Barack Obama’s Eulogy for John Lewis   

At the John Lewis memorial service on July 30 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Barack Obama gave the following moving eulogy.

The Eulogy [1]

James wrote to the believers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

It is a great honor to be back in Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple — an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance — John Robert Lewis.

To those who have spoken to Presidents Bush and Clinton, Madam Speaker, Reverend Warnock, Reverend King, John’s family, friends, his beloved staff, Mayor Bottoms — I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom.

Now, this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible.

John Lewis — the first of the Freedom Riders, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of this state and this district for 33 years, mentor to young people, including me at the time, until his final day on this Earth — he not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work.

Which isn’t bad for a boy from Troy. John was born into modest means — that means he was poor — in the heart of the Jim Crow South to parents who picked somebody else’s cotton. Apparently, he didn’t take to farm work — on days when he was supposed to help his brothers and sisters with their labor, he’d hide under the porch and make a break for the school bus when it showed up. His mother, Willie Mae Lewis, nurtured that curiosity in this shy, serious child. “Once you learn something,” she told her son, “once you get something inside your head, no one can take it away from you.”

As a boy, John listened through the door after bedtime as his father’s friends complained about the Klan. One Sunday as a teenager, he heard Dr. King preach on the radio. As a college student in Tennessee, he signed up for Jim Lawson’s workshops on the tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience. John Lewis was getting something inside his head, an idea he couldn’t shake that took hold of him — that nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience were the means to change laws, but also change hearts, and change minds, and change nations, and change the world.

So he helped organize the Nashville campaign in 1960. He and other young men and women sat at a segregated lunch counter, well-dressed, straight-backed, refusing to let a milkshake poured on their heads, or a cigarette extinguished on their backs, or a foot aimed at their ribs, refused to let that dent their dignity and their sense of purpose. And after a few months, the Nashville campaign achieved the first successful desegregation of public facilities in any major city in the South.

John got a taste of jail for the first, second, third … well, several times. But he also got a taste of victory. And it consumed him with righteous purpose. And he took the battle deeper into the South.

That same year, just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of interstate bus facilities was unconstitutional, John and Bernard Lafayette bought two tickets, climbed aboard a Greyhound, sat up front, and refused to move. This was months before the first official Freedom Rides. He was doing a test. The trip was unsanctioned. Few knew what they were up to. And at every stop, through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus and into the bus station. And John and Bernard had no idea what he might come back with or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them. There were no camera crews to record events. You know, sometimes, we read about this and kind of take it for granted. Or at least we act as if it was inevitable. Imagine the courage of two people Malia’s age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own, to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression.

John was only twenty years old. But he pushed all twenty of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention, and generations of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans.

Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate — he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mug shot taken again and again, marched again and again on a mission to change America.

Spoke to a quarter million people at the March on Washington when he was just 23.

Helped organize the Freedom Summer in Mississippi when he was just 24.

At the ripe old age of 25, John was asked to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery. He was warned that Governor Wallace had ordered troopers to use violence. But he and Hosea Williams and others led them across that bridge anyway. And we’ve all seen the film and the footage and the photographs, and President Clinton mentioned the trench coat, the knapsack, the book to read, the apple to eat, the toothbrush — apparently jails weren’t big on such creature comforts. And you look at those pictures and John looks so young and he’s small in stature. Looking every bit that shy, serious child that his mother had raised and yet, he is full of purpose. God’s put perseverance in him.

And we know what happened to the marchers that day. Their bones were cracked by billy clubs, their eyes and lungs choked with tear gas. As they knelt to pray, which made their heads even easier targets, and John was struck in the skull. And he thought he was going to die, surrounded by the sight of young Americans gagging, and bleeding, and trampled, victims in their own country of state-sponsored violence.

And the thing is, I imagine initially that day, the troopers thought that they had won the battle. You can imagine the conversations they had afterwards. You can imagine them saying, “Yeah, we showed them.” They figured they’d turned the protesters back over the bridge; that they’d kept, that they’d preserved a system that denied the basic humanity of their fellow citizens. Except this time, there were some cameras there. This time, the world saw what happened, bore witness to Black Americans who were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans. Who were not asking for special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them a century before, and almost another century before that.

