Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

In Lieu of Flowers . . . Revisited

Originally published on February 15, I reworked this post for the Austin-American Statesman. It ran on October 29. Here it is in its entirety.

 

A message arrived from my hometown. My parents informed me that the mother of one of my high school classmates had passed away. I don’t remember having known the deceased, and I had lost touch with my classmate from our Chicago-area high school of thirty-five plus years ago. My folks shared this news with me because of the jarring request at the end of the deceased’s obituary: In lieu of flowers, please don’t vote for Hillary Clinton.

How’s that for a new twist on the obit pages? A quick search on the Web reveals that, in obits across the country during this political cycle, numerous negative requests concerning both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump reach out to voters from the grave. Who knew the disdain for these two candidates extends even to the great beyond?

Negative requests like these are a sign of the times, skewed hyper-partisan. Before this era of hyper-partisanship, a rare obit might have kindly solicited a request for a positive vote for a particular candidate. In lieu of flowers, be so kind to consider a vote for candidate X in memory of the deceased. Even so, previous to this current era, such a request would have betrayed a slight breach of etiquette.

The current wave of hyper-partisanship traces back to the early 1990s when the Republicans gained majority status in the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Their strategy wasn’t new, but it was certainly effective: Destroy the institution to save it—throw the majority bums out. The Democrats, not to be outdone, adopted the same strategy. House Republicans and Democrats have been feuding ever since. What happened to the good old days when President Reagan (Republican) and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (Democrat) understood that they were adversaries (not enemies) before 6:00 p.m. and colleagues after that appointed time? Reagan famously gave a seventieth birthday party for O’Neill at the White House in 1982. Both partisans were of Irish descent; they understood they shared common humanity.  

The political modus operandi of the day – hyper-partisanship – tramples over the Reagan-O’Neill understanding from a generation ago. This political spirit has spilled over, unfortunately, into American society as acceptable social behavior. Economic segregation in America has increased; and, in some quarters, the demonization of others who are “different” is on the rise. It makes me wonder: Could the spirit of American hyper-partisanship be strong enough to survive into the great beyond, colonizing a few cloistered places for hyper-partisans? God only knows if there will be gated communities in the afterlife . . . 

vernon%20johns-2

Prince Edward County, Virginia

Vernon Johns was Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama—the church that proudly stands one block away from the Alabama State Capitol. Johns, provocative and creative, was a firebrand for equality.

One weekday morning in 1949, Brother Johns, as was his custom, arranged the letters on the front sidewalk sign announcing his coming Sunday sermon topic for passersby. What a shock to the good people of Montgomery, abiding by the laws of racial separation, to see the preacher’s sermon title spelled out: Segregation after Death. The Montgomery police chief noticed the sign and demanded that Johns come to the police station to explain himself. Luke 16:19–31, Jesus’s parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man Dives, provided Johns with his textual basis. Johns explained to the chief and his lieutenants that Dives, a staunch practitioner of segregation (economic and otherwise) during his earthly life, was cursed by it in the afterlife. The reversal of fortune—Dives suffering in Hades, and Lazarus being comforted by Father Abraham in Paradise—was not enough for Dives to see that he shared common humanity with Lazarus. The chief and his men, according to Johns’s retelling of the encounter, empathized with the black preacher. He was not required to alter or take down the sign with his bold sermon title.

Johns’ brilliant interpretation of Jesus’s parable for Montgomery’s specific context focused Luke’s message not on the afterlife, but on how human brothers and sisters, sharing common humanity, treat one another in this life. Perhaps there is a time and place for hyper-partisan strategy, but may its utilization be rare and not commonplace.

That said, brothers and sisters: Vote your conscience, love your neighbor, and begin to shed any negative hyper-partisanship that unnecessarily discolors your relationships with others in the human family. You can’t take it with you when you go, you know.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016 – next week, as a matter of fact. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Octubre de 2016 – la semana que viene!

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In Lieu of Flowers . . .

inlieuofflowersI recently received a text message from my mom informing me that the mother of one of my high school classmates had passed away. My mom still lives in the locale where I went to high school back in the last quarter of the former century; I most recently lived there twenty-five years ago. As we texted back and forth, my mom further informed me that the deceased woman’s obituary had an interesting closing request: In lieu of flowers, please don’t vote for Hillary Clinton.

How’s that for a new twist on the obit pages? A quick search on the world-wide wonder reveals that, in obits across the country during this political cycle, numerous similar requests reach out to voters from the great beyond, or, at least, from the grave. And in an accurate reflection of unfavorable rating polls, Donald Trump and Ms. Clinton lead the way with negative mentions on the bereavement pages.

hilldonald

Negative requests are a sign of the times, skewed hyper-partisan. Before this era of hyper-partisanship, a rare obit might have kindly solicited a request for a positive vote for a particular candidate. In lieu of flowers, be so kind to consider a vote for candidate X in memory of the deceased. Even so, previous to this current era, such a request would have betrayed a slight breach of etiquette.

