MLK on what JFK’s slaying says about us

  Image The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. always reminded us that we’re not isolated individuals. Each of us belongs to a society that is shaped by our many individual and collective choices. If we respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence, we bring more of both into our world. When we accept injustice, we encourage it to flourish. He championed love as the way to bring equality, brotherhood and justice into our world.
   Here’s some of what he had to say shortly after John F. Kennedy was killed by a gunman’s bullet in 1963. Two months earlier, he‘d eulogized four young black girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., as they attended Sunday school.
   Five years later, he would be killed by a gunman’s bullet as well.

   “Our nation should do a great deal of soul-searching as a result of President Kennedy’s assassination. The shot that came from the fifth-story building cannot be easily dismissed as the isolated act of a madman. …
   “Our late president was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. It is a climate filled with the heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence.
   “It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder. …
   “So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation. By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the Vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is the one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.
   “So President Kennedy has something important to say to each of us in his death. He has something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of racism and the spoiled meat of hatred. He has something to say to every clergyman who observed racial evils and remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. …
   “He says to all of us that this virus of hate that has seeped into the veins of our nation, if unchecked, will lead inevitably to our moral and spiritual doom.”

   From “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” edited by Clayborne Carson




Sharing the crayons

Image  A few years ago, I was in a family restaurant that provides bowls of crayons and drawings for children to color while they wait for their food. Across the aisle was a couple with two young boys. While the parents looked at their menus and decided what to order, the boys went to work on their pictures.

The younger boy took a crayon and used it on his picture, then put it back in the bowl and swapped it for a different color.

The older one went about it differently. When he was done with a crayon, he would set it beside him. Soon, he had built up a stash of crayons, some of which his brother needed for his own drawing. The younger brother complained, and the mother intervened.

“You have to share,” she told the older son.

The boy shielded the crayons with his arm and said loudly, “No! These are MY crayons!”

Is there a parent who hasn’t had to remind their children that they’re not the only ones who matter? That everything doesn’t belong to you? That just because you have something in your hands it doesn’t make its yours?

“They’re NOT your crayons,” the mother said sharply. “They’re meant for you to share with your brother.”

That moment has stuck with me as a modern-day parable about owning and sharing. I thought about it the other day when I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a minivan that said: “Don’t Share My Wealth, Share My Work Ethic!”

There’s a suggestion that we earn and deserve everything we have. Like the older brother in the restaurant, those who have a longer reach or put more effort into hoarding the crayons think they are entitled to their stash. The younger brother is simply out of luck — and crayons. And it’s his own fault. He should have worked harder at grabbing the crayons. He really needs to learn how to hoard. And show more initiative.

We all need to be reminded: They’re not our crayons. They were given to us to share.

All that we have is freely given to us — life, love, our world, our very existence. None of it is earned. Each breath is a divine gift, each heartbeat a moment of grace, each day another opportunity provided by One who shares without limits and wants us to do the same.

We’re invited and challenged to share not only all that we have, but all that we are. To share not only our stuff, but ourselves.

In one of the most challenging gospel stories, a rich man who has spent his life building up a stash of things asks what God would like him to do. Jesus says that he should share everything he has accumulated with those who are in need. Sadly, the rich man can’t bring himself to do it. He refuses to share — not his things, not himself.

Those crayons? He’s convinced they all belong to him. He walks away indignantly.

And he’s wrong. They’re not our crayons. They’re God’s crayons. We have to share them with everyone.

Have you healed anyone today?