When John woke up, and checked himself out of the hospital, he would make sure the world saw a movement that was, in the words of Scripture, “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” They returned to Brown Chapel, a battered prophet, bandages around his head, and he said more marchers will come now. And the people came. And the troopers parted. And the marchers reached Montgomery. And their words reached the White House — and Lyndon Johnson, son of the South, said “We shall overcome,” and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law

The life of John Lewis was, in so many ways, exceptional. It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals. What a radical ideal. What a revolutionary notion. This idea that any of us, ordinary people, a young kid from Troy can stand up to the powers and principalities and say no this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just. We can do better. On the battlefield of justice, Americans like John, Americans like the Reverends Lowery and C.T. Vivian, two other patriots that we lost this year, liberated all of us that many Americans came to take for granted.

America was built by people like them. America was built by John Lewises. He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom; when we do form a more perfect union — whether it’s years from now, or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries — John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.

And yet, as exceptional as John was, here’s the thing: John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do. I mentioned in the statement the day John passed, the thing about John was just how gentle and humble he was. And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him — this idea that any of us can do what he did if we are willing to persevere.

He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. So many of us lose that sense. It’s taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, that we can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to other people. That we’re better off if we are above other people and looking down on them, and so often that’s encouraged in our culture. But John always saw the best in us. And he never gave up, and never stopped speaking out because he saw the best in us. He believed in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves. As a Congressman, he didn’t rest; he kept getting himself arrested. As an old man, he didn’t sit out any fight; he sat in, all night long, on the floor of the United States Capitol. I know his staff was stressed.

But the testing of his faith produced perseverance. He knew that the march is not yet over, that the race is not yet won, that we have not yet reached that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character. He knew from his own life that progress is fragile; that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history, of our own history, with their whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again.

Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting — by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots so people don’t get sick.

Now, I know this is a celebration of John’s life. There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I’m talking about it. John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we are seeing circulate right now.

He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power. And that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it; that democracy isn’t automatic, it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to, we have to work at it, it’s hard. And so he knew it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure, of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are. He said that as long as he had breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy. That as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy — not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, a big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation — then we are going to have to be more like John. We don’t have to do all the things he had to do because he did them for us. But we have got to do something. As the Lord instructed Paul, “Do not be afraid, go on speaking; do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Just everybody’s just got to come out and vote. We’ve got all those people in the city but we can’t do nothing.

Like John, we have got to keep getting into that good trouble. He knew that nonviolent protest is patriotic; a way to raise public awareness, put a spotlight on injustice, and make the powers that be uncomfortable.

Like John, we don’t have to choose between protest and politics, it is not an either-or situation, it is a both-and situation. We have to engage in protests where that is effective but we also have to translate our passion and our causes into laws and institutional practices. That’s why John ran for Congress thirty-four years ago.

Like John, we have got to fight even harder for the most powerful tool we have, which is the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act is one of the crowning achievements of our democracy. It’s why John crossed that bridge. It’s why he spilled his blood. And by the way, it was the result of Democratic and Republican efforts. President Bush, who spoke here earlier, and his father, both signed its renewal when they were in office. President Clinton didn’t have to because it was the law when he arrived so instead he made a law that made it easier for people to register to vote.

But once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, some state legislatures unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder, especially, by the way, state legislatures where there is a lot of minority turnout and population growth. That’s not necessarily a mystery or an accident. It was an attack on what John fought for. It was an attack on our democratic freedoms. And we should treat it as such.

If politicians want to honor John, and I’m so grateful for the legacy of work of all the Congressional leaders who are here, but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better.

By making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance.

By adding polling places, and expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are someone who is working in a factory, or you are a single mom who has got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot.

By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C. and in Puerto Rico. They are Americans.

By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering — so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around.

And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.

And yet, even if we do all this — even if every bogus voter suppression law was struck off the books today — we have got to be honest with ourselves that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise; that too many of our citizens believe their vote won’t make a difference, or they buy into the cynicism that, by the way, is the central strategy of voter suppression, to make you discouraged, to stop believing in your own power.

