Martin Luther King’s America Redefined: Race, Religion, Rights, the Rule of Law, and Radical Inconsistencies

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, I want to share some reflections on America.

America.  I’ve written a few reflections on America and also on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

I am still feeling hopeful. I need to say that at the beginning of this post.

I still believe we can and must bring joy to the world.

Even in spite of  January 6.

Yet I want to share some reflections on the past 12 days.

On January 6, Joe Biden, President to be, said: “Let me be very clear. The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are. …As I said, America’s about honor, decency, respect, tolerance. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been.”

I beg to differ and challenge the statement “that the scenes of chaos do not reflect a true America.” In fact, the scenes of chaos, for me, define America.  A chaotic country of radical inconsistencies.  I would submit that the President to be put forth an aspiration for America.  That is, that the “true” America would be about honor, decency, respect, tolerance. That’s who we want to be.  That’s who we have never been.

I agree, in part, as Joe Biden said, that “The work of the moment and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy, of decency, honor, respect, the rule of law. Just plain simple decency.  The renewal of a politics that’s about solving problems, looking out for one another, not stoking the flames of hate and chaos.”

I agree that we must move away from hate and chaos. But, I must respectfully disagree about the “rule of law.”  We need to actually challenge what we mean by the “rule of law,” because the law in the United States has been inherently unjust. But yes, we must move towards the common good, plain decency, respect, and goodwill.  To do that, we must start from a place of truth. To get to the big goal of serving humanity, we must acknowledge what many have ignored.

America, in fact, has been and is, a country defined by race, religion, rights, the rule of law, and radical inconsistencies. America’s shame and embarrassment, as well as its racism and White supremacy structure, have facilitated the ability of White Americans and the dominant White culture to manage and control the narrative about the role and implications of race in America.

One remarkable legacy of America is her inability and refusal to discuss race, Whiteness, and Blackness, and the impact of not just skin color but the socially constructed categories, stereotypes, expectations, and limitations imposed because of race.  This refusal and silencing has been embedded into our culture.  Race and Whiteness is rarely discussed in White homes. Race is rarely discussed in White schools.  Public schools, subject to the jurisdiction of local school boards, have almost sanctioned the silence around and about race in elementary, middle, and high school.  Even most colleges do not talk about race. Race is rarely discussed in White churches.

Race, however, is almost always discussed in Black homes; in Black schools; in Black churches; in Black universities.  Why?  Because race is an inevitable reality for Black people that must be negotiated, managed, and navigated, in order to survive. 

I want to suggest that there is a cost to not talking about race, to not talking about Blackness and Whiteness.  On January 6, that cost could have been our democracy on a national level. The attempted coup on American democracy was about Whiteness, in part, but also about rights, religion, and the rule of law.  In the silence around race, Blackness, and Whiteness, and America’s history, the siege on democracy – largely composed of White men, could happen unchecked.

Our reluctance and inability to talk about race, socialized from our upbringing means that many issues related to race, racial justice, racial inequity, racial inequality are never addressed.  It also means that intersecting issues of class, politics, and economic marginalization are also not addressed.

The history of race in America is a sordid conflicting history in which the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence called for and extolled liberty and humanity for some, while legitimizing and legislating the inhumanity of others. 

The history of race in America reflects a country in which ideologies about race resulted in the decimation of Native Americans;  enslavement and subjugation of African Americans; the marginalization of Chinese Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans; the marginalization of Mexican-American; and the dehumanization of Puerto Ricans. Those of us who study race in America are those who seek it out like hide and seek. We seek it out and  learn about all the ways in which laws created Whiteness, as the language moved away from country of origin, and White became an umbrella concept for Italians, Polish, and other Europeans.

And to enforce Whiteness and the White supremacy that accompanied Whiteness and to legitimize its power and authority and dominance in the early American society with large populations of Native Americans and enslaved Africans in Virginia and Maryland, the “rule of law,” was created and implemented.   That’s why it is so complicated for those of us who are scholars of the law to hear people talk about the “rule of law.”  The “rule of law” is not the neutral concept that it appears on the surface.  It is a metaphor for the operation of injustice under the guise of justice; of illegality under the guise of legality. 

Martin Luther King spoke about this in his letter to White clergy from the Birmingham jail.

He writes:

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

King’s letter demonstrates the radical inconsistencies in American culture.  His letter also sheds light on the more insidious nature of America and its integration of racism into religion and American culture. Race has been connected to religion from the inception in America.

Although the original motto of the United States was “E pluribus unum” – Latin for “Out of many, one” – appearing on the Great Seal and approved by an Act of Congress in 1782, the official motto was changed in 1956 to “In God We Trust.” Though opponents argue that the phrase amounts to a governmental endorsement of religion and thus violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, federal courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the national motto. 

