In the Name of

I recently heard someone who’s obsessed with honorifics opine that we should never mention Martin Luther King Jr. without his full titles.  I think I understand the reason, but I was reminded of my wife’s experience in Edinburgh.  Being Americans we assumed that “Doctor” was the preferred title of academics.  While tying up a letter for one of the higher ups in the medical school, she saw he’d signed himself “Mr. Gordon.”  She corrected this to “Dr. Gordon.”  When she gave it to him to sign he lamented that she’d demoted him.  The highest honorific, beyond the exalted “Professor,” was the humble “Mister.”  I’ve never forgotten that story.  University folk are all about titles.

I made the mistake of addressing my advisor as “Doctor” when we first met.  “Professor,” he corrected me.  In the British system, at least at the time, a department had only one “Professor,” the rest being “Lecturer” or “Senior Lecturer” or “Reader.”  The latter three were all addressed as “Doctor.”  The Professor alone had that singular title.  As my wife discovered, on beyond Professor lay Mister.  I’m a pretty informal guy.  When I was teaching I did insist that students call me “Doctor,” in part because I was young (I finished my doctorate at 29), and I’m small in stature.  And soft-spoken.  So that students didn’t take to calling me “son”—some at the seminary were old enough to have been my father—I kept the boundaries clear.  If I ever get a teaching post again I’ll insist students call me by my first name.

This day is about Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was a remarkable man who accomplished amazing things in the horribly racist America in which he was raised.  Unfortunately Trump has ushered in a renewed era of racism and our Black brothers and sisters find themselves still having to fight for fair treatment.  This reflects badly on the white man, as it should.  Still, to rely on titles is to play the white man’s game.  We honor each other more deeply, it seems to me, when we recognize that titles are, by their very nature, means of asserting superiority.  We offer our personal names to those closest to us, to those who humanize us rather than seeing us as an office.  Honor is important.  Titles can lead to better jobs (but not necessarily).  They can lead to higher pay (but not always).  We honor Martin Luther King, Jr. today by recognizing his great accomplishments and by realizing we all still have much work to do before we all really have names.


Anticipating Holidays

There’s that mundanity that sets in after the twelve days of Christmas are over that reminds us we’re back into regular time.  Many people no longer believe in the sacred, but the holidays are still sacred time.  January can be kind of stark that way.  Once we reach Halloween the rest of the year seems achievable, but there’s a lot to do between now and then.  Reemerging from the run-up to the holidays—it’s the long period of anticipation for the rest that comes at the end of the  year—back to what is now being called BAU (business as usual) is like cold water on your face first thing in the morning.  Each time I wonder if I’ll have the energy to do it all again.

Holidays punctuate and define our year.  It may be that your December holiday is fading now to a (hopefully) pleasant memory, but depending on your employer you might have Martin Luther King Day coming up soon.  I’ve known people to complain that it comes too soon after they’ve already had a few days off and they’d rather have a different day, later.  That kind of misses the point.  Business analysts (whom business leaders listen too except when they don’t like what they say) suggest that the four-day work week is sufficient to achieve what we need, now that we’re connected all the time.  Some jobs, of course, require your physical body to be in a specific geographic location and there’s not much that can be done about that.  Hours can be reduced if more people are hired, but we’re going through a strange period of people quitting their jobs.  I’ve always wondered what that must feel like.  Is it like a long holiday, only with even more financial worries?

The twelve days are over, and although I didn’t have all of them off I kind of wonder where they went.  Some folks are eager to get the tree down and decorations put away.  To look out at the blank canvas of snow and envision how to paint the year ahead.  Others of us see the wisdom of hibernation.  Bears seem to have the right idea.  Still, I enjoy the starkness of January.  The cold can be bracing and the snow a chore to remove.  But being out in it can become a kind of holiday in its own right.  Our time on earth should be a time of celebration, even as we look forward to the holidays later this year.


BLM, MLK, and Justice

Martin Luther King Jr. was a martyr.  The word martyr means “witness.”  Given what we’ve all seen done by the Republican Party over the past two weeks, let’s hope they at least know the meaning of the word repentance.  King died trying to set people free.  Half a century later we’ve had to witness a sitting US president praising an armed mob, some of whom were carrying confederate flags, storm the Capitol.  Then, that very night, we watched Republicans still attempt to repress legitimate votes in order to keep white supremacy in power.  The set-backs of the Trump administration will take years to overcome.  King stood for equality.  He called for fair treatment.  He knew his Bible.  Now those who cynically hold the Good Book up for the camera can’t quote it but can tear down everything it stands for.