So we are also going to have to remember what John said: “If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.” As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold, I’m hopeful but we cannot casually abandon them at the ballot box. Not when few elections have been as urgent, on so many levels, as this one. We cannot treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy.

Like John, we have to give it all we have.

I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. I met him when I was in law school. He came to speak and I went up and I said, “Mr. Lewis, you are one of my heroes. What inspired me more than anything as a young man was to see what you and Reverend Lawson and Bob Moses and Diane Nash and others did.” And he got that kind of — aw shucks, thank you very much.

The next time I saw him, I had been elected to the United States Senate. And I told him, “John, I am here because of you.” On Inauguration Day in 2008, 2009, he was one of the first people that I greeted and hugged on that stand. I told him, “This is your day too.”

He was a good and kind and gentle man. And he believed in us — even when we don’t believe in ourselves. It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was on Zoom. I am pretty sure that neither he nor I set up the Zoom call because we didn’t know how to work it. It was a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who had been helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And afterwards, I spoke to John privately, and he could not have been prouder to see this new generation of activists standing up for freedom and equality; a new generation that was intent on voting and protecting the right to vote; in some cases, a new generation running for political office.

I told him, all those young people, John — of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — John, those are your children. They learned from your example, even if they didn’t always know it. They had understood, through him, what American citizenship requires, even if they had only heard about his courage through the history books.

“By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, Black and white … have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. King said that in the 1960s. And it came true again this summer.

We see it outside our windows, in big cities and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.

And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.

What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while, and show us the way.

God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise.

Observation

I agree with the Washington Post columnist, Jennifer Rubin, that Obama’s eulogy “provided presidential gravitas” and a “timely affirmation that the United States is in a constant state of rebirth and is not the province of one race or religion.” In addition, Obama reminded us that Lewis “knew from his own life that progress is fragile, that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history. Of our own history.” In short, Lewis “vindicated the faith in our founding. The idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo. . . . What a radical idea. What a revolutionary notion.”[2]

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[1] Read the Full Transcript of Obama’s Eulogy for John Lewis, N.Y. Times (July 30, 2020) (includes full video of Obama’s delivery of the eulogy).

[2] Rubin, Obama reminds us what it’s like to have a president who understands America, Wash. Post (July 31, 2020).

 

Robert Kennedy’s Moving Eulogy for Martin Luther King, Jr.

A prior post discussed the eloquent eulogy by Robert f. Kennedy for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the night King was assassinated, April 4, 1968.

David Margolick, a former New York Times journalist who is writing a book about King and Kennedy, reminds us that before that night, the two men had a “testy” relationship[. King was horrified to learn of RFK’s appointment as Attorney General because of “his early ties to Senator Joseph McCarthy, [Kennedy’s] attacks on organized labor, his cozy relationship with Southern racist politicians and his reputation for being his big brother’s consigliere.” Their subsequent contacts were infrequent and private. Moreover, Kennedy felt more at home with black militants than many mainstream black leaders like Dr. King. Thus, Kennedy came to Indianapolis that night because of promises he had made to black Indianapolis and despite aides’ worries that Kennedy would be putting his life at risk.[1]

The Eulogy[2]

That night Kennedy arrived late and climbed into the back of a pickup truck as his platform and delivered the following six-minute eulogy:

“I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.”

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.”

“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.”

“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”

“So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.”

“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.”

“But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.”

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

“Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Conclusion

Margolick observes that although no one in the audience probably had never heard of Aeschylus, the poem’s words “pain,” “despair,” “awful,” “grace” and “God” resonated with them.[3]

Andrew Young, the black leader who that night was with other black leaders in the Memphis motel where King had been assassinated, later recalled, says Margolick, that Kennedy “was in the middle of a totally black community, and he stood there without fear and with great confidence and empathy, and he literally poured his soul out talking about his brother. The amazing thing to us was that the crowd listened. He reached them.” Young also said the feeling in that motel room that night was “He’s probably going to go next.”

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[1] Margolick, The Power of Bobby Kennedy’s Eulogy for Martin Luther King, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2018). An account of Kennedy’s actions regarding King in the days after the assassination is set forth in an excerpt of the new book by Margolick, The Promise and the Dream.

