Twice a year I will write an extended four-part (“scholarly-lite”) reflection on the intersection between theology and another topic. This essay series represents an accumulation of theological reflection, reading, lecturing, and public presentations on the post-1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. This four part series is not a biography, apology, or polemic. Nor is this an exhaustive treatment of King. This essay series offers us a chance to (1) dig deeper than mainstream (coopted) presentations of King, (2) introduce or present a small portion of African American cultural production, (3) think about importance/challenge of prophetic utterance in the midst of status quos of idolatry and injustice, and (4) think about religion and theology in a way that differs from mainstream western epistemology.
Let’s go down the rabbit hole… Take some time out, flex your mind, take a breath, be open, and follow me…
PLEASE look at this clip before you read.
Introduction: MLK post-1965, Anti-Vietnam War and the Poor People’s Campaign…
After 1965/Selma, King moved in a direction that most mainstream media outlets refuse to show. In short, King began to increasingly critique foreign and domestic US policy as immoral and violent. One of the primary objectives of this series of essays is to recover this side of King. If one’s understanding of King ends with the “I Have a Dream Speech” or Selma then folks are missing the last 3-5 years of his life. This begs the question: how did we arrive to this mollified and truncated understanding of King? I’ll save my answer until the end of this series…
Before I begin my theological reflection on King and black prophetic imagination, let me make 5 quick passing remarks concerning the post-1965 King and the Civil Rights Movement by way of the clip above.
1. The 1950s-60s Civil Rights Movement was more than integration and desegregation of buildings and educational institutions…
2. …Economic and Social relationships needed to be changed as well…
3. …To that end, King and other leaders organized the Poor People’s Campaign. This campaign crossed racial lines to demand justice for those at the bottom of America. This movement contained poor whites, blacks, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. A poor people’s protest on Washington was planned in the summer of 1968.
4. On April 4, 1967, King formally opposed the war in Vietnam, which cost him support among clergypersons, whites, and many politicians, and the Feds placed him under increasing surveillance and the threats against his life became much more pervasive .
5. King’s legacy has been co-opted and his blistering critiques of militarism, racism, and economic exploitation have been silenced by mainstream media and politics.
I utilize King a great deal in class because he underscores the existential nature of religion. Stated differently, religions bind us to transcendent and immanent realities. At their best, religions are relational, and seek to explain and question the relationship between those things that are beyond us and those things that are around us by way of ritual, performance, community, and (sometimes) text. King understood this connection quite well: we are bound to transcendent and immanent realities and the question is how should we and how do we relate to these realities. Ideally, we should keep the transcendent in balance with the immanent, and King’s sermons and speeches often reveal this balance; and indeed Black prophetic imagination often exists in this balance. (Hence the Yin and Yang symbols superimposed upon King in the picture above)
But let me say this: King is barely the tip of the iceberg in terms of theory, theology, wisdom, and social critique within Black communities. He was not flawless and some of his positions were and remain compromised. However, for those who have a hard time accepting the Vietnam-era King, it’s almost impossible to think that they can hear Shirley Chisholm, James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Huey P. Newton, Ruby Sales, Malcolm X, etc…
Black Prophetic Imagination
Black Prophetic Imagination (from a Christian perspective) is birthed from an experiential juxtaposition: on the one hand, it involves the religious experiences—rooted in a particular God-consciousness, religious performances, oral traditions, and biblical witness—of persons and communities who creatively embody and project the possibilities of community, liberation, and love in God; and on the other hand, this religious experience is accompanied by a social experience of a group of people racialized and who identify themselves as “Black” even as they seek to live as holistic human beings in a world that routinely neglects their personhood and seems absurd.
Break that down, dun:
A particular form of Black Prophetic Imagination is birthed from (at least) two experiences.
The first experience is “religious.” This religious experience emerges out of a combination of God-consciousness, religious ritual and performance (such as preaching, praying, moaning, singing), biblical witness, and oral traditions outside of the Bible. This religious experience gives the community a spiritual avenue to creatively pursue community, liberation, and the love of God. Because I am focusing on King, my view is within the Christian tradition.
The second experience is social. The social experience is one where this community has been racialized and/or identifies as “black,” even as this community seeks to live as holistic human beings. This holistic pursuit of one’s humanity is a struggle because the purpose of race and racism in Modernity is to justify (and reify) the social pecking order of competitive advantage amongst human groups throughout the world. Christianity was an explicit tool in the process of determining and justifying competitive advantage.
See Digression #1 on race and racism in Modernity.
Concretely, racialization creates a social-existential experience routinely marred by systemic contradiction and injustice for black folk (and indeed for most humans under the auspices of Modernity). So even though black communities pursue holistic human living, there yet remains the persistent reality of injustice and the uncertainty and absurdity of life.
In order for a Black Prophetic Imagiantion to emerge, religious experience must be in contact with social experience. These two experiences inform, challenge, and support the other even as their concerns do not always overlap.
