One hundred thousand people, with one hundred thousand faces, progressed as one in Monday’s MLK Day March. The multitudinous mass was diversified in color, age, gender, religion, physical ability, and sexual preference. But no matter the difference, those marching in unison demonstrated their ability to come together in a peaceful manner.
Yet of all the signs, placards, and banners to be seen the most poignant piece of communication was found upon a t-shirt written:
“Do you understand The Dream?”
This question stuck with me as we encountered the sights and sounds along the three-mile route to Pittman-Sullivan Park on San Antonio’s Eastside.
Some spectators signified their solidarity through handing out food or celebrating with music along the route. Choosing not to participate in the march, others seemed to stand in opposition by protesting their own particular issues.
Among these independent groups was found the San Antonio Family Association, who could be seen by all promoting traditional marriage near the Interstate 10 overpass. Aside from the fact that their sign said “Man + Woman = Marriage,” I was struck by their manner as much as their message. Both are not unfamiliar to myself, however on this day of days, I couldn’t help but ask the question, “do you understand the dream?”
I was also perplexed by the presence of several private corporations who were participating in the march, whose business practices seemed to run counter to the message of Dr. King. Lenders like Citigroup (who have been in the news for their associations with Enron, excessive CEO bonuses from TARP monies, and predatory lending practices towards low-income and minority consumers in the subprime market) were seen holding double sided posters advertising their bank on one side and celebrating King on the other. When I remarked about the capitalization and co-opting taking place around us, a friend replied, “this is America, man. People will always find ways to make a profit.”
During a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” given at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, Dr. King said:
“We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
The struggle for civil rights continues in this country. Even though we have twice elected an African-American to the Presidency, the dream has yet to be realized. While we celebrate our advancements we must also peacefully protest our lack of progress as a community.
As long as Texas remains the state with the highest percentage of immigrant detainees housed in privately operated “for profit” detention centers, we have not realized the dream. As long as African-Americans make only $66 for every $100 made by whites and Hispanics are three times as likely to live in poverty than their white neighbors, we have not understood the dream. As long as women make less then men, doing the same jobs, and as long as discrimination against homosexuals continues–as long as our communities are comfortable with racially segregated schooling–we have not understood the dream. Unfortunately the list of injustices goes on.
The 1960’s were a tumultuous time of change. Whether for good or for bad, the “counter culture” movement seemed to embody anyone or anything antithetical to the status quo of the time. Sometimes such phrasing was used by outsiders to dismiss those advocating for civil rights, and other times it was embraced by insiders who sought out change. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that Americans could not rely upon the dominant society to make the moral choices necessary for our own progress.
The paradox of maintaining the belief that we are the “greatest country in the world” because of our freedoms while also denying the freedoms of minorities through oppressive structures is sometimes referred to as the “tyranny of the majority” or as the “American dilemma.” Others just call it hypocrisy.
White Christian culture continues to maintain its privilege in the status quo, and like MLK’s time, we seem to be unable to carry the moral authority to make the changes necessary for ethical progress. Yes, I say “we” because I too am a white-Christian-straight-male, but allow me to speak some truth. History shows that the dominant group often imposes its cultural norms and values upon everyone else. This is not done through mutual community, but most often done over and against minorities. Instead of embracing lived out community with those who are different, we have embraced setting them apart from us by what we call “normal.”
Although we often lack awareness of our own privilege, we have historically justified the oppression of others. It was our culture that justified slavery, racism and segregation in the name of God. Our churches remained silent during the devastating horrors of lynching in post Civil War America. We have participated in the segregation of schools and have taken part in the “white flight” from public education. It is our culture that justifies paying men more than women, and it is we who continue to deny homosexuals the same basic rights as straight individuals.
History condemns the majority of our actions against the “least of these,” but there is still hope.
What remains to be seen is whether we, as people of faith, can admit our moral failings and instead embrace our brothers and sisters as Christ did. But before we attempt to speak truth to the “triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” that King spoke of, as Christians we need to acknowledge that these same powers were involved in the lynching of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was born into a scandalized family. Joseph initially wanted to divorce the pregnant Mary because he wanted to spare her from “public disgrace.” (Matthew 1:16- 20) As a son of a single mother, Joseph adopted Jesus. Fleeing from violent militarism (Matt. 2:16), Jesus and his family immigrated to Egypt as political refugees before returning home.
Jesus was not considered a citizen by the government of his time, and was a laborer. Unlike ancient elites who were distinguished from their counterparts by being named for the polis and oikos that they belonged to, Jesus was a peasant living in a backwater village, in an obscure Roman province.
Any one who understands the Biblical concept of Jubilee understands that Jesus often spoke out against the economic injustices of his day. After Jesus drove the moneylenders from out of the Temple, the powers of materialism began to plot out his murder. (Matt. 17:24-25; 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18)
And Jesus was oppressed by the majority of his day as well. He was ridiculed as a friend to sinners and other social pariahs of his day. He was mocked for being an insignificant peasant from Galilee, ridiculed for loving and sharing table fellowship with prostitutes and tax-collectors, and was violently murdered because he threatened the establishment.
So the question remains: will people of faith choose to love and be agents of reconciliation in the Beloved Community, or will we choose to be a part of the power structures which conquer and divide? The choice is up to us.
Tyler Tully is a Senior Theology Major at Our Lady of the Lake University. Graduating in the Spring of 2013 and pursuing graduate studies in Theology, Tully is interested in Christian ethics and writes frequently on faith in everyday life. He is active in promoting the Irish culture in San Antonio and was named as one of the Irish Echo Magazine’s “40 Under 40” in 2013.
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