[2] Robert F. Kennedy, Statement on Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4, 1968, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

[3] Perhaps unartful comments about this poem by Aeschylus were provided in Aeschylus on Suffering and Wisdom, dwkcommentaries.com    (Feb. 10, 2014).

 

The Protestant Reformation: Where Does It Go from Here?  

The World Communion Sunday, October 1, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church featured Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s last of four sermons on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: ”The Protestant Reformation Today: Where Does It Go from Here?” [1]The first three sermons, as covered in prior posts, discussed the three great themes of the Reformation: grace alone, faith alone and scripture alone. Below are photographs of the church’s Sanctuary and of Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Revelation 22: 1-6, 16-17 (NRSV)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

“And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’”

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Galatians 3: 23-29 (NRSV): 

“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”

Sermon:

“Where does the Reformation go from here? What does the future hold for the great Protestant traditions flowing out of Europe 500 years ago?”

“I see at least three directions we might expect the Reformation to take in coming years.”

First: an ecumenical, interfaith direction. Protestant Churches have shown themselves, especially in the last 50-75 years, to be uniquely capable of forming cross-denominational relationships, usually in institutional, organizational, and structured ways: councils of churches at the local level, the state level, nationally, and at the global level. In coming years this will happen in less institutional ways, less structured ways, and increasingly in local relationships.”

“The past week illustrates this emerging new reality. On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allowed one of its candidates for ministry to be ordained to serve a non-Lutheran church. We celebrated the ordination of Matt Johnson, Westminster’s Interim Associate Pastor, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Candidly, that break with tradition did not start in the bishop’s office or the presbytery’s office; it began with a few of us conspiring locally to make it happen. Localized ecumenical relationships, yielding that kind of change. Congratulations, Matt.”

“Then yesterday I co-presided with a Roman Catholic priest at the wedding of a Westminster woman and her Catholic fiancé, now husband. That would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The fact that we pulled it off has less to do with relaxing of standards in Rome – we did not contact the bishop or presbytery – than with developing ecumenical relationships in local communities. The old walls separating us don’t mean as much anymore.”

“’In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,’ the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek’ – Paul dissects the binary way people tend to look at the world – ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:6-8)”

“It’s as if we were undoing the divisions resulting from the Reformation between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants themselves. If we ask where the Reformation goes from here, an obvious first answer is that it goes in the direction of a Christianity that has fewer barriers standing among and between the various branches of the Church than it has had for the last 500 years.”

“The same thing is happening with interfaith collaboration. The Reformation taught us the God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that grace alone saves us, not our behavior or a particular creed. From those Reformation-era principles it is a short step to respectful interfaith dialogue and cooperation.”

“A major world challenge on the religious horizon – locally and globally – is learning to live with people of other faiths. Protestant churches, with our emphasis on freedom and respecting the rights and responsibilities of individuals with regard to religious matters, can and will lead the way in interfaith collaboration.”

“Westminster is certainly doing its part. Our interfaith dialogue sermons and relationships with multi-faith organizations are not one-off novelties or the whim of your pastor. They are the vanguard of 21st century open-minded, open-hearted Christianity more concerned with practicing the faith in real ways with real people, some of whom have other faiths, than perfecting or judging it.”

“In recent years I have co-presided at a number of Jewish weddings – again, something that even a few years ago would not have happened. I’ve also done this with Buddhist priests. Many of us have attended a Muslim iftar, when the Ramadan fast is broken. We never would have done that 10-15 years ago. These are local outbursts of interfaith commitment – not handed down from on high, but local efforts – resulting in a shifting religious landscape.”

“Where does the Protestant Reformation goes from here? It’s moving in an ecumenical and interfaith direction.”

Secondly, on this World Communion Sunday we’re enjoying sounds and rhythms and movement from all over the globe. Again, this is not a one-time experience, where we trot out the world music on one Sunday a year. We’re now drawing regularly from the music of Christians in other parts of the world to enliven our worship, to teach us other ways of praising God, to inspire us.”

