Dr. King, Persecution, and the Art of Prayer

The 1960s, the heyday of the civil rights movement, saw a polarized, volatile American public. At the symbolic center of the vitriolic rhetoric stood the figure of Martin Luther King Jr., hailed by some as a messianic hero and demonized by others as an un-American antagonist with evil intent.

Today Dr. King is more symbol than human. And despite the exposed human faults of the actual man, his human virtues are worthy of the symbol. For his endurance in the face of opposition, for his subjection to a campaign of lies, for his refusal to retaliate, for his submission to physical violence, for his suffering unjust incarceration, for his brandishing powerful nonviolent rhetoric, and for his proclamation of clear, if not universally accepted moral truth, Martin Luther King Jr. remains one of our nation’s most revered figures.

The persecution Dr. King endured was not feigned. It was no perceived attack with roots in legitimate criticism. His life, the lives of his compatriots, and the lives of their families were continually threatened, and the threats were punctuated with a series of actual incidents of horrible physical violence. He had little recourse in local government, who threatened and imposed further violence and incarceration. And the federal intervention was obviously too little too late.

Still when it came time for MLK to mount a rhetorical defense, he always chose to defend the cause of the needy, the oppressed, the poor, and the outcast. He never defended himself. He stood up for justice and truth, not himself.

Where did that moral stance come from? How could he endure what he endured and remain focused on truth and justice rather than on charges of persecution, which were real and not imagined? What kept him from crying “Persecution!” even when the threats became everyday realities of actual violence?

 

Perhaps the difference between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who claim persecution today is born of King’s prayer life. Vanderbilt University’s Dr. Lewis Baldwin hints at as much in one of two new Baldwin release on Dr. King, Never to Leave Us Alone, published by Fortress Press (the other release is The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr., published by Oxford University Press).

In Never to Leave Us Alone, Baldwin traces King’s prayer life. He begins by capturing the wellsprings of the African American prayer tradition that fed the young King. He follows with Kings’ experiences and writings as a young man at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University.

In three more chapters Baldwin opens up the period of Dr. King’s civil rights career leading to his violent death. Each of these three chapters captures a different aspect of the same period. First Baldwin looks at prayer and preaching, then at the power of pastoral prayers, and then at prayer as the heart of movement of the civil rights movement. In a final chapter, http://www.smileyandwest.com/transcripts-pdf/101810_smileyandwest-transcripts.pdf reminds us of what we can learn from King and why he remains a respected figure around the world.

Discussing the book, radio and television host Tavis Smiley asked Baldwin, ”What was Martin praying for? It’s one thing to talk about his prayer life, but obviously it’s important to pray for the right things and to pray in the right way. Tell me more about what he was praying for and what his prayer process was. How did he call out to God?

Generalizing from his years of research, Baldwin answered, “He prayed for strength, his own personal strength, for guidance and direction in the movement. He also prayed for world peace. He prayed for guidance in the struggle for economic justice, in the struggle to overcome racial barriers, segregation in the society. He prayed for discipline and courageous leadership in the movement. He prayed for what he called “the least of these,” those who were in poverty, who had no jobs, who were devoid of medical care, who were ill-housed. His prayer, of course, had this social dimension. He majored in intercessory prayer—that is praying for others. His prayers were always relational.”

Baldwin documents Dr. King’s practice of renting a hotel room for a prayer-centered day, a “day of silence.” During those day-long retreats, King “poured his heart out to God,” he developed his own inner spiritual life, and he gained wisdom and the “attitudinal posture” required to keep moving forward in his God-ordained mission.

Central to Dr. King’s prayer life, according to Dr. Baldwin was the belief that prayers are to be lived as well as uttered. “Living prayer daily was, in King’s case, a cardinal principle, and this persists as part of his legacy for a nation and a world in which hypocrisy is perhaps more glaringly evident than ever before.”

Who can doubt that that living prayer sensibility is sorely needed in an age of commercially-driven bombast disguised as political rhetoric, when legitimate criticism is dismissed as illegitimate persecution. Dr. Baldwin reminds us that for Dr. King the method and the message can conspire to communicate truth. Prayer can keep the message and the method true. But even a true message can be dangerous.

