Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Are We in a Kairos Moment?

In his book Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide theologian Robert McAfee Brown asks the question: “Is it a Kairos moment for us?” The book was published in 1993. Nearly two years earlier, a Los Angeles taxi driver named Rodney King was chased and then beaten by four LA police officers; a video camera captured the beatings and the whole world watched. A year later in August 1992 when the four officers were acquitted of charges of assault and battery, riots erupted in the South Central section of LA, and over 2000 persons were injured while 53 were killed. As South Central burned, Rodney King was quoted asking “Can't we all just get along?”

These events, and the national controversy that followed, highlighted a number of chronic ills in American society including institutional racism, economic disparity, police brutality, unequal educational opportunities, political polarity, and inequity in the criminal justice system. Brown wrote: "If ever there was a ‘Kairos time’ this is it.” (p. 109).

Kairos is a Greek word for time used in the New  (or Christian) Testament of the Bible to signify a moment for decision or a time for opportunity. Kairos contrasts with another Greek word for time, Chronos, which also appears in the New Testament, but refers to measured time or clock time. Chronos is used when we say “the time is 3 o’clock,” whereas Kairos is used when we say “our time has come!” Kairos means there is coming together of several factors that cause this moment to seem significantly pregnant with possibilities for new life, new action, and new opportunities.

So when Brown asks “Is it a Kairos moment?” what he is really asking is:  “Are we up to the challenge of the present opportunities? And “Are we ready to seize and act on those opportunities?” That question was posed over 20 years ago, and it would seem that the problems, challenges, and disparities that existed in 1993 have been greatly exacerbated in 2015. There is a chilling similarity in the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice to the beating of Rodney King. While not as devastating as the 1992 riots of South Central, there is an echo we hear in the 2015 riots in Baltimore. Racism, economic disparity, educational inequity, and police brutality are even more pronounced today than they were in 1993, and the political divide we see in legislatures from Washington D.C. to every state house and city hall makes 1993 seem like a harmonious time. If Brown could ask about Kairos in 1993, we have even more reason to do so in 2015.

The big difference I see today as opposed to 23 years ago, is that a sustained and organized movement linking racial, economic, social, and criminal justice together has taken shape in the country. Black Lives Matter has joined forces with the movements for a $15/hr. minimum wage, job creation, improved public education, and accountability for law enforcement officers. While there was looting in Ferguson and violence in Baltimore, what has emerged far stronger is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-class, cross-generational movement saying that things have got to change. Centuries ago St. Augustine of Hippo said that Hope has two daughters –anger at the way things are and courage to change them. In our time we see organized anger and courage confronting employers to raise their wages, pressuring legislators to fully fund public schools, and calling local police departments to public accountability.

To those who like and benefit from the way things are, this coordinated movement is not good news; in fact it is quite threatening. Those who live comfortable geographical and emotional distances from the suffering of the vast millions in our country don’t want to see their taxes raised, their profits diminished or their livelihood challenged. To many in positions of comfort and power, these events seem to suggest that the very fabric of the nation is coming unraveled. Their fears are well-founded because if this movement continues, the fabric of a society that benefits the few at the expense of the many will begin to unravel. If this movement continues, those who have been able to ignore and benefit indirectly from the status quo will find their comforts challenged.

I do not say these things lightly or without some fear of my own. The explosion of anger that occurred recently in Baltimore reveals a seething rage that exists in many communities. While no one is calling for or looking for violence, when rage is released, it can be destructive and devastating. This is why leadership is so critical, particularly among the young. The elders from the days of Civil Rights and other movements can advise, but the young carry the energy to move things forward. So the young leaders of the unions, racial justice, and social justice groups are so critical to capitalizing on this moment.

The fact is things must change in our society. The fact things are not as they should be in the U.S. When we have a public school system that systematically under-funds schools in poor areas and in communities of color, things must change. When ten percent of the population controls 70% of the wealth, things must change. When someone works a full time job for $7.25/hour and cannot afford to feed, house and clothe themselves much less their family, things must change. When Black and Brown men are twice as likely to be convicted and incarcerated for the same crimes committed by White folks, things must change.

These things must change, and if they do change, they will be disruptive to the society as we know it. The question remains: will these young leaders and the movements they represent seize the moment? Will things actually change? Perhaps it is too early to tell, but there seems to be an alignment of awareness, leadership, organization, and the will to challenge the dominant powers, and so it just might be we are in a Kairos moment.

[Images from Google Images]

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day and My “Cloud of Witnesses”

Memorial Day is a day to remember – particularly those who have fought and died in war. Originally called Decoration Day when it was begun following the Civil War, it was a day set aside to decorate the graves of those who had died in battle. On Memorial Day there are often marches and vigils for former veterans to be remembered.

I have never been one to glorify war, even though I feel deeply sad for those who have had to fight in one – usually not of their own choosing. Thus, I have rarely “celebrated” this day in any way that could be construed as “patriotic.”  However, I do like to pause remember those who have fought and died in the battle for peace and social justice. They are what the writer of Hebrews refers to as the “great cloud of witnesses” who guide me and inspire me by their lives and examples. 