We need Martin Luther King Day.  This year especially.  We need to be reminded that all people deserve fair treatment.  Justice isn’t a meaningless word.  The color of one’s skin is no indicator of inherent worth—that belongs to everybody.  Throughout the country there are heartfelt memorials to King.  The various Trump towers—often segregated and reserved for the wealthy—are monuments of a different sort.  There is power in symbols.  Those who praise and crave money above human need will ultimately be remembered for how evil seeped into their bones.  How hatred of others and narcissism defined their rotten moral core.  Today we try to focus on a good example, but present reality keeps getting in the way.

Four years ago I joined about 1.3 million marchers in Washington, DC.  The Women’s March, as estimated by government officials on the ground, was more than twice as large as the media estimates still tout.  I’ve puzzled over this for four years—why when an oppressed group makes a stand officials and pundits feel the need to downplay it.  King made a stand and he had a dream that one day we wouldn’t have to make marches on Washington just so that everyone could have the equal treatment they deserve.  Human rights are the only rights we have.  Even as some haters are planning further acts of violence to object to a humanitarian president, we are given a necessary reminder that all people deserve fair treatment.  Black lives do matter.  Why has half a century not been enough to assimilate that simple message?  We need to sober up from the drunkenness of irresponsible power.  We need to learn the simple fact that nobody should be killed for being black.  That whiteness is toxic.  That we need to call out those who would use privilege to claim otherwise.


Remember This

Have you ever had one of those days?  You know the kind I mean—a day when you feel like you’re forgetting something.  Wednesday was like that for me.  You see, the first full week back to work after a long weekend (Martin Luther King Day) seems to stretch out like a desert road whose end you can’t see.  It always hits me on Wednesday.  The previous week the third day of work was the day before Friday (and I mean “Friday” metaphorically, as the last work day of the week).  The first full week you’ve been at it three days and on Wednesdays I realize, “I’ve got two more days to go.”  So, although it was sunny around here, I sulked all day feeling like I’d forgotten something.  I had.

I post on this blog every day.  I have for many years.  The way this works on WordPress is you get your post ready and you’re given an option to publish.  I get my post ready before going to work (which in my case means going upstairs to my office).  I delude myself into thinking I have regular readers and that they will be looking for the post at its usual time—around 6:30 (I start work early).  Wednesday I finished my post even earlier than usual and I thought, “I’d better not publish now, or my readers won’t see it.”  I trudged upstairs, however, and began to work.  Once work starts, all bets are off.  Even with the sun warming my chilly bones, I had a nagging feeling I was forgetting something.  I’d forgotten to click “publish.”  My post, which had been waiting patiently for publication (I know how that feels!) never got launched.  I didn’t discover this until Thursday.

You see, we’re not supposed to use social media at work.   Although I work remotely, unlike Republicans I play by established rules.  So I went through my day feeling I’d forgotten something, but not knowing what.  It’s not that I forgot you, my dear readers, I just forgot to click “publish” before heading up to work.  At the end of work, after staring at a computer screen all day long, I tend not to go online.  Most days I read a book, or get supper ready.  So I awoke on Thursday to find Wednesday’s post, well, unposted.  Some of us aren’t constitutionally compatible with the nine-to-five schedule.  My mind goes lots of places during the day.  Often those places are reminding me how many more days I have to do this before a break comes.  And some weeks, it seems, it never does.  If I recall correctly.


Now You Don’t

Quite some time ago I realized I should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  What put me off, as usual, was length.  Long books take a real time commitment, but since Black History month is coming up, and we’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King, I planned ahead and read.  A profound book, at several points I felt like a voyeur reading it.  The African-American experience of life is something I always feel uncomfortable approaching.  I’m afraid of appropriation, and I’m afraid of not paying attention.  I grew up not having a sense of racism, but nevertheless am implicated in the whole.  Maybe that was intentional.  As a story Invisible Man is often described as a picaresque, but having an unreliable narrator who was a victim of my own culture was difficult to countenance.  It was hard to know what to think.

