Reflections: MLK Sunday | January 14

“Where do we go from here?”

Speaker: Kyle Kerley

Text: 1 John 3:11-18

For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. And we ought to lay down our lives for our family. If anyone has material possessions and see someone in  need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Let us NOT love with words, but with actions.

My name is Kyle Kerley. I’m honored that Joel asked me to speak today. There’s plenty of you that I don’t know, so I figured the reverse is also true – that some of you don’t know who I am – and I’ll start with an introduction. 

1) I am a nurse at a free clinic – very interested in the collisions of health and wealth and for that matter poverty and sickness. I’m also not too terribly interested in diagnosing a president so much as I am diagnosing a society that produced such a president.
2) I am a follower of Jesus – and where that meaning of that phrase is sometimes illusive, I am continually haunted by his name and his message.
3) And I’m an activist – a revolutionary socialist – believing as Martin Luther King did that what is required is – and I’ll quote from a speech I’ll talk about later – what is required is “restructuring the whole of American society”… He says later “America must be born again” It’s not simply that our system is broken and needs a bit of tweaking to be up-to-date. More so that our system is working just the way it is intended and any reform that comes through is an admission of guilt.

To paraphrase (The Other) Martin Luther:
“Here I am, God help me, I can do no other.”

I started coming to Columbus Mennonite Church just about 2 years ago and I’ve been blown away by what’s been going on here. This is my first and only experience with a Mennonite congregation (I grew up Lutheran) so I don’t know how much of this experience applies to all Mennonites vs how much is particular to here, but I can tell you what I’ve witnessed.

I’ve witnessed a multigenerational community welcome new people into the fold. I’ve seen them earnest to ask the hard questions and willing to challenge themselves to be stretched. I’ve seen them on the picket line and in the Lucky’s Market line, at coffee shops and at anti-racist workshops.

I used to sit over in this area on Sundays – house right. Now over here – house left. I played at last year’s open mic and have made it into 2 Columbus Mennonite Contact Directories now. So I’ve earned my stripes.

One of the things I admire most about Martin Luther King Jr – and I’ve learned to love this about Jesus, too – is King never really “preached to the choir.” He always found a way to challenge the listener. He was a gadfly not only to all of American society but to his audience and in turn they were forced not to raise their already-views to a higher power, but to set King’s views squarely next to their own and have them collide – in hopes for some dialectic synthesis – something entirely new coming out on the other side. I hope to do the same. Hopefully some of what I say comes in gently and familiar. I hope some of it challenges you.  
The Speech

So where do we go from here? That’s the title of this section of the program and it’s also the title of the last speech King gave to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before his assassination 50 years ago.

It’s not his most known speech – it’s no platinum record I Have A Dream – but it’s one of my favorites. A deep cut. And honestly one of his more notable speeches Post Voting Rights Act, Post Nobel Peace Prize, Post Coming Out against the War in Vietnam, and even after he started the Poor People’s Campaign. When people talk about how later in Martin’s life his message started getting more direct and more radical – this is the kind of stuff they are referring to. I encourage you to find it online and read through it – or talk to me after service and I’ll make sure you get a copy.

Where Are We?

He says in his speech, “Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ … we must first honestly recognize where we are now.”

And I won’t be able to go section by section, summarize them and pull out how it applies to today, but I think it’s important to do it for this one.

50 years after the death of Martin Luther King, the United States in often referred to as “post-racial” or “colorblind.” Until last year, there was a generation of children who have only ever known a Black president. There is increasingly more representation of Black people in our Hollywood elite, millionaire class, and elected officials, giving the impression that we are in an equal opportunity America now. As Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor said in her book From #BlackLivesMatter To Black Liberation, “Where there is bad treatment on the basis of race, it is viewed as the product of lapsed personal behavior and morality, but it is ‘no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom,’ as President Obama suggested in a speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.”

But the fact of the matter is that racism and oppression are still uplifted by the system. As recent as this Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on racial gerrymandering in Texas. Black Americans make up just 13% of the population but make up 31% of all people killed by police and 40% of the prison population. This in the largest carceral system in the world where the US population accounts for 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. And if you’ve seen the Netflix documentary 13th, you’ll know that as the era of Mass Incarceration is lauded for being a thing of the past, it is only being replaced by a just-as-racist new era of Correctional Control – where someone is incarcerated but at home wearing the same exact ankle monitor as Edith Espinal is wearing today. On all metrics of wellbeing – occupation, home ownership, literacy, health, life expectancy – Blacks are scored lower. And if there is a “narrowing of the gap” it is not because conditions for Blacks in the United States is getting better, but because across the board, conditions for working people are getting more and more perilous.