Thus in no particular order let me share just a few of those who I remember as veterans for peace and social justice. While others inspire me who are still living, these are some who have passed on but who live in and thru me in so many ways. The descriptions are in no way comprehensive and are only given for identification purposes.

Martin Luther King, Jr – Civil rights leader, killed in 1968 during a Memphis garbage workers strike.

Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi – leader for freedom and justice in India in the early 20th century

Frederick Douglass – former slave, abolitionist, advocate of rights for women and African Americans in the 19th century

Viola Liuzzo – woman who went to Selma during the march of 1965; murdered by the KKK while transporting marchers back and forth

John Woolman – Quaker in the 18th century who convinced Quakers of relinquish their slaves

Myles Horton – founder of Highlander and educator for civil rights, labor justice and so much more

Henri Nouwen – priest, contemplative, one who sought to link prayer and action in all things

Anne Braden – civil rights activist in Louisville, who along with her husband advocated for equal housing rights for African Americans in the 1950’s, a lifelong activist into her 80’s

Abraham Joshua Heschel – Jewish Rabbi, mystic, friend of Martin Luther King, advocate for justice

Nelson Mandela - South African leader who led the fight to overturn apartheid

Tom Scheuermann – my youth leader (in Young Life) who more than anyone shaped my faith

Kemah Washington – friend and cellmate following our action against a gun shop in 2009

John Rankin – white abolitionist preacher in southern Ohio who sheltered thousands of runaway slaves on their trek North to freedom

Levi Coffin – Quaker abolitionist in Indiana and Cincinnati who helped thousands escaping slavery  to freedom

Reinhold Niebuhr – theologian and public intellectual in the mid 20th century who linked faith and justice

Clarence Jordan – founder of Koinonia farms a deliberately inter-racial Christian community in south Georgia, died in his late 50’s in 1968.

Oscar Romero – Salvadoran Archbishop in El Salvador killed in the 1980’s for his support of of the oppressed of that country

Paulo Freire – Brazilian educator, one who brought literacy to the poor in a way that both educated and empowered them

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German pastor and theologian killed in a Nazi prison in 1945 shortly before the end of World War II.

Sis Boyd – my mother, my constant supporter, the one who first showed me compassion for the world, died 2005.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Kemah Washington - The Passing of a Great Man and A Good Friend

This past Thursday, May 14 I learned of the passing of a good friend, Kemah Washington. Kemah and I were brought together on a cold January afternoon in 2009, when we joined 10 others in protesting the process of straw purchasing being conducted in and through Colismo’s gun shop. Fred Kaufman, Kemah and I sat down in front of the door leading into the store, when they would not allow us to enter to ask Mr. Colisimo to sign the Responsible Gun Dealer’s Code of Conduct. In and through that protest, the interfaith, gun violence prevention organization Heeding God’s Call was born.

Kemah, Fred and I were put in the same cell, and for much of that time Kemah talked about his late father, Fr. Paul Washington, former rector of Church of the Advocate in North Philly. Fr. Washington was an organizer, an activist, and a man of God who lived his faith out in a pursuit of justice. As one drives down Ridge Ave in North Philly across from Fairmount Park, there is a building size mural of Fr. Washington overlooking a playground – a tribute to Fr. Washington love for the people of North Philly. Kemah told us story after story of the how his father had worked for the improvement of his community, and what an amazing activist and person he was.

Because of his father’s experience and his own efforts to bring about change, Kemah knew what often happened to Black men in a jail cell – they ended staying much longer than need be. I could see that the 12 hours he spent there really wore on him. He confided to me that while he was glad he took part in the action against Colisimos, he didn't want to spend any more time in jail than he had to. I was glad when he was released 12 hours after we were arrested. I stayed another 13 hours, but I am sure it would have run him down; I know it did me.

While not as famous as his father, Kemah was well known in North Philly for his efforts to carry on his father’s mission, sponsoring all sorts of community events, including an incredible jazz festival of local artists and poets. I attended one of those festivals; it was nothing short of amazing. After our arrest and trial, Kemah continued to stand outside Colisimos twice a week calling attention to complicity in the straw purchasing process. I sometimes joined him thru the hot summer days out there, and we would share stories of life. Every time I saw him he simply referred to me as his “cellmate.”

Kemah and I came from different worlds. I grew up in a comfortable Midwestern suburb while he was raised in the stressed community in North Philly. Yet the act of civil disobedience brought us together, and in the midst of our shared experience we realized we had much in common: the love of families, concern for our kids, frustrations with our jobs and a desire to see a safer, less violent city.

In the last few years my main contact with Kemah was through email and Facebook. He was always sending out announcements about various cultural and political events in North Philly from concerts and poetry readings to gatherings to call for the release of death row inmate Abu Mumia Jamal. I had recently heard he had gotten sick and I wanted to reach out to him. I did not realize it was this serious, and now I regret not reaching out earlier. However, mostly I am grateful for having known and shared a special moment –albeit in a grungy, smelly jail cell – with this humble man of God who cared so deeply for people and who touched so many lives – including mine.