“Over the last 150 years Protestant churches moved out from Europe to the world, in particular the global south, where the Reformation churches are growing rapidly. There are more Presbyterians today in South Korea than there are in the U.S. The same is true for Kenya and South Africa.”

“Christianity is on the move. One hundred years ago two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in the global south. The Church there is exploding in growth, and our churches are receding. North American churches had 15% of the world’s Christians 100 years ago; today we have 10%.”

“We can see the impact of this emerging reality not only from a distance, but closer to home. The Roman Catholic priest friend who co-presided at the wedding yesterday serves a Minneapolis parish overflowing with people from Latin America. He told me last Saturday he did 29 baptisms and yesterday 28 were scheduled. They baptize around 400 per year, and they’re all babies of Latino immigrants. The parish has discovered that their future lies not with the Euro-Americans who brought Catholicism here –Irish, Germans and others from Europe –- but with Catholics form the global south. The Roman Church in the US would be shrinking if not for Catholics coming from Latin America.”

“Similarly, we Protestants who lament the decline of our churches here can rejoice in the vast growth of the Reformation churches in the global south. We, too, can welcome immigrants coming from other parts of the world, especially sub-Sahara Africa, where the Reformed churches are so strong. Westminster has experienced an influx of West African Christians over recent decades, now serving as leaders in our church –and what a richer, healthier congregation we are.”

“The global south will bear the Protestant stream of Christianity into the future.”

“The third emerging direction for the Protestant movement, especially in this land, is increasing openness to diversity. At the local level we’re coming to see that in the future our churches will either reflect the contexts in which we minister, or they’ll not be sustainable for the long haul. We’re too isolated, too divided in our communities, racially, ethnically and culturally. It’s not the way of the gospel. Mono-cultural eco-systems cannot continue to thrive. They must be diverse in order to have the adaptive capacities to live into the future.”

“One of the last images of the Bible is found in the Book of Revelation when the Heavenly City comes to earth and settles among the human family. There is a river flowing through that city, and on the banks of the river is the Tree of Life. The leaves of the tree, the text says, ‘Are for the healing of the nations.’”

“I’ve usually interpreted that verse as pointing to healing among the political nations of the earth. But the Greek word here for nations is ethnos, that is, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the variety of ethnicities in the human family that do not live well together. This may be less a political comment and more a call to learn to live in harmony with those different from us within our own land.”

“The vision of the Holy City invites us to be part of the healing of the racial divide that exists among us, to finally put aside, to do away with, the old reality that Martin Luther King used to remind us of – that Sunday at 11AM is the most segregated hour in America. The Church’s future lies in congregations that are more diverse, that reflect God’s hope that the human family might one day learn to live together in peace.”

“Here at Westminster our new members classes in recent years have been 10-15% racially mixed. Around 7-8% of Westminster members are people of color. We’re changing, but the world is changing a lot faster all around us.”

“A recent study of more than 100,000 Americans in all 50 states shows that only 43% of the population is made up of white Christians. Forty years ago that number was 80%. Twenty years ago it was two-thirds. Things are changing rapidly, all around us, and the church will need to change.”

“And forty years ago 55% of the population was made up of white Protestants. Today that number is under 40%. We are watching in our lifetime the end of America as a white Christian nation. And some see that as a threat. We see the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism and the clinging to white privilege in response, much of it cloaked in Christian language.”[2]

“The changing reality shouldn’t frighten us, but, rather, call us to open our doors and hearts and open our lives to new friends who’ve been our neighbors for many years. We can either move constructively with these challenging new realities and learn ways to be faithful in worship and mission, or we can struggle against them and find our churches continuing to wither and weaken and die. This is hard work, but essential to the future of the church.”

“Where does the 500-year old Reformation go from here? The Protestants churches, heirs to the great legacies of grace alonefaith alone, and scripture alone, will need to grow new ministries that reach across divisions we’ve long accepted as normative. That means creating new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

“To do this, the people of God will have to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, stirring things up for the future health and vitality of the Christian Church.”

“We will have to use a holy imagination to see and join the new thing God is doing among us. May that imagination, that holy imagination, be kindled today at this World Communion table, as we join with Christians around the globe in celebrating the love of God that unites us in one human family, in all its wonderful and rich diversity.”