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Time to Grow Up, America!

A fiery preacher’s most provocative turns of phrase are stitched together and aired on YouTube video, as “proof” of anti-American sentiment.

Voters in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, vote on a measure to make English the only language permissible for official business (except in emergency situations).

A Supreme Court nominee admits that she brings her complete life experiences into the courtroom.

A Harvard professor is arrested in his own home after committing no crime

The President of the US prepares a speech to encourage children to work hard in school, and school boards around the country refuse to allow the airing of the speech.

A hip-hop artist interrupts the acceptance speech of a young country artist, claiming that a particular R&B artist should have gotten the award.

Thousands of protesters spew venom and vitriol at town halls around the nation.

At a televised Presidential address to a joint session of Congress, a US Congressman breaches decorum, shouting, “You lie!” at the President.

Along with general controversy, these incidents share another commonality. In each case someone—whether a local citizen or a prominent national figure—has pointed to a racial element.

That we have come a long way in racial America is patently indisputable. That racism and other racial problems persist is equally indisputable.

For some, this is not only where we stand, but where we intend to remain. Surely there are those, especially in the age of Obama who discount any political criticism by crying racism. It’s a handy weapon or shield for supporters of this President.

But President Obama’s detractors are at least as adept in use of the same weapon and shield. Too often any mention of a racial element in a situation is met with the accusation “They just see race around every corner!” It’s an easy way to delegitimize any valid racial elements.

But now is the time to listen.

Now is the time for Obama supporters to grow up and accept legitimate criticism as adults do. Now is the time to listen, argue, agree and move on, without race-deflection. I am confident that this can be done.

The greater challenge rests on those who refuse to see the dangerous racial element in a situation unless it slaps them in the face. But now is the time for them too. With more than 1000 days left when the President of the US will present his face daily as a black man, now is the time for us all to confront the deep racial thoughts and feelings. Now is the time to ask some questions:

What violence has this phenomenon done to my 10, 20, 50, or 70 years of experiencing US Presidents? If it makes no difference on the surface, is it possible that it makes a difference deep down. And does it then affect my racial perception and reactions in my everyday interactions?

Often, for “colorblind” people, race begins to matter if “those other people” are gonna marry one of us, or be given a position that I think I deserved, or are put in a place of power over me, or if their presence does damage to my long-held beliefs.

Now is the time to call those beliefs out of ourselves, if we are to go forward on race and grow up as a nation.

A Way Forward on Race

Reasons that discussions of race often go nowhere:

1. Some people are afraid the conversation will end with somebody being called a racist.

2. Some people believe that the conversations SHOULD end with someone being called a racist.

3. Some people believe that every mention of the racial element in a particular situation MEANS that you’re calling someone a racist.

4. Some people believe that racism should never be called out.

5. Some people believe “Racism only matters if I can see it.”

6. Some people (even those who think racism is real and really ugly) believe that racism only matters if you can prove it.

7. Some people believe that any mention of unprovable racism adds more to the problem than does staying silent about it.

8. Some people believe that race problems will only be solved if “those other people” would

  • a. stop their racist ways
  • b. stop calling racism out
  • c. stop mentioning race
  • d. grow thicker skin
  • e. pretend they are not in the skin they are in

9. Some people believe that other people will turn any possible controversial incident into a racial incident.

10. Some people believe that because of 9 above, they can dismiss any charges of a racial factor in an incident.

The Truth:

We can talk about race without only talking about racism.

We need to talk about racism. That racism talk can be productive at the beginning of the conversation (rarely, when sparked by an incident) or in the middle of the conversation (preferable), but should NEVER be the end of the conversation.

While race issues come with a host of possibilities of misunderstanding and over-reaction, the ability to perceive race problems rests with those who HAVE to deal with race on a daily basis, more than with those who do not.

In order for us to grow beyond our race problems in conversation, we have to be able to talk through stories and feelings even more than through logic, observation, objectivism and proposition.

We will never achieve total healing of race relations in this life, but if we are willing to bravely and humbly enter the conversation we can get substantial healing and we will all be the better for it.