Newt Gingrich can be praised or blamed – depending on your point of view – for the current wave of hyper-partisanship. Elected Minority Whip of the House of Representatives in 1989, Gingrich became Speaker of the House as Republicans swept into power in 1994. Named Time‘s Man of the Year in 1995, Gingrich was lionized for his strategy to take the House after forty years of Democratic rule. Gingrich’s strategy wasn’t new, but it was effective: destroy the institution to save it – throw the majority bums out. Under his leadership, House Republicans refused to cooperate with Democrats and publicly portrayed them as the party most benefitting from entrenched corruption. The strategy worked so well, in fact, that the Democrats adopted it and succeeded in bringing ethics violations against Speaker Gingrich in 1998, eventually forcing his resignation from office the following year.

Hyper-partisanship is yet the political modus operandi of the day, and it has spilled over into American society as acceptable behavior. Economic segregation in America has increased; and, in some quarters, the demonization of others who are “different” is on the rise. It makes me wonder: Could the spirit of American hyper-partisanship be strong enough to survive into the great beyond, colonizing a few cloistered places for hyper-partisans? God only knows if there will be gated communities in the afterlife . . .

vernonjohns

Pastor Vernon Johns (1892-1965)

Vernon Johns was Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama – the church that proudly stands one block away from the Alabama State Capitol. Johns, provocative and creative, was a firebrand for equality.

One weekday morning in 1949, Brother Johns, as was his custom, arranged the letters on the front sidewalk sign announcing his coming Sunday sermon topic for passersby. What a shock to the good people of Montgomery, abiding by the laws of racial separation, to see the preacher’s sermon title spelled out: Segregation after Death. The Montgomery police chief noticed the sign and demanded that Johns come to the police station to explain himself. Luke 16:19-31 – Jesus’ parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man Dives – provided Johns with his textual basis. Johns explained to the chief and his lieutenants that Dives, a staunch practitioner of segregation (economic and otherwise) during his earthly life, was cursed by it in the afterlife. The reversal of fortune – Dives suffering in Hades, and Lazarus being comforted by Father Abraham in Paradise – was not enough for Dives to see that he shared common humanity with Lazarus. The chief and his men, according to Johns’ retelling of the encounter, were moved with empathy. He was not required to alter or take down the sign with his bold sermon title.

Johns’ brilliant interpretation of Jesus’ parable for Montgomery’s specific context focused Luke’s message not on the afterlife, but on how human brothers and sisters, sharing common humanity, treat one another in this life.

That said, brothers and sisters: Vote your conscience, love your neighbor, and begin to shed any negative hyper-partisanship* that unnecessarily discolors your relationships with others in the human family. You can’t take it with you when you go, you know.

 

*I suppose there is an occasional time and place for hyper-partisan strategy. But may it be rare, and not commonplace.

If you’re interested in further reading on the life of Vernon Johns, see Taylor Branch’s incomparable Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963; Simon & Schuster (1989) pages 7-25.

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

 

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

 

 

 

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Meeting Taylor Branch

Whenever I buy a book* – new or used – I immediately write my name and the purchase month on the inside cover. I bought Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 when we were living in Houston; I was starting out as a young pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran. I don’t remember exactly how in 1992 I came across Taylor Branch’s exhaustive tome of more than 1,000 pages detailing the crux of the civil rights era. ptwPerhaps I had heard it won the Pulitzer Prize for History, or maybe my ministry colleague Gene Fogt, a bona fide bibliophile, suggested I read it. The book was yet relatively fresh, published in 1988. We were living in Peru in the late ’80s, my seminary internship dictating how I spent the majority of my hours. Seven degrees south of the equator in Chiclayo, Peru, el bendito castellano occupied most of my free brain space, but I was able to do some “catch up” reading on the side – The Brothers Karamozov and Les Miserables, among others. I had always liked to read, but during my adolescent and early adult years, basketball and golf always took precedence over reading. I played some basketball in Peru for a city team, but didn’t touch a golf club for two years. I started to do a lot of reading on internship, and I continued to read extensively as we made it back to the States.

Once I started reading Parting the Waters, my focus did not waver. During the summer of ’92 all my free time dissipated into ardent observation of Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Septima Clark, John Lewis, Robert Moses, and the many other characters that forged the transformative movement. I was mesmerized; the reading filled me in on a part of my life that I had somehow missed. Born in the last week of 1961, growing up in the mostly white northwest suburbs of Chicago – yes, I missed it. When MLK was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, I was all of six years of age. I don’t remember my parents saying anything to me about it. I certainly don’t blame them.