This “trust” in God and this calling on “God to bless America” (as politicians always seem to do like almost all politicans do) has always raised my eyebrows.  Was/Is America the only country that God should bless?  And why should God bless America, especially when America has used religion, God, and Christianity to defend inhumanity, cruelty, and oppression against fellow human beings?

Christianity, in particular, in America, and the way that it has been proselytized within America and across the world through “evangelism” has been used to justify, legitimize an odd set of values that are completely antithetical to the spirit of Christ.

Opposing abortion, while sanctioning the killing of Black men and women; the decimation and theft of Native lands;  the removal of Native children from their parents and their homes; the mass incarceration and dehumanization of over 4 million individuals; the use of the death penalty; the languishing of unwanted children in foster homes; and the hunger and poverty of millions of citizens.   And, we are a “Christian” nation?  We just don’t want “unborn” children to be “killed,” but are ok with “born” children being killed?  Some “Conservatives Christians” seemed to have developed an ideology that embraces an odd self-righteousness, as if they never had premarital sex, thought about loving the same gender or had family members who did; or thought about or had an abortion or had family members who did.

I have often asked myself where is the Love? Show me the Love. The core of the Christian faith should be this concept of Love.  Love.  Love even your enemy.

1 John 4:20: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

The bedrock of Christianity is love.  But it isn’t an easy love.  It is love, regardless, unconditional.

It is not Christianity that I am criticizing.  I am challenging the way the Christian faith has been used as a weapon to dehumanize others and advance Whiteness and White superiority.  Christian faith is promulgated and prostelytized through churches, yet even Martin Luther King, Jr., challenged the “contemporary church.” In that same letter from the Birmingham Jail, he wrote:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world.

 I myself wondered on long walks this summer  why I saw no black lives matter signs in front of any churches, and why many churches, even Black churches, seemed strangely invisible, even in the midst of the tremendous spiritual needs of humanity, in the midst of the health pandemic and the civil rights pandemic.

Although the God blessing of America and God we Trust do not explicitly implicate Christianity, America has been extraordinarily intolerant of other religions – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, despite the “right” to freedom of religion.

This issues of “rights” and “freedoms,” extends past religion.  Rights. Freedom.  In some way, this mindset was part of the ideology underscoring the attempt coup on January 6, ironically the day of Epiphany in the Christian faith, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12).

This sense of rights.  The Bill of Rights.  While necessary to define America in opposition to the “rule of law” of England, it has gained an ideology all its own.  It is in essence a hegemonic ideology of rights.  A way of thinking that elevates individual interest above the common good; the public good; the goodwill. 

When I think about the South; the mindset of those who “settled” the West; I also think about the response to the pandemic in particular states.  We have  a “right” to not wear masks.  We have a “right” to have bars open, during the pandemic. And on the 6th, we have a “right” to trespass, engage in violence, for what we believe is right.  Of course, when Black people were engaging in civil protests for the brutal murders of Black people, the criticism was harsh, and the arrests were public for those who “rioted.” Yet, I saw no public arrests on the 6th, even after protesters remained in violation of the curfew.

A recent quote from the Nation magazine called out the differential treatment based on race for this exercise of “rights.”

“The double standard is not surprising, but it is instructive. Our society is permissive of white rage. That rage is constantly coddled, explained, massaged, and justified. We are forever told that white anger must be understood, white grievance must be explained, and white racism must be studied because if we just dig down deep enough, we’ll find that it’s actually motivated by some other, more benign factor. In contrast, Black anger is arrested. Black rage is executed. Black grievance is dismissed. It’s not that Black people don’t have cause to storm the Capitol and demand redress for injustices committed against us—it’s that a Black person, with or without a weapon, wouldn’t get two steps inside Statuary Hall without being gunned down by police.”

 And, though it remains unclear what the “rioters” were protesting, some alleged that it was supposedly validity of the election . An almost illegitimate reason, especially given that so many states have enacted the most restrictive requirements for voting that have ever existed.  And, in addition to extraordinary strict laws, there were multiple recounts and judicial rulings (the rule of the law). 

But, this ideology of rights and individualism has been interpreted by many Whites to be a right to do what they want.  A right to all power and to the enforcement of that power through gun ownership and a vocabulary of “protection.”  The extension of the ‘right to bear arms” to the right to own guns has facilitated an ideology of violence in America.  Not In God we Trust, but “In Guns We trust.”  Many so-called Christians, who should be putting on the armor of God in Ephesians for protection, have put on their holsters.  From who are they needing protecting? From  black people?  From people of color minding their business, from watching birds, from walking down the street, from playing in their own yards? The right to bear arms facilitates the murder of Trayvon Martin, whose mother I am interviewing next week.