 Image  While I was visiting friends this summer, one of their young children started running in the driveway. He was wearing a superhero shirt and trying to run at super speed, but his legs couldn’t go that fast. Down he went, skinning his knee. He was shocked and hurt and immediately started bawling.
   You already know what happened next.
   His mom hurried over, scooped him up in her arms and hugged him. She patted his back and comforted him. Once he had stopped crying, she took him inside, cleaned up the knee, covered it with a superhero bandage and got him a frozen treat. Soon, he was running around the driveway some more.
   Yep. Mom had that healing touch.
   But don’t we all?
   In his book “God & Empire,” John Dominic Crossan makes an important distinction between curing and healing. Our diseases go beyond our immune systems, affecting us in many ways and on many levels — our feelings, our outlook, our spirits. Often when our disease is cured, there is still a lot of emotional healing left to do.
   I think his point is that we can help people heal, even if we can’t cure the source of their pain. And that’s important. We can’t make the bleeding knee as good as new with a bandage and a frozen treat, but we can heal the painful feelings that go with it.
   And it goes beyond skinned knees. So many people suffer from so many things that have nothing to do with germs — rejection, loneliness, poverty, discrimination, various types of abuse. They have deep and long-lasting hurts.
   They need healing, too.
   Do you know people who seem to have that healing touch? The ones that use compassion and humor and empathy to help us get us through the bumps and bruises of each day? When our lives get upended, they’re able to help us regain our bearings. They help us heal, again and again.
   We all have healing powers.
   People in various religious traditions have been described as healers. Some of the stories about Jesus tell how he tried to heal not only the sick but those who were rejected and ignored. And he told his followers that they had to be healers, too. Try to heal each other’s hurts. Try to heal the various sicknesses in our societies.
   And let ourselves heal, too. Healing is collaborative. When we touch someone who is hurting, we also end up healed a little bit more.
   Life is about healing. And about being healers.
   Did you see the photos recently of Pope Francis embracing the man with the tumors? The man has a painful genetic disorder that results in tumors on his face and the rest of his body. Can you imagine what it must be like for him to deal with not only the pain from the tumors but the pain from the way some people react to his appearance?
   How did Francis react to him? He smiled, pulled him close, embraced him and kissed him. He recognized him as a beautiful person.
   He gave him love. And a moment of healing.


A Thanksgiving parable

   A businessman decided he could make more money by keeping his store open on Thanksgiving. He required all of his employees to leave their families and work all day, whether they wanted to or not.
   One employee worked her full shift, then put the day’s receipts into a bag and drove it to the boss’ mansion, as her boss had instructed. A housekeeper met her at the door.
   “The boss is relaxing in his study and doesn‘t want to be bothered,” the housekeeper said. “He told me to take the bag from you and give you this as a way of saying thanks.” The servant took a $20 bill from the bulging bag and gave it to her.
   She got in her car and headed home for a late Thanksgiving dinner with her family. When she saw a homeless man along the way, she invited him to join her family for dinner. Her family provided him with a meal and friendship and told him he was welcome to join them anytime. The woman took the $20 that her boss had given her and gave it to the homeless man. She got another $20 out of her purse and gave that to him, too.
   Which of them acted in the spirit of God?



A band of brothers … and sisters

 Image  Some years ago, I had the chance to talk with a few World War II veterans. They told stories of how they made it through the war, mixing in humor about military life with the grimness of what they had experienced. Occasionally, they’d choke up at the thought of losing a friend.
   What I remember most is their sense of getting through it together. Even though they served in different units in different places, they recognized that they were all in it together.
   They felt like a band of brothers.
   Their stories recalled how they were alive because of luck — the bullet happened to barely miss them and hit someone else — and because so many others had courageously looked out for them. They cared for each other, covered for each other, encouraged each other, protected each other as best they could. They got through it together.
   They had each other’s backs.
   And that realization didn’t end when the war did. Many of them brought that sense of brotherhood home with them. The boss didn’t see himself as any better than the workers — he had endured the same as them and was alive because of them. They would regularly get together at the VFW post and retell their stories of helping each other through those difficult times.
   Now, this isn’t meant to glamorize war, which is always an ultimate human failure, the horrific result of people failing to get along. And this isn’t meant to romanticize the times, either. Many people were excluded from that band of brotherhood. Racism and segregation during and after the war excluded many from equal treatment in society. Women weren’t fully allowed either. Others were kept outside the band as well.
   But a sense of togetherness is important, even if it’s imperfect and needs to be expanded. And it’s something that we’ve lost to a significant degree, isn’t it?
   Instead of protecting each other’s backs nowadays, we’re encouraged to climb over each other’s backs in order to get ahead. Or to stab one another in the back, if that’s what it takes — it‘s just business, after all. Everyone is on their own — you watch out for your own back, I’m looking out for mine.
   Our sense of connectedness and interdependence has unraveled.
   We don’t recognize the countless people in the world who have brought us to this moment and sustain us in it. We overlook the love and courage and dedication of the many who healed us when we were sick, reached out to us when we were in trouble, protected us when we were vulnerable, reassured us when we were worried, comforted us when we were grieving, inspired us when we were struggling. We forget the many sacrifices that so many have made for each of us. We stop looking out for one another as a society.
   We forget that we’re all in this together, a band of brothers and sisters that extends beyond national boundaries and includes everyone in God’s family. And that we need to have each other’s backs at all times.



Look: Someone’s stealing!

