. She’s horrified by Ferguson’s reaction.

Dad believes in justice in his gut. He revels in it. When he got to the end of Django, he skipped back an hour on the DVD so he could see all the bad guys die again. And now, even though he’s not always agreed with me when we talk about racism, his gut reaction to Ferguson’s violence in return for systemic violence is that it’s justified.

They go back and forth across the table over pasta, burgers, and beer. I can’t tell which side I’m on. Intellectually and spiritually, I know that King’s legacy of non-violence is still the only way we can reconcile. But emotionally, in my gut, I was deeply satisfied when Michael Brown’s stepfather stood outside the courthouse and said, “Burn this motherfucker down.”

Every time I talk about race and racism in America, I feel stupid.

Every. Single. Time.

Stupid because I’m white and privileged (and who the hell asked for my help?), stupid because I don’t know how to fix any of it (so why bring it up), stupid because I’m the villain in this story (so why am I telling it), and stupid because it’s supposed to be fixed. That’s what they taught me in school, and that’s what a lot of the white folks I know believe, even if they won’t admit it.

But when I don’t talk about it – don’t confront my ignorance, pretend to take a “social media fast” just so my heart can’t be broken over colored people’s stories – then I feel evil. So these days I’m trying to get used to feeling stupid.


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