But I haven’t gotten to my point yet and my time is running out.  
Where Do We Go From Here?

Martin Luther King, Jr expertly and unrelentlessly goes through the demands. Not only full employment (which he contests will not happen under capitalism as unemployment is baked into its genes), but universal basic income for all people and getting out of of ALL military intervention abroad. These are the “reforms” he lays out. And today if you even mention disarming the police, dismantling a nuclear arsenal that could blow up the world 5 times over, justice for Arabs in occupied Palestine, single-payer healthcare, free education, or an end to border walls, you are at risk of being labelled a communist – which I would take to be a compliment. These are the reforms – the compromises. The closest we can do today to live into the 1 John 3 verse read before my talk and the line in Acts 2 “they gave anyone who had need, breaking bread with sincere hearts.”

The Challenge: What does love look like?

Near the end of King’s speech he doubles down on love saying famously “I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to [humanity’s] problems.”

I would love to agree, but I need to be careful when I say this, because I don’t want to be misheard. When King says love he does not mean decency. He does not mean niceness. In this context he means justice. “Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Cornel West says “justice is what love looks like in public.” And this can be dirty and gritty and it has to be (the good kind of) militant and in the streets. This whole section on where we go from here he never mentions voting campaigns. That is not to say it isn’t important but 50 years after Martin, our idea of Black Liberation should not be contained in a get out the vote campaign for any political party, let alone ones still interested in specializing drone strikes and supporting Israeli apartheid in Palestine at a federal level and at a local level will not hold a criminal justice system accountable for murdering a 13 year child. Tyre King. (The Other King).

As I said on Facebook once “I’m okay with the hashtag #LoveTrumpsHate so long as it’s coupled with and understanding that loving your neighbor looks like the politics of solidarity.” This implies a militancy to our love. Because people deserve freedom and nothing less than that. The status quo isn’t peaceful and doing nothing isn’t peaceful as well. The system we live in has a slow, quiet violence to it and as Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concereds nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” I’m okay with our mission being a mission of love so long as our love is a demand to power that we all be free.

Barbra will go more in depth during her time on what this can look like in action, but I wanted to leave you with the challenge that love in this context looks like resistance and demands and power.

My last point on love. Love is not being pleasant but love is knowing evil and placing oneself where evil can’t help but notice you. Dorothee Soelle, a Marxist-feminist theologian writes:

“The Gospels say of Jesus that he cast out demons because they knew him. He had become known. He intervened in the sickness of others and he rebelled against the rule of the demons who were in charge… To believe in [Jesus] does not mean just saying “terrific guy” but becoming like him. It means being known by the demons, being feared by them. Becoming militant, clear, and more and more fearless. With him, like him”

As King says, “America must be born again.” And to follow up with 1 John, it should happen through revolutionary love. Not with our words, but with our bodies. Thank you.



Reparations and Revival

Speaker: Barb Gant

Scripture: Micah 6:6-8

For the last couple of years, a number of us at Columbus Mennonite, especially some of us who carry White Privilege and have a lot to learn, have been learning about racism and what we might be able to do toward undoing racism. We’ve read books that included “Trouble I’ve Seen”, by Drew Hart, “The New Jim Crow”, by Michele Alexander, and “Dear White Christians” by Jennifer Harvey.  Those of us who were in the most recent “antiracism” Sunday School class decided that, although there was not an Antiracism Sunday School class on the schedule this term, we were not done with learning and wanted to take action as well.

The rest of what I have to say is about 3 Calls To Action.  If any of these Calls resonate with you, then they are FOR YOU.

Call 1:  It’s been more than one and a half centuries since the official end of slavery in the U.S., but we obviously still have long-term effects in our society, with African-Americans disadvantaged and frequently traumatized by these effects and White persons, as a group, advantaged by them.  Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a (not so frequently quoted speech) in which he stated that, after emancipation, while former slaves were not given any land to live on and farm, millions of acres of land in the Midwest and West (which we might note had formerly been occupied by Native Americans) were given by the U.S. government to “undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor” furthermore, providing Government-funded education for farming, low interest loans, and other benefits not afforded to Black persons. In talking about his intended March to Washington, Dr. King said that “When we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check!”