Conclusion

I agree that “Westminster and other churches need to develop  new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

Westminster already is engaged in global partnerships with churches in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine, and for 10 years I chaired our Global Partnerships Committee and visited our partners in Cuba (three times), Cameroon (once) and Brazil (once). I know that they have enriched my spiritual life and of others in the church and in our partners.

As the sermon stated, music from around the world will play a major part in our worship as it did this day and as will be discussed in another post.

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[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of the sermon are on the church website. Excerpts of the sermon are  set forth below.

[2] Wilson, We’re at the end of White Christian America. What will that mean?, Guardian (Sept. 20, 2017); Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evaluating Ta-Neshi Coates Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard and Rutgers Universities Speeches

President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. Key points in Obama’s speech for this purpose are the following:

  • “Be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.”
  • African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
  • “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”

Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Ta-Nehisi Coates, through the prism of that speech and of a related presidential speech at Rutgers University.

Although President Obama in his speech specifically commended Coates, a Howard alumnus who did not graduate, for writing “a book that wins the National Book Award” and “the new run of ‘Black Panther.’” Obama did not attempt to determine whether Coates satisfied the above charge to the class. If Obama had done so, I believe he would have concluded that Coates did not meet this version of the challenge.[1]

Coates’ major work to date, “Between the World and Me,” clearly demonstrates his confidence in his black heritage, his overwhelming awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle and his passion for change. In this sense he meets at least this part of the Obama challenge.

However, Coates fails in this book to go beyond righteous anger. He does not have a strategy or program for change. In fact, his book eschews any such program as destined for failure. And when he addresses one possible program for change– reparations for past racial injustice in a separate Atlantic Magazine article–he fails, in my opinion, because he weakly concluded that Congress should adopt a bill to establish a commission to investigate the issue and because he apparently makes an erroneous assessment of a Chicago class action lawsuit involving contracts for deed. The more detailed basis for this negative assessment is set forth in an earlier post. [2]

In addition, Coates in an interview by Charlie Rose demonstrated a facile reading of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” According to Coates, this saying is a demonstrably false reading of history and a false prediction of the future and, therefore, meaningless. But the saying was never intended to be a history lesson or a future prediction. Instead, It was intended to be inspiration to continue the struggle for justice for those who were so engaged. Indeed, President Obama understood it correctly when in his speech at Rutgers University he said,

  • “But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ . . . I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.” (Emphasis added.)

Perhaps Coates is off the hook with Obama’s concession that there is no one way to be black and there is no litmus test for black authenticity or as 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us, there are different gifts to different people for the common good (verses 4-11) and there are many parts to one body and all work together for the common good (verses 12-31). Thus, perhaps Coates’ gift is to express anger over racial injustice and to leave it to others to figure out what to do about that injustice and to work to overcome it.

Although Coates has said that his book was not written for “white” people, `I have to say that as a “white” septuagenarian, I initially and vigorously disagreed with Coates’ ranting that others and I “have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white,” that “’race’ [was] a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” and that “the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white [was achieved] through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of blacks; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you [Coates’ son] and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (Pp. 7-8)

Yes, I always have regarded myself as white, checked the box “White” or “Caucasian” on many forms without a second thought and found myself identified as “white” on a 1940 U.S. Census form. But I never have done any of the awful things that Coates says were done to elevate my belief in being white.

Nevertheless, Coates’ rant has been nagging and causing me to conduct further research and reflection. I, therefore, now think that Coates is correct on this important point, which I will explore in subsequent posts. Thus, perhaps Coates is satisfying, in his own way, the Obama criteria for African-American men, and indeed for all of us, to be honorable citizens of this great country.

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[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 13, 2015); Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 3, 2016).

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 18, 2015). See also Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses the Age of Mass Incarceration, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political and Civics Lessons from President Obama at Rutgers University

On May 15, President Obama delivered the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.[1] Below are photographs of the President and the graduates at Rutgers.