Parting the Waters, its Exodus imagery trumpeted, is unequivocally one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not only did it provide crucial historical tb sigdetails of the 20th century’s most formative events, it further shaped my understanding of ministry and vocation. People of faith, working together, can influence and even change society in accordance with a sense of what is understood to be God’s justice and love. The shackles can be broken – imagine that. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long and it does bend toward justice.

Taylor Branch had more to tell; a second book was titled Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. I remember waiting and waiting for it to come out. Not until 1998, ten years after the first, did the second volume of the promised trilogy see the light of day. I purchased Pillar immediately upon its release, but didn’t read it until 2001. It was as if I had waited too long for dinner and my hunger had passed. There was other stuff I was reading, our three kids commanded plenty of attention, and I was once again playing an occasional round of golf. Once I started to read Pillar, I remember feeling that Branch was like a juggler trying to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously. There were so many details and threads of the story in the years ’63-’65: Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Malcom X, J. Edgar Hoover, the Klan, King’s Nobel Prize, Selma – just to mention a few. A very busy narrative, its primary focus no longer locked onto King. Pillar was good, but it couldn’t match Parting the Waters. No book ever has.

At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68, found Branch back on stride. Published in 2006, the final volume of the trilogy recaptured its focus on King with gripping narrative and historical detail, especially as it highlighted the crucial work of the backbone organizations of the civil rights movement – CORE, SNCC, and King’s own SCLC. I read Canaan in the spring of 2007; as with Parting the Waters, I could hardly put it down.

Another ritual to my book reading habit is to record the date that I finish reading a book on the inside back cover. It was with joy and regret that I wrote 5/18/07 alongside my initials when I finished reading Canaan. Joy for the story told and its teaching message; regret that there was no more to read.

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tb and tcI met Taylor Branch in April 2015 after a lecture he gave at the University of Texas. The topic of the lecture covered his 2011 piece in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports.” The Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism speaker rearticulated his conviction that students who play sports at major universities (such as the University of Texas) need to be compensated financially. According to Branch, it’s a power issue. At the big-time colleges, administrators and coaches are paid extravagantly, which helps perpetuate a hierarchy where students are essentially powerless. I recommend reading the article if you haven’t – it’s conveniently hyperlinked above.

Branch provided good information for those of us interested in book reading, writing, and publishing. Writing was not his vocational goal after graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1968, but, nonetheless, he started working as a staff journalist for magazine publishers (Esquire and Harper’s) to pay the bills. Before long, he fancied himself a god-honest writer. He wanted to write books. He did some ghostwriting – for Watergate convict John Dean and basketball legend Bill Russell – but labored under the impression that real writers are novelists. In 1981 he produced his novel The Empire Blues. He said, in full self-deprecation mode, that “it sold all of 500 copies.”

He then procured a contract to produce a history of the civil rights movement and its era. The procurement wasn’t easy, and the contract was only for three years. Consequently, Branch did some other writing projects to keep himself and his family fed. Six years of research and writing finally came to fruition when Parting the Waters received stellar reviews and won Branch the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for History. Eighteen more years of research and writing would be required for Branch to finish out the landmark trilogy.

My three aforementioned kids are now adults. In the process of their college educations, I came up with the idea to present them some books, crucially important to me, that I hope would help shape their understanding of the world. Each of them receives the three same books, and then one or two books additionally as befits their particular personality and interests. Parting the Waters is the first book on the list that each of them receives; Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything complete the top three list.

I enjoyed visiting with Taylor Branch after the lecture. He was kind enough to inscribe my original copy of Parting the Waters and to receive a copy of my own Just a Little Bit More, posing for a picture to boot. American in the King Years is one set of many books that have influenced my thinking and inspired me to write JaLBM. Branch is a talented historian and journalist, but he’s gifted as a theologian as well. “King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years” (from the preface of Parting the Waters).

 

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase JaLBM from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

 

*I do own a Kindle and enjoy reading ebooks; Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was the first ebook I read on my Kindle. I thought I’d start with something light and short. Ahem. Read my review here.

A sidelight: I also met Frank Deford at the same event, the legendary journalist of Sports Illustrated and NPR fame. The University of Texas holds his archival writings, and presents the Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism annually. I told him I always try to catch his NPR Morning Edition commentary on Wednesdays, which he has been doing since 1980. He has two and a half minutes by which to get his message across. I told him those pieces are like mini-sermons; he thought about that and said, “You’re right.” Keep preaching, Frank!

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