Tag Archives: MLK

Building Lop-Sided Bridges

Building Lop-Sided Bridges    —by Jinny Batterson

About this time of year in 1997, I got a nasty shock. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A set of cells had gone malignant and might soon invade the rest of my body. Several months earlier, I’d had my annual mammogram and was told it was normal. So at first, I wrote off the lump that showed up around Hallowe’en as just another annoying symptom of menopause. I was a healthy, middle-aged white woman. I ate well, exercised regularly, had gotten all my prescribed screenings. I made a comfortable living as a consultant, had two college-age sons, a husband who loved me, and no family history of breast cancer. The lump would go away on its own. It didn’t. Further tests showed an aggressive tumor. By early December, I’d had a modified radical mastectomy without reconstruction. I was pretty shaky both physically and mentally. 

As I began to heal, I tried to use my experiences as a teaching tool. Our Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Richmond, Virginia had long engaged in efforts to help promote racial healing. Each year about the time of the MLK holiday, we had a special service with a racial justice theme. This particular year, I’d been working for several months before my diagnosis on the planning committee for the service. As I began to regain strength after surgery, I asked if I could do a short talk about my “lop-sidedness,” using my body as a metaphor for the way our entire society was lop-sided and hampered by our history of individual prejudice and systemic racism. We all needed healing. I composed and rehearsed my talk. By early January I was confident that I’d have the physical stamina and the psychological strength to deliver a 10-minute talk, even with the prospect of six months of chemotherapy looming. 

Then I went to choir rehearsal. Our young choir director wanted to use spirituals to accompany the service. He’d chosen “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, goin’ home to live with God…” as the meditation hymn. I flinched. Jamie was a wonderful musician, but I really didn’t want to identify with that particular song at that particular time in my life. Privately, I asked if we could substitute something more upbeat. I got a reprieve. We wound up singing “I’m so busy servin’ my Master, ain’t got time to die…”  Both the congregation and I survived to continue our work. 

A decade later, I learned that my favorite college roommate had developed breast cancer. Beth had grown up near Richmond, graduated from our small liberal arts school, then gotten an advanced degree in library science. She’d moved to different parts of the country. She spent much of her career administering college libraries—first in Ohio, then South Dakota, then Florida. We kept up via holiday cards and occasional phone calls. In her 50’s, Beth had changed focus slightly and taken a post as director of a set of public libraries in an economically depressed part of lowland South Carolina. Beth had been in her new job only a year or so when the cancer hit. Her family and friends rallied to her support. Once her most intensive treatments were over, I went down for a weekend visit. We traded survivor stories. When she passed the five year mark without a recurrence, I sent hearty congratulations. Then, a couple of years later, a non-cancerous illness destroyed her kidneys and took her life with little warning. That April, I drove south through timber plantations, palmetto swamps, and railroad cuts festooned with blooming wisteria vines to get to South Carolina for Beth’s memorial service. I didn’t know much about her town, but suspected it would be as highly segregated racially as much of the South I’d previously been exposed to.

The small Methodist church was nearly full. Some of the mourners were family members I recognized, but I was surprised to see half a dozen older black women among the mostly white worshippers. I guessed at first that perhaps the women were maintenance workers at some of the libraries Beth supervised, then chided myself for stereotyping. At the reception after the service, I had a chance to talk with one of the women.

“How did you know Beth?” I asked.

“We were part of a local support group called ‘Bosom Buddies’,” the woman explained, pointing to the discrete pink lapel pin she wore. 

I never learned much about the group. Beth may have had a hand in creating this cross-racial sisters-beneath-the-skin effort in the area she’d made her home. Whatever her role, she’d reached out across any racial divide, creating enough of a bond so that six women had taken the time to attend her memorial service.

Our country remains in need of healing. Pundits of many political leanings expound on all the ways we are polarized— economically, racially, politically, spiritually. Income disparities persist; wealth gaps have gotten worse. Gun violence takes too many lives; “stop and frisk” procedures and mass incarceration further divide us. Health outcomes vary tremendously, based partly on income and ethnicity. We’re still lop-sided. We all need healing. Perhaps those of us who are physically lop-sided can continue to build lop-sided bridges.

 

 

    

 

 

The Mixed Legacies of 9/11

The Mixed Legacies of 9/11  —by Jinny Batterson

Recently I had a chance to host a set of international guests—three generations whose eldest member had grown up in newly-independent India as a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi.  As she was about to leave our house, Ms. Mehta gave me a small booklet entitled “Hope or Terror: Gandhi and the other 9/11.” According to the booklet, on an earlier September 11, in 1906, Gandhi had launched the “satyagraha” movement that eventually helped lead to India’s independence in 1947. 