Obama @ Rutgers

Rutegers stduents

 

 

 

 

The press naturally focused on the following remarks that indirectly criticized Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee:

  • “When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” . . . It ain’t so. The ‘good old days’ weren’t that great.”
  • “The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day.  Building walls won’t change that. . . . [To] help ourselves we’ve got to help others, not pull up the drawbridge and try to keep the world out. . . . Building walls . . . won’t boost our economy, and it won’t enhance our security either.”
  • “Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country . . . is not just a betrayal of our values . . . it would alienate the very communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism.   Suggesting that we can build an endless wall along our borders, and blame our challenges on immigrants — that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot; it contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been spurred by our ability to attract strivers from every corner of the globe.  That’s how we became America.”
  • “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy. Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy. . . . In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness.  That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”

Obama also continued with his civics lessons that were discussed in his final State of the Union Address and remarks at the Illinois General Assembly, a London town hall meeting and Howard University’s commencement ceremony that were discussed in earlier posts. Here are the similar remarks at Rutgers.

“America’s progress has never been smooth or steady.  Progress doesn’t travel in a straight line.  It zigs and zags in fits and starts.  Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody.  It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.”

“But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.  But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.  I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ It bends towards justice.  I believe that.  But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.  It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.”

“You are graduating at such an inflection point.  Since the start of this new millennium, you’ve already witnessed horrific terrorist attacks, and war, and a Great Recession.  You’ve seen economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate, how we live, how we form families.  The pace of change is not subsiding; it is accelerating.  And these changes offer not only great opportunity, but also great peril.”

Therefore, the new graduates need to participate in the political process. You need to vote. “And if participation means voting, and it means compromise, and organizing and advocacy, it also means listening to those who don’t agree with you.”

“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions.  Hold their feet to the fire.  Make them defend their positions.   If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong.  Engage it.  Debate it.  Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on.  Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.  Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words.  And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments.  And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything.  And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe.  Either way, you win.  And more importantly, our democracy wins.”

“Gear yourself for the long haul.  Whatever path you choose, you’re going to have some setbacks.  You will deal occasionally with foolish people.  You will be frustrated.  You’ll have a boss that’s not great.  You won’t always get everything you want — at least not as fast as you want it.  So you have to stick with it.  You have to be persistent.  And success, however small, however incomplete, success is still success. . . . Better is good.  It may not be perfect, it may not be great, but it’s good.  That’s how progress happens — in societies and in our own lives.”

“So don’t lose hope if sometimes you hit a roadblock.  Don’t lose hope in the face of naysayers.  And certainly don’t let resistance make you cynical.  Cynicism is so easy, and cynics don’t accomplish much.  As a friend of mine who happens to be from New Jersey, a guy named Bruce Springsteen, once sang, “they spend their lives waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”  Don’t let that be you.  Don’t waste your time waiting.”

“Throughout our history, a new generation of Americans has reached up and bent the arc of history in the direction of more freedom, and more opportunity, and more justice.”

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[1] White House, Remarks by the President at Commencement Address at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (May 15, 2016); Rutgers University, Commencement Address: President Barack Obama (May 15, 2016) (video); Harris, Obama Swipes at Trump, but Doesn’t Name Him, in Speech at Rutgers, N.Y. Times (May 15, 2016).

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 2006.[1] This provision extended for 25 years a requirement in section 5 of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 for certain states to obtain pre-clearance from a special federal court or the U.S. Attorney General for any changes in their election laws.[2]

Before we review that oral argument, we will examine in separate posts four predicates for that argument.[3] This post will discuss the first of these predicates–the relevant substance of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965.[4]

This 1965 statute (as well as the 2006 statute) was enacted pursuant to Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that provides, “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” That amendment, which was ratified after the Civil War in 1870, states in Section 1: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”

LBJ signing VRA65

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is seen as a major accomplishment of the Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson. (The photo to the left shows President Johnson signing the statute; immediately behind him is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) It was adopted as a result of congressional recognition that case-by-case litigation over racial voting discrimination was slow, expensive and ineffective and that a stature was needed “to cure the problem of voting discrimination” and “rid the country of racial discrimination in voting,”  (South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 313, 315 (1966).)