We never understand another person’s experience of life.  We sympathize, we empathize, but we can’t really get inside the head of even our best friends.  I can’t help but think we’d all be better off we recognized that race is a social construct, and a potentially evil one at that.  We are all human beings and we should act that way.  But this novel left me wondering if it’s really possible.  Good novels will do that to you.  So I’m sitting here scratching my head and a little bit flummoxed by what I’ve just experienced.  Was it authentic or can I not help but project my own experience as an non-minority upon someone else’s writing?  Even questions like this are socially conditioned.  I too am trapped in my own mind.

You might think that by this time we would have evolved beyond our distrust of those long separated from us by natural barriers.  Homo sapiens are distrustful of strangers, and even the internet hasn’t brought us the understanding we require.  Not yet, anyway.  The background to “race relations” in the United States can’t be separated from slavery and the attitudes it engendered.  On almost every page of Invisible Man its traces can be seen.  That kind of cultural memory, and other cultural memories such as Jews being routinely castigated by Christians, or monotheists being raised to combat polytheism, are deep dividers.  Our cure for these evils is understanding.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of literary fiction.  It rings true, however, and although it represents a world I do not know the fact of its publication invites  those of us outside the tradition to read.  Indeed, doing so is one way of attempting to reach understanding.


Truth, Justice, and

Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Boston University School of Theology long before I did.  We remember him today as a great leader, a man willing to die for what he believed in.  And all these years later we’re still struggling to find some semblance of racial equality.  We can’t seem to admit that race is a social construct and not a scientific category.  Indeed, the only race is the human race.  King saw that, and staked his life on it.  Today we’re ruled by politicians who, when faced with the truth immediately shout “fake news!”  “Liberal!”  They may stop short of using some words not because they don’t want to, but because they could cost them at the polls come November.  America is watching.  I’m sitting here thinking how Martin Luther King died when I was just five.  He’d started something righteous and just.  And millions were out marching in the cold on Saturday to say we still believe in justice. 

I didn’t pick Boston University School of Theology just because King was its most famous alum.  The other day a guy noticed my BU stocking cap and asked if it was “Boston University.”  This wasn’t an educated person, but I’m guessing that most school paraphernalia has to do with sports and the game was on in the background, so the question was logical.  I told him it was Binghamton University, a school with which I also have an intimate connection, one step removed.  He said, “Binghamton!  I saw your cap and thought Baylor?  No.  Must be Boston.”  But ironically he ended up with the right school for me, but the wrong school for what I was wearing.  I did pick BU because I realized that strong academics are nothing without social justice.  Of course, academia wanted nothing to do with that.

Recently I read how Republican resentment towards liberals has very solid roots in racism.  Oh, they will deny it—their “fake news” trigger-finger is very itchy—but the whole package is tied up with anger that an African-American was elected president.  Follow that up with an old, white racist.  How will history look back on this insane era?  I think we already know.  While the privileged are trying to build their own legacies, I ponder an African-American preacher with clear vision as the one we remember today.  I went to Boston University naive and full of hope.  I heard a lot about King when I was there.  I knew something of dreams and how costly they could be.  Today I sit here and cuddle the epithet “liberal” and think how it’s become a swear word for some, while its real meaning of “justice” continues to go unheeded.


Kings and Fiends

Martin Luther King Jr. was, and is, a symbol of hope. This day, as we’re encouraged to think of progress, we’re mired under leadership that less than a week ago used derogatory language to describe people that aren’t white enough for his liking. Those who, like King, have a dream, are under attack by a government that has pledged its allegiance to the dollar. The dollar in the hand of the white man. From the days of the prophets on the dream of a just and fair society has been the ideal. Instead we find ourselves under the ultimate party of privilege that likes to quote the Bible but which admires Pharaoh far more than Moses. They claim to see the promised land, and that land belongs only to them.

I was too young, as a seminary student, to appreciate I was walking the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King. Sitting in the same classrooms. It had all been before my time. Because of the Bible I first took an interest in history—eager to learn how we’d come to this place. Ronald Reagan—who now amazingly seems rather benign—was making it difficult for the poor by promoting “trickle down economics.” We all saw how that worked. The modern-day Pharaohs may not wear the impressive headdress of antiquity, but they’re no less fond of owning slaves. King understood that non-violence comes with a cost. It takes time. Unlike the present administration, he understood the difference between right and wrong.

