Are you satisfied?

My good friend, the Rev. Dominique Atchison, wrote an excellent post today on how Dr. King’s words and deeds have been “white-washed” in the progressive church lately. That is to say, his specifically racial critiques have been largely set aside in favor of more general social justice critiques, such as his anti-war stance and his work on behalf of the impoverished. Rev. Dominique sees, and I do as well, a way in which the apparent desire to make Dr. King’s words continue to speak here and now, ostensibly by elevating his non-racial positions, makes the assumption that his racial positions are largely outdated and no longer relevant for our consideration today.

As if by taking the “WHITE’S ONLY” signs off the pool house and the White House, we have truly ushered in a new era of racial unity and justice.

Sorry – that’s just not how it works. In her article, Rev. Dominique references some “other” words from King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, ones you certainly won’t hear political conservatives appeal to in their efforts to twist Dr. King into an opponent of affirmative action. Check it:

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

And here, to my seeing, lies part of the problem: SOME of the things on this list are, in fact, over with. These days, we (mostly) don’t have segregated motels and hotels. And signs that proclaim “For Whites Only” – (at least overtly) – have been taken down. So it can be tempting to declare, as President Bush did, talking about Iraq in 2003, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!” – as if it weren’t 2012 and we didn’t still have racial justice issues (or, for that matter, Iraq issues).

We’ve made some progress on the overt stuff, sure. And that should definitely be lifted up and celebrated. But what about the rest of King’s list?

  • Is police brutality against black and brown people over?
  • Are high percentages of black and brown people still living in ghettos, small and large?
  • Are people of color well-represented in public leadership roles?
  • And more basically – can any of us honestly say that we live in a time when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”?

I don’t think we’re done yet. As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King today or any day, let’s please be honest about the fullness of his dream – that it was explicitly racial, because he lived in – and we still live in – a state of explicitly racial inequality. Let us give thanks for the great prophets of yesterday, as well as those today (you know who you are!), but let us critically examine their prophetic visions on an ongoing basis, lest we fall into self-deception about progress that actually has not yet been attained. As for the question, “When will [I] be satisfied”, today I will honor Dr. King by joining in his dissatisfaction, until justice, like water, finally rolls on down.

Learning to Exhale: Breathing as an Act of Surrender

(Cross-posted at The Inward and Outward Journey.)

Confession: When it comes to Sabbath practices, I am so bad at this!

This was most recently evidenced by the fact that, for the umpteenth time, I stayed up too late last night.

It wasn’t the first time this year, or even this week. It was just the latest iteration of what for me has become an undesirable and frequent pattern: I get stressed out by day, then stay up late worrying by night. This, of course, becomes a vicious cycle: I’m stressed, so I stay up late, so I get less sleep, so I’m tired the next day, so I’m less efficient, so I feel more overwhelmed, which stresses me out, so I stay up late…

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now that the coffee has kicked in and I’ve had a little time to reflect, here’s part of what I think is going on for me: refusal to exhale.

Our scripture this week is very timely:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)

On page 5 of Wayne Muller’s amazing A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, Wayne notes that in the original Hebrew, the word for this rest can be read as “And God exhaled.” And Wayne goes on to pose the question: When do we exhale?

When I’m stressed out, when I feel like I’m holding a lot of stuff, I feel physically tight. The muscles in my neck and shoulders become tense. I feel emotionally tight as well. My mind races from one thing to another, as if I’d drop all the things if I spent too much time thinking about any one of them. And I feel spiritually tight – it’s hard work trying to maintain all this control, you know? Who has time for spiritual renewal when I’ve got so many things to worry about?? I hardly have time to breathe!

…And that’s what I mean by refusal to exhale: physically, emotionally, and spiritually refusing to breathe…

or open

or widen

or relinquish

or release.

I gain something out of refusing to exhale: the illusion that I ultimately have control over all these things I’m worrying about. But the utterly terrifying – and liberating – truth is, I actually don’t have control over the things that give me the most stress. And so for me, stress management isn’t about somehow seizing more control, but rather the opposite: letting go of my desire to control those things. In spiritual language, this is the discipline of surrender.

A curious thing happens when we breathe deeply: our bodies relax. Our heart rates slow down. Our thoughts become clearer. We become more attentive to the things around us. We gain the ability to sustain our focus on one thing at a time. Viewed in this light, breathing itself is an embodied act of surrender: Inhale: allow the oxygen into my body, and hold it there… Exhale: …then surrender it back out.

In the coming days, as we explore the practices of physical, emotional, and spiritual Sabbath together, let’s please be sure to take time to breathe… and relax… and let go of that which we cannot control. Let’s try to do this not only in our designated “Sabbath times,” but when the stress is at its highest points. I’ll keep you posted about how that works out on my end…

Breathe with me?