Black Communities: About and Beyond Race
Martin Luther King, Jr. was not an isolated individual. He arose from a particular community, and this community gave him language and visions of the world. One of the languages and visions given to him was a particular form of Prophetic Imagination. Make no mistake: prophetic imagination was, is, and will be birthed in community for the sake of community.
When I say “Black,” I am not speaking simply about race, I am speaking about communities. Racialized communities are not monolithic, and the term “Black” does not point to a singular experience shared by all “black” people. Rather, for me, the term is a shorthand way of speaking about a diverse group of people racialized/self-idenifying as black, but being more than the racial designation. In other words, King’s community was not trying to simply “be black.” Black folk were also trying to be human beings and live holistically even as they affirmed, struggled with, or tried to move beyond modern constructions of racial identity.
Let me say this another way. King said in the video above that desegregation was not only about racial injustice (which was the immanent situation). Additionally, it was about human decency (the transcendent situation). To not be able to sleep in a hotel but to have to sleep in my car because I cannot stay at a segregated hotel is not simply a “racial”/immanent issue. It says something transcendent about my humanity. A good night’s sleep is valuable to any traveling animal, particularly a human being. To deny this fundamental need is not only racial/immanent discrimination. This is transcendent dehumanization. The fight to have a good night’s sleep is the fight against discrimination and dehumanization. So race/racism is a factor in the struggle, but so is the fact that folks want to have a modicum of their humanity preserved in social interactions.
So this prophetic imagination of black communities wasn’t just trying to be “black.” It was also demanding something “transcendent:” We are human beings and should be treated as such. This side of the prophetic imagination is beyond America, the constitution, and the vote. This side is beyond race, class, and gender. This is the transcendent, eternal, and generic cry of the dehumanized: “Damn it, we are human beings too.” To neglect this aspect of black community and to insist that community is tied primarily or only to race–so that black community = racial community only and not human community too–is problematic in my view. The emphasis on either one at the expense of the other ruins and weakens the spiritual strength of the prophetic. Transcendent does not mean better or more important. Immanent does not mean lesser or weaker.
Yin and Yang. Goku and Vegeta. Naruto and Sasuke. Ichigo and Ishida. God and human. Not either/or. Not black or white. Not Batman or Superman. Not MJ or LeBron. Not Black lives or Blue Lives.
Repent of that epistemology. If complexity and complementarity ain’t yo thang, then this will be hard to digest. But hey, some things in this universe are both waves and particles.
See Digression #2 for further clarification.
Besides racial identification, King and his community are human beings, struggling, like all human beings, to make sense of and live in the world. Yet, their particular communal existence in America also colors the way they look at the world. It is this push and pull–between generic and specific, personal and communal, universal and particular human experience–that a Black prophetic imagination taps into.
Because of this push and pull, Black prophetic imagination is located within a community that seeks to respond to not only white supremacy, but to anything that seeks to become ultimate or godlike. This is the reason, for instance, that King could talk about a triple-headed monster of evil: militarism, racism, and economic exploitation (though patriarchal domination is noticeably absent). Far from seeing racism as the only problem, King adroitly recognized the intersectionality of multiple oppressions, not just because he was concerned for social justice. He was concerned about it, but his passion for social justice could never be disentangled from his concern from God.
See Digression #3 for an important disclaimer.
To be prophetic requires a deep trust in God, and a kind of love for God that causes one to question any other reality that parades itself as “God.” This “God-consciousness” is not tied solely to the Bible, since my ancestors who developed this God-consciousness were illiterate and not given total access to Scripture–not to mention Scripture was used to justify slavery and many slaves infused their African cultural sensibilities into their appropriation of Christianity. So there is an indebtedness to the Bible, but like all other Christians, there is also a strong extra-biblical reality that impresses upon black prophetic imagination.
King not only protested social injustice because he was concerned for his brothers and sisters. He was also doing so out of a deep commitment of who he understood God to be. It is from this vantage point that we are able to understand the dual features of prophetic speech.
At its best, prophetic speech emerges out of the dynamic and complementary exchange between a God-consciousness wary of idolatry and a social consciousness wary of injustice. The first feature of prophetic speech is the utterance of a critique against the status quo. The second feature of prophetic utterance is that it consistently proclaims that other sets of relationships are possible than the present.
Both of these features place those who utter such speech in precarious and, at times, violent situations with the powers that be.
However, the prophet is compelled to speak anyway…
Helpful? Informative? Thought-provoking? I hope so. If so, follow me down the rabbit hole… Comments are welcome.
In Parts 2, 3, and 4 I will treat King’s approach to God-consciousness, critique of the status quo, and an alternate vision of relationships via three sermons…
Faith, Hope, and Love
© 2016 M. J. Sales
(YouTube clip notwithstanding)