The booklet’s author, long term American peace activist Michael Nagler, spends most of the pamphlet giving examples of non-violent movements that have achieved worthwhile social aims with a minimum of bloodshed. His pamphlet was published in 2006, just five years after the 2001 terrorist airplane hijackings, destruction and loss of life that have created lingering unhealed physical and psychic wounds in so many Americans, both military and civilian. Nagler points to traits needed to participate more fully in satyagraha-like efforts, to use “integrative power” rather than “threat power.” So what can we learn from previous satyagraha struggles that may be relevant in 2019?

First, we can become familiar with the term “satyagraha,” which has several English translations—it can be rendered as “soul force,” as “love in action,” as “clinging to truth.” Many of us who have heard the term associate it primarily with Gandhi and his “salt march,” a long-distance 1930 walk to publicize and challenge the unfairness of British taxes on salt, a necessary nutrient that washes up freely on some of India’s beaches. Americans may be more familiar with the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose commitment to the related concept of non-violence was partially inspired by his study of Gandhi’s life and methods.

Nagler points out that there are two prongs to satyagraha efforts—one a resistance to coercion, the other a creation of alternative forms of organization that are freer and less coercive.  Most of us are likely to be more attuned to one prong than the other, so we need to partner with individuals and groups that are more highly skilled in the other prong. Otherwise, we can too often confuse tactics and methods with strategies and longer-term goals.

The passage in Nagler’s booklet that I found most heartening and persuasive concerns the way that satyagraha/nonviolence works:  “Nonviolence sometimes ‘works’ and always works, while by contrast, violence sometimes ‘works’ and never works.”

He explains his use of terminology this way: an action succeeds, or “works” based on its short-term, obvious effects, while it works (without quotes) in how it impacts situations and participants under the surface, producing longer-term effects that are not always obvious at the time.

I’m not sure what commemorations will occur on September 11, 2019. The lingering war in Afghanistan seems no closer to resolution; gun violence in the U.S. claims or maims too many lives; organized violence in many parts of the world dominate our headlines and media reports. Climate change can pose global challenges we often seem powerless to respond to. However, there are other actions going on, other factors at play. One was a last-minute decision to open our home for a night to a family of strangers who are strangers no longer, with an aging Indian matriarch who replanted a seed of hope.     

    

    

MLK, Jr. Reweaving the Dreams

MLK, Jr.: Reweaving the Dreams   —by Jinny Batterson

While he was alive, I knew little about him.
The mainstream press in Baltimore barely mentioned
This Negro preacher who’d helped marshal a yearlong bus
Boycott and in the mid-1960’s won a Nobel Peace Prize.
There were rumors he might be a Communist.

I was in high school, with other concerns—
Who could I get to take me to the prom?
Would my SAT scores help me get into a good college?
Would my parents take away my driving privileges
After an accident that I at least partially caused?

By the time I got to college, his star was waning,
Eclipsed by rising black militancy and a war in Southeast Asia
That dragged on and on. His tactics and pronouncements were
Less influential, less obviously successful in northern cities than in
Earlier Southern-based campaigns. Non-violence and preaching peace
Didn’t appear to work against big-city political machines and war contractors.

At first it seemed his dreams had come unraveled when his life ended.
As riots broke out in many American cities following his assassination,
I sat distracted in a secluded dating parlor on a small college campus,
My boyfriend’s bent-kneed proposal and diamond ring a pale foreground
To a muted television backdrop of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,
Two bookends of my youth, engulfed in flames, sirens, and riot police. 

By the time his birthday was declared a national holiday
In November, 1983, I was attempting to learn and implement
Parts of his dream in rural central Africa. My efforts met with
Little success in a country whose few rich and many poor lived in vastly
Different worlds, with a minuscule middle partly made up of expatriates
Like me. I had lots of time to read the contents of a USAID library.

Martin Luther King, Jr., I learned, was a middle child, born just before
The Great Depression. His family lived in a relatively prosperous black enclave
In segregated Atlanta. During his early studies, he drifted, but partway through
High school he was inspired toward the ministry. He went north and completed
An impressive formal education, earning a doctorate by age twenty-five.

The parts we now recite in school start in Montgomery, Alabama,
Where he was nominated, as a young, little-known preacher, to give voice to the
Aspirations of people who had for too long been shunted to the back of the bus.
After the successful conclusion of the bus boycott, sixty civil rights leaders met
In Atlanta, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and elected
MLK as its first president.  Then came sit-ins, Freedom Summer, Albany,
Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, a Poor People’s Campaign, a sniper’s bullet.