And the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

Not only is this violence against people of color, it is against one another – often White people. And thus, America, has the largest number of mass shootings in the world. 

By the end of 2019, there were 417 mass shootings in the U.S., according to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which tracks every mass shooting in the country. Thirty-one of those shootings were mass murders. And almost half of those shootings were school shootings.

We do not acknowledge the violence in our society: the violence that assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, among others. The violence at the Congressional Baseball Game in 2018; the January 8, 2011 shooting of  U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and 18 others; and what could have been the massacre of hundreds the seat of government of the United States.   Not by Black Lives Protests, but by White Lives Protest. 

As Yolanda Renee King said: Enough is Enough.  This should be a gun free world.

So, guns are ok, a Second Amendment right.  It is ok to carry a gun which could kill a life  but it is not ok to allow a woman to choose to abort an unborn life but ok for one person to take another person’s life.  We often fail to interrogate issues of life or pro-life beliefs.  It isn’t as that most individuals are ok with aborting a life, I believe most are not. But rarely does the conversation deepen to issues of birth control, the use of birth control, the access to birth control, the role of rape, the burden on women to carry the child, and the economic circumstances under which many children exist.

For example, no one talks about the foster care system.

More than 250,000 children are placed into the foster care system in the United States every year, and every year almost 23,000 kids “age” out of the system – turn 18.  No one talks about these “unwanted” children that no one adopts.  The reality that most of these children will not have gainful employment; will be homeless; will not earn a college degree, that the girls will become pregnant before they turn 21; and have often been abused by their parents.,by%20the%20age%20of%2024.

I’m not saying that these children shouldn’t be born.  I am challenging the standing on inflexible “Christian” beliefs and “conservative” Christianity that facilitates a radical inconsistency in ideologies and actions. I have not heard or seen very many churches/mega churches, condeming the coup. Why is that?

So, I believe we have to challenge statements that “this is not America.”  No, No, it is America. We have to acknowledge that this is America.  An America of blue and red; an America of rich and poor.

In fact, I believe that the coup was also connected to an economic reality, which is also silent in our national dialogue. But, US billionaires have seen huge gains during the coronavirus pandemic, with their collective wealth now topping $4 trillion.

According to a new report by Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), America’s billionaires saw their net worths jump by 36% from March 18 to December 7. And the 10 richest billionaires are now collectively worth over $1 trillion.

Of course, the nation’s net worth isn’t evenly distributed. As of 2018, the Fed found, four out of 10 Americans couldn’t cover a $400 emergency expense without borrowing.

During the coronavirus pandemic, almost half of lower-income adults have had trouble paying their bills, according to the Pew Research Center. About a third say they’ve had trouble making rent or mortgage payments. On the whole, lower-income adults who were laid off were less likely to be working again than higher-income peers.

“We’re about to enter into a winter of pain, with millions of households facing eviction, foreclosure, and loss of wealth. Ultimately, this imbalance of wealth puts at risk the health of the economy and society — with further declines in middle and working class spending power.”

In America, wealth, gender, and skin color have resulted in complex societal relationships, that have granted rights and opportunities to some, and in the process have created barriers and limits for others.  As we are witnessing this month, America has always been a contested land with embedded hierarchies and inequalities. 

Yet, within our words lies the power for transformation change. Great leaders, like Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer, used their words to challenge the moral conscience of America, and to motivate and move stagnant, scared, terrified Black and White Americans to engage in non-violent protest.  Non violent protest….not the violent protest we witnessed last week.  It is the same courage, fearlessness that led men and woman and children during the Civil Rights Movement to march without weapons, facing dogs, and guns, and water hoses, to demonstrate their humanity, and to demand the rights associated with being Americans.  The courage was generated largely by the power of Martin Luther King’s words and voice and charismatic leadership.  We must not underestimate the power of voice and leadership, especially if we recognize that leadership is the ability to persuade others to actions with words.

The importance of words – of using our own voice — cannot be underestimated.  Each of us has a voice.  The choice is ours – for the voice is ours.  We get the choice of when we use it and how we use it.

The President to be, Joe Biden, ended his January 6 remarks with a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s message to Congress in 1862.  He only partially referenced those closing remarks, but the full remarks, in the context of slavery, are relevant today, as is the reality that the Civil War, then, as potentially now, would involve Americans against Americans. 

December 1, 1862: Closing Paragraph in Message to Congress

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We – even we here – hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just.  If followed, the world will forever applaud, and God, God, must forever bless.  Only then, can we expect God to bless America. Yet, we must believe, We Shall Overcome if we Keep the Dream Alive, as I share in the Menah’s Matinee, Episode 6:

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