The 1965 Act combined a permanent, case-by-case enforcement mechanism with a set of more stringent, temporary remedies designed to target those areas of the country where racial discrimination in voting was concentrated.

Section 2, the Act’s main permanent provision, forbids any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” (42 U.S.C. § 1973(a).) Applicable nationwide, section 2 enables individuals to bring suit against any state or jurisdiction to challenge voting practices that have a discriminatory purpose or result. (See Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 35 (1986).)

Section 5 of the statute and the focus of the current case before the Supreme Court only applies to certain “covered jurisdictions” and “prescribes remedies . . . which go into effect without any need for prior adjudication.” (Katzenbach, 383 U.S. at 327-28.) Section 5 suspends “all changes in state election procedure until they [are] submitted to and approved by a three-judge Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., or the [U.S.] Attorney General.” (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder, 129 S. Ct. 2504, 2509 (2009),

A “covered jurisdiction” seeking to change its voting laws or procedures must either submit the change to the Attorney General or seek preclearance directly from the three-judge court. If such a jurisdiction opts for the former and if the Attorney General lodges no objection within 60 days, the proposed law can take effect.(42 U.S.C. § 1973c(a).) But if the Attorney General lodges an objection, the submitting jurisdiction may either request reconsideration, (28 C.F.R. § 51.45(a)), or seek a de novo  determination from the three-judge district court. (42 U.S.C. § 1973c(a).)

Either way, preclearance may be granted only if the jurisdiction demonstrates that the proposed change to its voting law neither “has the purpose nor . . . the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” (Id.) This provision “preempted the most powerful tools of black disenfranchisement ,” resulting in “undeniable” improvements in the protection of minority voting rights. (Northwest Austin, 129 S. Ct. at 2509. 2511.)

The “covered jurisdictions” subject to section 5 were identified in section 4(b), as originally enacted, as any state or political subdivision of a state that “maintained a voting test or device as of November 1, 1964, and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in the 1964 presidential election.” (Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110, § 4(b), 79 Stat. 437, 438.) Congress chose these criteria carefully because it knew precisely which states it sought to cover, those six southern states with the worst historical records of racial discrimination in voting: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia.

In so doing, Congress recognized that these criteria for determining “covered jurisdictions” might have to be adjusted over time.

  • First, as it existed in 1965, section 4(a) allowed jurisdictions to earn exemption from coverage by obtaining from a three-judge district court a declaratory judgment that in the previous five years (i.e., before they became subject to the Act) they had used no test or device “for the purpose or with the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” (1965 Act § 4(a).) This so-called “bailout” provision, as subsequently amended, addresses potential over-inclusiveness of section 5, allowing jurisdictions with clean records to terminate their section 5 pre-clearance obligations.
  • Second, section 3(c) authorizes federal courts to require pre-clearance by any non-covered state or political subdivision found to have violated the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Amendments. (42 U.S.C. § 1973a(c).) Specifically, courts presiding over voting discrimination suits may “retain jurisdiction for such period as [they] may deem appropriate” and order that during that time no voting change take effect unless either approved by the court or unopposed by the Attorney General. (Id.) This judicial “bail-in” provision addresses the formula’s potential under-inclusiveness.

In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the Supreme Court sustained the constitutionality of section 5, holding that its provisions “are a valid means for carrying out the commands of the Fifteenth Amendment.”  As originally enacted in 1965, section 5 was to remain in effect for five years. Congress subsequently renewed these temporary provisions, including sections 4(b) and 5, in 1970 (for five years), in 1975 (for seven years), and in 1982 (for twenty-five years).[5] The Supreme Court also sustained the constitutionality of each extension through 2007. (Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973); City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980); Lopez v. Monterey County, 525 U.S. 266 (1999).)

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[1] The 2006 statute’s correct title is the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.

[2] The states now subject to section 5 are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

[3] The other predicates to be examined in separate posts are the Voting Rights Act of 2006; the 2009 Supreme Court decision regarding the 2006 statute (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder); and the 2012 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, 2 to 1, upholding the constitutionality of the 2006 statute in the case now pending in the Supreme Court. (Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.)

[5] The 1982 extension also made the provision for “bailout” from section 5 restrictions substantially more permissive.