Those of us who call ourselves progressives winced at subsequent American
Foreign and domestic policy, wrote letters, attended rallies and marches,
Wondered what else we might do to stop, or at least reduce, the madness.
For a while, we thought we had found an answer in another young,
Eloquent brown-skinned man. Twice we elected him national president,
Allowing complacency to creep into our ongoing efforts.

Our current national administration is more nightmare than dream.
It wants us to forget that our deepest dreams are inclusive rather
Than exclusionary, spiritual as well as material. MLK knew this.
He tried to tell us, over and over again, but we rarely listened.

We know MLK had flaws—infidelity, sometimes neglecting his family,
Carrying too much of the movement’s burden by himself.
We do not need another plaster saint, of whatever skin hue,
But Coretta was right to insist that we honor MLK with a holiday.
Though not free from sin or error, he was also a prophet
Who recalled us to our best selves. May we remember
His efforts as we redouble ours, reweaving stronger dreams.

Factionalism, Fanaticism, and Mysticism

Factionalism, Fanaticism, and Mysticism    —by Jinny Batterson

A number of years ago, I spent part of a weekend peace workshop in a session led by an older Sufi originally from Syria.  Sufism is a mystical strain of Islam that sidesteps the often fractious distinctions between Sunni and Shia Moslems, instead emphasizing spiritual practices to get closer to the divine. This mystic, somewhat akin to a member of a Christian contemplative order, but also active in wider society, had been raised in the city of Aleppo. He’d received some of his early religious training there before emigrating to the U.S.  He seemed to me calm, temperate, and wise in the ways of the world without being worldly.

He laid out for us a continuum of various kinds of peace work each of us could engage in, and warned us of the dangers of lapsing into either factionalism or fanaticism as we worked together. By his account, factionalism was most likely to arise among a group of people who agreed on the ends they sought, but disagreed about the means for achieving them. So, for example, a large group could favor creating living wages for low-wage workers. Within that overall group, one faction might propose engaging in civil disobedience, while another might prefer a social media campaign, still a third might opt to support political candidates who promised to raise the legal minimum wage, and a fourth might propose corporate tax abatement as a way to produce more higher-wage jobs. The extent to which the various factions could stay focussed on their common goal despite their widely differing approaches would impact their overall effectiveness.

In contrast, fanaticism, he taught us, was likely to blossom when there was agreement about means, but disagreement or lack of clarity about the ends to be achieved. Dictionary definitions of fanaticism mention uncritical enthusiasm, zeal, ardor, and a mindless adherence to a ruler or set of rules. Politics and religion are the realms most prone to fanaticism. Nearly all of us are susceptible, though few of us develop full-blown cases. Unfortunately, it takes only a few to do substantial damage—witness the recent example of  Dylann Roof, who shot nine people dead at a Bible study session in Charleston, SC, or the earlier instance of Timothy McVeigh, who rammed an explosive-filled truck into a federal building in Oklahoma City, OK, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more. When fanatics join together in groups, their capacity for damage can multiply, as they reinforce each other.  Fanatics may yearn for a vague, undifferentiated rosy future (or return to a rosier past) reachable if only “they” were not present—be they immigrants, blacks, Indians, Jews, gays and lesbians, or an unpopular president and his entourage. Fanatics accept promises of security and status in return for toeing a line laid out by some sect or governing authority. Strains of fanaticism are likely to resurface when people feel that their livelihoods or social standing are threatened.

At this point in U.S. and global politics, it can seem that we have incorporated some of the worst aspects of both factionalism and fanaticism into our civic processes and discourse. We seesaw between partisan gridlock and partisan whiplash, with different political factions often more interested in damaging their opponents or proving them wrong than in advancing the common good. Meanwhile, both traditional and social media have become inundated with inflamed and inflaming fanatical rhetoric, most based only loosely on fact, if at all.    

In my mostly secular life, mysticism has rarely surfaced, but the few incidents I remember have left a strong impression: an extended group yoga meditation session in which our breaths briefly became one breath; a knowledge, without physical communication, that a childhood friend was dying in a distant city, prompting me to pray for his safe transition from this life to whatever comes next; a sense, when I was later hospitalized overnight with a potentially life-threatening condition, that the prayers and good wishes of friends and acquaintances were pulsing through me, providing needed healing and strength. These brief encounters with whatever we choose to label the transcendent have gifted me with the understanding that we are all somehow related, inextricably connected. Imperfect creatures that we are, we can overcome both factionalism and fanaticism. Ends and means are inevitably linked. Twentieth century activist and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed the challenge this way, in a sermon broadcast at Christmas 1967, a year just as fraught as the times we are living through now:  “…in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and, ultimately, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”