These words may be heard now as a challenge for those of us with White Privilege to make Reparations (that is, compensation to African-Americans for the ravages of slavery and its after-effects) as a necessity of justice.  While wanting to make Reparations, even thinking about this can be overwhelming.  A group called Coming To the Table (with the acronym slogan of Taking America Beyond the Legacy of Enslavement: TABLE) has been working on ideas for Reparations for 3 years. This week, the group released a 22 page “Reparations Guide” with suggestions for both Personal Reparations by those of us with White Privilege and for Community and Societal Reparations.  A few of the guide’s many suggestions include for White people to self-examine and learn before doing anything else, to speak up in situations of witnessing racism, to hire African-Americans for jobs, to insist on truth-telling about history, and to work to undo the New Jim Crow that exists in the mass incarceration of Black Americans, including disruption of the “school to prison pipeline” that BREAD has worked on. The Reparations Guide is available in pdf form and I will make it available by sharing it with the church office.

Call 2: Following up on the last Antiracism Sunday School class, led by Adam Glass, seven of us from CMC recently attended a meeting of Standing Up for Racial Justice AKA SURJ (another group I recommend), where we encountered a new call for action. We acknowledge that racism is prevalent in the U.S. Criminal Justice system at every level and that Ohio has the fourth largest state prison population in the U.S., with 4 times more incarcerated in 2015 compared to 1980. Imprisonment rates of Black people are nearly six times those of white people.  A high percentage of persons in prison are incarcerated for drug-related offenses and the racial disparity persists with these convictions despite rates of drug use among Black persons being no higher than among White persons.  At SURJ, we were invited to participate in a ballot initiative for a measure to amend the Ohio constitution that would reduce incarceration, as well as help to decriminalize and treat addiction in Ohio. This ballot initiative, called the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation amendment is designed to “cut-off the addiction-to-prison pipeline” by reclassifying drug possession and use charges from felony status to misdemeanor and to do so retroactively for possession-only charges. It would also reduce prison time for inmates who participate in rehabilitation in prison, eliminate incarcerations for noncriminal probation violations, and increase access to substance abuse treatment.  In order to have this ballot initiative on the November 2018 ballot, many thousands of signatures of registered voters must be collected by the end of June.  JoAnn Knapke has obtained a couple of ballot petitions for people from CMC to sign, beginning today.

Call 3: Toward the end of his life, Dr. King had come to believe that focusing on Civil Rights for African-Americans was not enough, because the evil of White Supremacy had created a host of ills that impacted everyone in the U.S. in one form or another.  He especially began to target Poverty, as an ill that disproportionately affected African-Americans, but also others as well, and he planned a Poor People’s Campaign, which was ultimately led by others due to King’s assassination.  The Poor People’s Campaign in the summer of 1968, included a March on Washington with a call for economic justice.  But 50 years later, economic justice is far from achieved and it is time for a Revival!  In this 50th anniversary year, there are plans for a new Poor People’s Campaign.  Earlier this week there was a teach-in event about this Campaign, called The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which is set on “uniting tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, and the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation’s distorted morality.” This Poor People’s Campaign is rooted in nonviolence, is concerned with justice for all, calling us to action for a sustained Movement, picking up what Rev. King started.  There will be a Kickoff for the Campaign on February 5, with 40 days of action, including nonviolent Civil Disobedience from May 13 to June 21, and likely, other trainings and actions as well.  At the end of the teach-in, I confessed to the leader of the teach-in, that I’m scared to death of being arrested, but I signed up anyway, hoping to be Divinely provided with Courage by the time of the Civil Disobedience actions.  She assured me that not everyone would be arrested, that there is plenty of work to do, and I was welcome anyway.  I hope that others from CMC will join this campaign, the founding of which was rooted in Faith and is about Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly.

I close with a quote attributed to the Talmud, which I find encouraging when I feel overwhelmed and inadequate to make even the smallest difference.  The quote is: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly now.  Love mercy now.  Walk humbly now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

May we be granted Wisdom and Courage to answer the Call.  AMEN