Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hope in what Cannot Be Seen

"In hope we are saved. Now if we hope for what we see, that is not hope. But if hope for what we do not see, we wait for it patiently. And in this way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness..."

I've been reading this week the third volume in Taylor Branch's series, America in the King Years. This volume begins in 1965 with the events surrounding the civil rights march from Selma to Brimingham. The characters are larger than life. MLK, LBJ, Hoover, Wallace. But the supporting players are just as amazing to me. James Bevell, John Lewis, John Doar, Bill Moyers, James Katzenbach. It's simply a stunning story.

The first attempt to march out of Selma occurred on my 5th birthday. It was an ugly scene as local law enforcement used tear gas and night sticks on pacifist marchers. I know that this sounds kind of silly, but the fact that this started on my birthday made it somehow more impacting. I've though a lot about how my life has intersected with history, or more accurately, how my life has just gone on while momentous things were happening around me. What would it be life to be a part of something so courageous and ... righteous.

I've been struck by many things in the story. The pictures of LBJ are stunning to me. He was a mercurial figure, shackled by depression and self-doubt, but full of political smarts and rare courage at times. His legacy in Viet Nam is certainly tragic, but his resolve with regard to civil rights is awe inspiring in places. I'm particularly struck by the power of his speeches. LBJ said it before he believed it. He talked himself into brave places through his public rhetoric. Bill Moyers and others deserve a lot of credit here. They gave him language larger than his legislative agenda or the politically possible.

Which leads me to my second observation. The civil rights leaders, like King, believed in things they could not see. They were constantly conflicted internally. They stumbled into successful strategies and failed in many of their endeavors. The only thing they clung to, for the most part, was their commitment to non-violence. And this was a spiritual commitment for most of them. It's easy to criticize religion for its historical abuses. It's one of the biggest obstacles to belief for me in many ways. But this is one of those places where there should be some credit.

King's concrete pictures of the future were not the result of strategic planning. There was no historical inevitability here, i.e. one event leading inexorably toward another. King's belief in the long of arc of justice was due more to the prophetic pictures of God's in-breaking future. James Bevell, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and other leaders kept hope alive, amazingly, with direct and unembarrassed appeals to Scripture. And while there were many Southern religious leaders who actively opposed the movement, the Southerners that did cross race lines were Christian. And the marchers from the Northern cities were overwhelmingly clergy. Seminary students, theology faculty, rabbis, priests and nuns marched with King and risked their lives. In fact, national support for the marchers coalesced around the beating death of a Northern clergy, James Reeb, by the KKK.

These men were not exceptional in many ways. They had feet of clay--petty jealousies, glory seeking, womanizing. There was plenty that could be seen that spoke of failure. But hope is always about what cannot be seen.

I've been influenced in many ways by Michael Welker's work on the Holy Spirit. His work is exhaustive with regard to the biblical witness. And overwhelmingly the work of the Spirit in Scripture, according to Welker, creates a new public, overcomes human disorientation, breaks down barriers despite the failing of human actors. The Spirit in Scripture is less a source of inner, personal tranquility, and more a public agent of justice and love. I have thought often of Welker's characterization as I read Branch's work.

I want some of this in my life. I don't want to only preach sermons or teach classes or write and grade papers. I want to be a part of something that hopes beyond hope.


happytheman said...

Thanks, just making harder for me to wait on. Bevel is a major player in "The Children", along with James Lawson, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette & John Lewis. Starting with their recruitment into the Nashville Student Movement in 1960 and ending with where they are all now. LBJ's history of working with migrant farm workers children paved the way for his work during the civil rights movement. Thanks, giving me more inspiration to plow through books in the way.

happytheman said...

It also makes me wonder about people like Bevel and Marion Berry and others who were at the heart of something so good that anything they do in the future will not measure up.