“The past is not dead. It’s not even the past.” –William Faulkner
Last week the President of the United States employed tough talk in response to the escalating tension with North Korea. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump declared from his New Jersey golf resort. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Diplomats from many sides found his threat troubling. Yet rather than toning down his rhetoric, the President took to twitter to declare that the United States is “locked and loaded.” One might call this his John Wayne approach to international relations.
Yet this is one reason that I found the President’s call for calm and peace in the wake of violence in Charlottesville so problematic. The same person who prides himself on being a “straight shooter,” and swims in toxic doses of testosterone when it comes to nuclear weapons, had the audacity to denounce violence from “many sides.” For a country that has embraced a “Stand Your Ground” approach to conflict, it is an egregious fallacy of false equivalence to reduce courageous men and women like Heather Heyer to pathetic white supremacists and fascists.
Why the hypocrisy and equivocation? The President cannot expect us to believe that he can be Cowboy-In-Chief on Monday and transform into Gandhi by the weekend. And even if we ignore the apparent dog whistle politics to the President’s base of supporters—a wink to those who profess Black Lives Matter as “terrorists,” and insist that the removal of Confederate symbols is somehow racist against whites—the moral inconsistency is incomprehensible.
The bottom line is that the White House cannot condemn those who are willing to stand their ground against racist, sexist, anti-Semitic thugs when it is willing to play fast and loose with nuclear weapons. Nor can the White House call for peace in the streets, when its current occupant employs such vile, vicious, and violent language that dehumanizes a large swath of this country, particularly Mexican and Muslim Americans.
Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is the result and reward of an earnest pursuit of justice. Not some conception of justice that plays to the faux-grievances of those of us who want to protect our wealth, white, and/or male entitlements. But rather our willingness to challenge laws, policies, and practices that allow some to be born on third base while acting as if they hit a triple, while asking others to hit a home run with half a bat.
As long as this current administration pedals in sexism, bigotry, and xenophobia, the executive branch will continue to bolster the sick and twisted boys who showed up in Charlottesville with their Confederate flags, Swastikas, and “Make America Great Again” hats.
As long as the legislative and judicial branches of state and federal government ignore economic inequality, feed the prison industrial complex with draconian policies targeting the poor, and promote “religious freedom” bills that baptize religious bigotry, pain and despair will continue to self-medicate in the forms of gun violence and opiate addiction.
And as long as you and I continue to look for easy scapegoats and embrace simplistic solutions for this country’s deep and enduring challenges, then what we witnessed in Charlottesville is just a preview of darker days to come.
I finished Yaa Gyasi’s incredible novel Homegoing last night. It is a riveting tale of a family over seven generations that begins with two half sisters in 18th century West Africa. From the slave dungeons under Cape Coast Castle, through the Great Migration, to a doctoral program at Stanford University we witness the tragic, terrible, and beautiful cultural transitions that historian Ira Berlin would describe as the “making of African Americans.”
I’m not going to spoil it for you. Yet there is a scene that caught my attention. James, the grandson of a white British official and a Asante woman Effia, does not want to become the leader of his tribe. He chooses love over war. He opts for a simple life over being a “Big Man.” In pursuit of his passions, he visits Aunty Mampanyin, a local tribal doctor.
“Aunty,” James says, “they say that you make impossible things possible.”
She replies, “I can only make the possible attainable. Do you see the difference?”
I think this is an important way to think about our faith. Too often we appeal to faith in hopes of something “miraculous” or otherwise impossible. We spend our time praying for the divine intervention and for God to “turn our situation all the way around.” I get it. This is important and sometimes necessary.
Yet when we think of faith as making “the possible attainable,” we are doing something different, but just as necessary. Faith becomes the source of our focus. Faith becomes the fuel that catalyzes our dedication and determination. Faith fosters our ability to develop healthy, positive habits. As a result, we may find that our next miracle is already in reach. We may discover that we actually have the power to turn our situation all the way around.
Keep the Faith! Keep your Focus!
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13
On Monday I served as guest lecturer in AAAS10, Introduction to African American Studies. Professors Henry Louis Gates and Larry Bobo invited me to discuss the history of African American Protestantism in the United States, a daunting task for a fifty minute time slot. Yet the assigned readings, which included Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion and James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, allowed me to focus on black religion as a tool of liberation from oppression.
It is always a privilege to champion the incredible efforts of our student athletes at Harvard University. Coach Tommy Amaker and the four time reigning Ivy League Champions represent what makes me proud to be at Harvard.
Herbie Hanock, the 2014 Norton Lecturer, will deliver a series of six talks on "The Ethics of Jazz" over the coming months. The first talk, "The Wisdom of Miles Davis," will take place at 4pm on Monday, February 3, at Sanders Theatre. The full series of lectures will be:
This week marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signature speech, the Gettysburg Address. The two-minute address is widely considered a staple of American history and defining moment of moral leadership for President Lincoln. The president underscores the appropriate themes such as the equality of humanity, a commitment to democracy, and the redemptive nature of suffering and sacrifice. Yet he strikes a sober and somber tone of humility. There is no sense of military hubris or pride of victory. Though the cause may be just, the death and destruction associated with war is always a tragedy for all parties involved.
It is no secret that Benjamin Elijah Mays is one of my intellectual and ministerial inspirations. The former president of Morehouse College, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and groundbreaking sociologist of religion typified ethical leadership on the global stage. This is why it was such a privilege for me to share with the students, faculty, and alums of Howard University Divinity School this week at their 97th annual Convocation.
Prior to his career at Morehouse College, Mays served as dean of Howard Divinity from 1934-1940. When I stepped foot inside of Mays Hall, I was welcomed by this memorial. The Mays quote at the bottom captures the life of a man who was born a sharecropper in South Carolina, yet went on to graduate from Bates College and earn his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
“It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is the sin.”