The Pharaoh in the White House makes it difficult to appreciate any progress at all. We have come to see what it means to be a nation that solely, utterly worships Mammon. The voice of the Bible is weak and shouted down by those who see no gain in it for themselves. There were surely those in Egypt who were poor but who appreciated the Pharaoh. At least he was enslaving those from somewhere else, according to Exodus. According to the Good Book it was God himself who opposed this system, but now, according to the evangelicals, God has blessed it. It is the will of God to rob the poor of their health care so that the rich can add even more to their too much. On this Martin Luther King day we struggle to find hope in such a world. The hope is there, but we have to be willing to dare to dream.


Women and Men

I’m going to the Women’s March in Washington, DC next weekend. At an organizing meeting yesterday it occurred to me that someone might ask me why. Why would a white, male, straight, employed-with-health-insurance person bother to go through the disruption, effort, and hassle of getting to the capital to protest when I personally stand to lose little? That question has stayed with me and although I haven’t articulated an answer, I’ve never questioned the decision either. So why am I going to a women’s event?

I am a son, a husband, and a father. The son of a mother, the husband of a wife, and the father of a daughter. Having been largely raised by a woman on her own, I came to realize early on that all the good I experienced in life was because of the effort of one woman fiercely determined to help her boys get ahead in life. Without the help of a man.

I am married to a woman who has had to face prolonged periods of my unemployment because an institution run by men dismissed me for standing up for minorities. As I have struggled with my career since then, often she has earned the lioness’s share of our household income. When I couldn’t find full-time work we relied on her steadiness to provide our healthcare.

I am the father of a daughter. She is part of the future and I can’t sleep at night if I don’t do everything within my power to ensure that her world is better than mine. A world where women share completely equal rights with men. Get paid the same as men for the same work. Aren’t forced to be biological slaves because men often act without thought of consequences.

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Today is Martin Luther King Day. I’m not an African American, but I believe the same truth applies. All human beings deserve equal rights. If those of us who personally stand to loose nothing do nothing one thing is certain—everyone loses. A friend implied, back in November, that this election was simply a matter of fiscal conservatism. That wasn’t the ticket on which the rails to electoral success were greased. It was a ticket of racial and gender superiority. A message of entitlement. Pulled by a locomotive of caucasian testosterone. Why am I going to Washington next weekend? Because I believe that the only way to be truly human is to recognize, respect, and resist any efforts to relinquish the rights of any person who calls this nation home.


Just Justice

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It was not intentionally because it was Martin Luther King Junior’s alma mater that I chose to attend Boston University School of Theology. King’s legacy there was certainly a perk, but I had found the seminary engaging because it had a rare combination, at least in my limited experience, of academic rigor and a strong sense of social justice. Too often, it seems, academic enterprises become dispassionate and social justice becomes one of those squishy human element sorts of things that really can’t be quantified. We pursue knowledge without really thinking if its impact will be positive or not. At least fair or not. Fairness is a concept rooted in belief, and, as studies of primates show us, it is very deeply embedded in us. What has it to do with academic achievement?

This Martin Luther King day, I’m concerned about how difficult social justice is to find, even in those places where we expect it to reside. Taking second place to doctrine in many churches, social justice is more of an uncomfortable requirement than a true passion. This winter I’ve noticed more and more homeless on the streets. Our “economy” seems to dictate that many have to be losers so that few can be big winners. Instead of helping them out, I see authority figures come along to shoo them out of the way before those who have jobs have to come that way. We don’t want to be reminded that we might lose everything as well. Affluent society requires victims, and we can be very academic about it.

I have to admit to relegating holidays to that mere Monday off work. The relentless wheels of capitalism ever turn, and only with reluctance do our companies grudgingly give us ten days spread throughout the year to recuperate. The next slated holiday comes in May. Will there be social justice by then? With the eventual warming of the air by that season, will we simply blend those without homes into the less well-dressed and pretend that we have achieved a fair society after all? What do we really celebrate today? Is it just another morning to sleep in, or is there something more to it? A dream that won’t be extinguished until fairness is established? Seems like a worthy idea, at least in theory. But until then you’ll find us at our desks, working to keep the system strong. And hopefully, we won’t forget to dream.