   Baseball has an interesting way to describe something that happens during one-sided games. If the team trailing by a lot of runs gets a runner on base in the final inning, the team that’s ahead will make no attempt to prevent him from stealing the next base. The runner jogs down to second base unchallenged.
   Now, the runner doesn’t get credit for a stolen base. That wouldn’t be right — he got to the next base because of someone else’s inaction. He advanced because of others’ indifference. He was able to steal and move on because nobody cared enough to try to stop him.
   And that’s how the play is officially scored — indifference. No stolen base. No credit for anything.
   Indifference means we let something happen because we don’t consider it important. On a baseball field, indifference isn’t that big of a deal. Everywhere else, it is.
   Indifference is one of the deciding factors in our world. Indifference is a co-conspirator with the evil in our world — domination, discrimination, cruelty, greed, poverty, violence, war, injustice, hatred. Those things flourish to the extent that we step back and allow them.
   Sometimes we’re afraid to get involved. Maybe we just don’t care. Often we excuse ourselves from taking a stand by deciding that what’s going on around us is someone else’s problem. Or we pretend that things aren’t so bad and we don’t need to do anything.
   And we choose indifference.
   Our indifference creates an environment that allows small numbers of people to do horrendous things to large numbers of people. It allows those who revel in hatred and violence and selfishness to have their way.
   Even when it’s clear that something is wrong, we find excuses to stay out of it: The powerful deserve to do whatever they want. Nobody’s really taking advantage of anybody else. If anyone is being abused, it’s their own fault. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s wrong, but let someone else deal with it. That’s just the way things are. I’ve got my own life to worry about. Everyone should have the freedom to do whatever they want.
   Our indifference creates an environment that allows abuse and injustice to flourish. Our indifference sustains an environment that ensures that abuse and injustice will happen again and again.
   Our great prophets in various religions have railed against indifference, demanding that people start to pay attention and work for change.
   Jesus demanded that we get involved when we see someone who is hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, imprisoned, sick, marginalized, forgotten, wounded, rejected. Don’t be like the two people who saw someone bleeding by the side of the road and reacted with indifference; be the one who stops and helps. The cost to being a follower: Give up your indifference. The same holds true in our other religions, too.
   Each day, we’re challenged to choose between maintaining our indifference or getting involved. Like it or not, we have to decide whether we will enlist ourselves as the silent partners of those who bring so many awful things into the world.
   Do we enable them and encourage them with our silence and our inaction? Or do we oppose them?



Your life … in 300 words or less

   One of the latest trends in our high-tech society is to use fewer words. There’s anecdotal evidence that people on mobile devices read the first 300 words of an article, then lose interest. Some have taken that as a directive to write shorter. Anything worth discussing should be confined to 300 words or less.
   Perhaps it’s not surprising. We live in a culture addicted to short exchanges. Capture a complicated moment in 140 characters or fewer. No deep or nuanced discussion permitted. But there is at least one positive to the trend: It forces us to concentrate and really think about what we have to say.
   Suppose you had to sum up the values that guide your life (and we all have them) in no more than 300 words. What would you say?
   Here’s my first draft:

   We’re God’s family. And we need to act like it.
   Each of us is a beloved child, accepted just as we are. Loved more than we could possibly comprehend. And nobody is loved any more or any less than anyone else. My grandmother would say: Don’t be all high-and-mighty. Never think that anyone is any more important or less important than anyone else.
   Never forget that we’re responsible for each other. We’re family. It’s our job to take care of one another. If someone needs something, be there for them and help them in whatever way you can. Again, don’t be all high-and-mighty and decide they’re not worth the trouble. And don’t let yourself off easy by saying you don’t know how to help. You have a brain — use it.
   And share. Sharing is very important. Did you ever sit around the dinner table and see a child fill their plate with their favorite food? Didn’t mom or dad tell them to put some back because the food doesn’t belong to them, it’s for everyone? Make sure everyone has something on their plate.
   And stop fighting. Stop creating conflict in the family. The other person isn’t your enemy, they’re your brother and your sister. So stop it! Keep your hands to yourself. Be good to one another. Find a way to get along. Love one another, as you are loved. Forgive each other. Be compassionate in how you think about others.
   Don’t ever convince yourself that you’re more favored by your Parent than anyone else in the family. You might be tempted to think that way, and you’d be wrong.
   And never, ever forget that you are loved far more than you can ever imagine. So is everyone else in this family. Love them accordingly.

   That’s 299 words, which leaves the last word up to you. If you could summarize the values that you have chosen to guide your life, what would you say?