Choose your dream

Lorraine Motel

A section of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis recalls the lunch counter protests. An old video shows young black people sitting at a counter, being denied service.

A crowd of white people has formed to watch. Young white men begin pushing the protesters. One flings a bottle of sugar on them. Others drag protesters off their stools and begin beating them.

Some white people in the crowd laugh and cheer. Others just watch – it’s difficult to make out their expressions from the grainy images. You can’t tell if they’re horrified or supportive.

In any case, none of them intervenes.

As I watched the video, I wondered: If my white face was in that crowd, how would I have reacted? Would I have intervened? Or would I have just watched and felt bad for the protesters?

Honestly, I probably would have just watched. I would have been too intimidated to speak up in a crowd. And that’s both my problem and my challenge.

I don’t have to play “what-if” and wonder what I might have done then; the challenge is how I react today.

Which dream am I living?

The National Civil Rights Museum is part of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life for his dream 50 years ago tomorrow. The many videos and displays remind us that people were forced to choose sides in the civil rights struggle.

Some chose to push back against injustice. Others tried to protect the status quo. Many thought they could just be spectators, watching without getting involved.

That’s not possible, then or now.

King was deeply disappointed with the many white moderates who refused to choose. His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white clergy who wanted him to abandon the march for justice.

King notes that some white moderates agreed with the dream but weren’t willing to embrace it or sacrifice for it. He considered them the “great stumbling block” in to the quest for equality – more than even the overt racists.

The dream is participatory. By refusing to get involved, they were siding with the KKK and the other racists who wanted to block the dream from becoming more real.

King spoke so often and so eloquently about his dream, which is based upon Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Like Jesus, he worked to make the world more of a place where the needy are cared for, the suffering are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God in all respects.

It’s never been a widely popular dream.

Merely watching isn’t an option

Many people dream of a world where people like them enjoy privilege. Those who are different from them — different color, different religion, different nationality, different sex, different sexual preference – are relegated to second-class status. They work hard to preserve a system that favors the rich and the powerful and the privileged.

Each of us must choose which of the dreams will animate our lives. This is no time for standing back and watching.

Moderation isn’t an option.

MLK’s dream endures, but it becomes rooted in our world only to the extent that we are willing to work for it and sacrifice for it – to carry a cross for it.

We’re the ones entrusted with making sure that people are considered not by the color of their skin or any other superficial measure, but by their character and heart.

We’re the ones who are given the sacred work of making sure our divine diversity is respected and encouraged.

We’re the ones who must build a table where all God’s children can sit together and eat in a spirit of mutual acceptance and love.

We’re the ones

Our society has come a long way since King’s assassination on the hotel balcony. There’s much work to be done. Those who have a different dream are out there right now advocating for it – white supremacists speaking up, the KKK and neo-Nazis marching boldly, leaders lauding them as very fine people.

What do we say? Which dream do we choose? How will we sacrifice for it?

Merely watching isn’t an acceptable option.

We need more builders

building

What happens when you build something with a young child? You stack the blocks as high as you can, and they can’t wait to swipe their little hand and knock it down. And then you start the process again.

We seem to have an affinity for building and destroying. And as we outgrow childhood, we tend to go in one direction or the other. We become more of a builder, or we turn into more of a destroyer at heart.

Some of us make our lives’ work about building things – families, neighborhoods, faith communities, nations, relationships, systems that promote justice. Others put a lot of their energy into tearing down people and tearing apart whatever doesn’t suit them.

We become a builder or a destroyer

It seems we’re at a moment in time when the destroyers have louder voices in our world. They’ve taken to their podiums, pulpits and bullhorns to spread division, mistrust, fear and anger – the main tools for destruction from within.

They’re not trying to improve anything. They’re marauders who create chaos that gives them the cover to plunder. They want to knock everything down and rule over the rubble. They get their thrills from toppling what others have built, but have no interest in building something of their own.

One of the destroyers’ biggest cheerleaders is Steve Bannon. He’s been outspoken about his intention to unleash destruction. As he put it during an interview with The Daily Beast in 2013, he wants “to bring everything crashing down.” He’s even trying to topple his own political party and the White House he helped assemble.

It’s conflict, chaos and destruction 24/7, and a lot of people are cheering the damage. That’s what destroyers do – they attack nonstop. They’re temperamentally incapable of anything else.

Destroyers lack the patience, persistence and open-mindedness that’s required to build anything of value. Their egos leave no room for the compromise that is required to create. They have no interest in doing the hard work required to improve upon what exists.

We’ve seen this so clearly in the health care debate. Many people want to level the health care system. They have no interest in doing the challenging work of studying many alternatives, building a consensus over time, and enacting a plan that would benefit the most people.

Instead, they throw out half-formed ideas and try to get something – anything – passed into law as quickly as they can so that they are free to move on and wipe away something else. They ignore warnings that the way they’re going about it will hurt a lot of people.

That’s not how you build a stable society.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a builder. He sacrificed for his dream of a nation that lives up to its founding ideal and treats everyone as created equal. He rejected calls for violence and hatred. He helped to build a coalition that overcame racial, political, social, religious and ideological differences and moved society forward.

That’s what builders do.

An assassin thought he could destroy the dream with a bullet, but he was mistaken. Builders continue bending the moral arc and improving the world a little more each day, even as destroyers seek to topple the gains and make everyone start from scratch.

That’s what builders do

MLK drew inspiration from a rabbi who also was known for building. Jesus worked to build the kingdom of God, a place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. Religious and political leaders thought they could destroy him and his kingdom, bury them in a tomb and be done with them. They were wrong.

The building goes on. And each of us needs to be part of the never-ending construction project.

The only requirements: commitment and persistence. And love, a lot of love. Every word, every interaction with another person must build up with love.

Builders also need resolve that they’ll avoid getting sucked into the acrimony that destroy people and movements from within. We can’t play into the marauders’ hands. It’s difficult to resist getting pulled into their drama, but we must.

The destroyers have found their voices and their followers. It feels like our society is tottering. We need more of those other voices now to stabilize us. We’ve been through times like this in our history, and we know how it works. We can always build and rebuild.

We need more builders. Someone like you.

No, thank YOU for the lessons in love

Rainbow

In the past year since the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, many of my gay friends have thanked me for being a straight ally. At first, I didn’t know quite how to respond.

I’d say something along the lines of: “You’re welcome, of course! You matter to me. You’re so worth it. I’m just glad I could help in some way.” Somehow, though, that answer seemed inadequate.

Or I might have followed up with: “It’s just sad that it took so long and involved so much pain to get to this point. I’m sorry for that.” Which is better, but still lacking. Something more needed to be said.

One day, it occurred to me. I needed to say more than just “you’re welcome.” I also needed to say something back to them:

Thank you.

First, thank you for inviting me to be your friend. Thank you for the love and encouragement you’ve given me over the years. It means far more than you know.

Thank you for showing me what it means to love someone when there’s a great cost involved. When simply holding someone’s hand in public could have enormous repercussions, and you do it anyway. Thank you for that courageous example.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s important to be myself and to celebrate who I am, even when I’m not exactly sure who I am. Especially when some others would like me to be something that I’m not.

Thank you for showing me what it means to live in a way that’s true to yourself.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live courageously and to love courageously. And to recognize God at work in all of it.

Thank you for showing me how to keep trying, even when justice seems so absent and distant. Especially when justice is absent and distant.

Thank you for giving me an example of what it means to be graceful in the face of hatred and discrimination. I will never forget that.

Thank you for showing me what it means to respond to hatred with love, time and time again. Orlando is just the latest example.

And thank you for being a visible reminder that love wins. Always does. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.

Thank you.