Active and Ongoing

Here in Canada, yesterday was Monday – a Monday like any other Monday with the exception that the elementary school teachers in Toronto were on strike. It was a fitting demonstration for the spirit of the third Monday in January as I know it.  It still feels strange to me not to have Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on the calendar as a holiday.  Yet, its absence also serves to underscore its importance for me as an American, a Christian, and a clergyman.

For all intents and purposes, the third Monday of January is still just another Monday for many in the United States, too, even if they do have the day off. And even for those for whom it is a special and intentional day of service, the observance of MLK Day can distract from the urgency of the daily, ongoing struggle for equality.  Too many constitutional freedoms and inalienable rights are still denied far too many Americans – and Canadians, for that matter. A day of service once a year won’t remedy that.

I am reminded daily of Dr. King. In the centre of a wall in my church office hangs a photograph of the Civil Rights icon sharing a table in the cafeteria of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with my friend and former preaching professor, Dr. John Claypool, who in 1961 was the young pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Claypool had helped to organise the Louisville chapter of the NAACP and was asked to host Dr. King’s visit to the seminary campus.  A press photographer spotted the pair sipping coffee and chatting about the particulars of the upcoming chapel service where Dr. King would speak. When the photo appeared in the local newspaper the next day, it ignited a firestorm that almost cost Dr. Claypool his job.   The back-draft from his church and his community was swift and hot.  In 1961, Louisville, Kentucky, wasn’t a place where black men and white men shared tables.

1961 wasn’t all that long ago.

Memories fade.  Intentions falter.  New challenges emerge.  Society moves on.  Yesterday’s hard-won progress becomes today’s taken-for-granted routine.  The fact that many of us cannot fathom separate water fountains or store entrances for black and white is a sign that ground has been gained.  However, the forces of inequality have hardly surrendered.  They’re not even in retreat.

That is why remembering the struggle is as important as remembering the icon.  Civil Rights would not be what it was without Dr. King.  But the cause of civil rights would never have advanced without his courage coupled with the gumption of many other activists and preachers, professors and maids, cab drivers and school children, college students and sanitation workers who were willing to walk to work, to march in the streets, to sit down at lunch counters and cafeteria tables, and to absorb the verbal and physical flak of the resistance – day after day, week after week, month after month.  “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” ¹

That’s why that photograph hangs in my office with my various academic degrees in orbit around it.  That photo reminds me every day why MLK Day is needed, and why it is never enough. It reminds me every day of the prophetic call of the gospel – to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour – that is the reason why I set out to earn all those degrees; why I have an office in a church; why I entered the ministry in the first place. It reminds me every day to ask myself, “With whom do I stand (or sit) and to what end?” It reminds me every day that the good fight is an active and ongoing campaign – not a past victory to honour and celebrate one day out of the year.

 

¹ Read the full manuscript of Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” here.

Silence is Deafening, Even in a Vocal Crowd

The infamous “hot mic” recording of Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush about the various ways he’s forced himself upon women is now more than a week old, but it’s lurid shock-waves continue to reverberate. (NBC fired Billy Bush just yesterday). In the intervening days, I have applauded public figures who have denounced Trump’s behavior as inexcusable and unacceptable. I have “liked” a number of posts by friends on Facebook, especially female friends, rebuking his misogyny. I have cheered the pundits who have criticized politicians for couching their disapproval of Trump in terms of familial relationship (i.e., “as the father of [insert number] daughters, I am deeply offended…”) as if women’s value and self-respect somehow derive from their male relatives. I have also cringed as a handful of political surrogates, partisans, and (most abhorrent of all) religious leaders have either defended the Republican nominee or dismissed the recording as much ado about nothing. “It’s just ‘locker room talk,’ like he said.” “Bill Clinton did much worse” – you know, because Clinton’s philandering should clearly excuse Trump’s, or anyone else’s. Rush Limbaugh even went so far as to reject the very idea of consent as left-wing propaganda.

Yet, in my own words, I have said nothing publicly. Today I want to remedy that. I need to remedy that.

This has been my reasoning: “What can I add to the conversation? What can I possibly say that hasn’t already been said?” I’ve never engaged in this type of behavior. I agree that Trump’s acts, and his boasting about those acts, are both appalling. My wife knows that. My friends know that. Trump is flailing and failing in his retorts because there is no defense for either his behavior or his attitude. When something is indefensible, there is only so much that can be said about it. What would my repetition of these condemnations accomplish that hasn’t already been accomplished?

Well, one thing it will accomplish is to add my voice to the chorus of critics. Even if I don’t have anything new to say, my voice makes the chorus louder and more formidable. This is a chorus that needs to be as sonic as it possibly can be.

Another thing it will accomplish is to make me personally accountable for furthering the cause of gender equality, not just cheering it on.

Behavior like Trump’s persists because too many men, as well as too many women, remain silent about sexual harassment. We know why women often remain silent. They feel ashamed and embarrassed, and they know from centuries of experience that nothing consequential is likely to happen to the perpetrator. Instead, their stories will be questioned. Their dress, their body image, and their body language will all be scrutinized. And for their courage in speaking out they’ll be rewarded with the ongoing suggestion that they “must have done something” to bring this upon themselves.

Men remain silent for different reasons. Sometimes we don’t speak up because doing so would involve standing up to a friend, co-worker, or a boss and we simply don’t want to strain those relationships or jeopardize our careers. Sometimes we simply don’t see the more subtle acts of sexism for what they are. Other times we actually remain silent because we consider ourselves feminists. I know that’s why I personally have remained silent in the past. I admire the women around me. I see them as smart and strong and capable as well as beautiful. So, even when I’ve noticed the odd sexist comment or chauvinistic gesture at the office or in the church, I’ve typically let it slide because I’ve assumed that these smart, strong, liberated women will say something if it’s truly a problem. Or I’ve left it to my wife and others to “stand up for themselves,” because I believe they can and they should, because I’ve come to believe that a woman really does need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

And I’ve been wrong – not about women, but about the nature of sexism. Even as deep into the 21st century as we are, sexism isn’t a series of isolated incidents here and there, like shooting stars that zing across the sky once in a rare while; it’s a smog-like haze that never fully lifts in a woman’s world. Sexual harassment, in particular, is so much more pervasive than I’ve wanted to believe, because it’s about power as much as sex. It’s about sending clear patriarchal signals that, even if women are smart and strong and capable, they still exist primarily for men’s enjoyment, and they still don’t have the right to be fully present in the world except on men’s terms. @kellyoxford pulled back the veil on this toxic reality the day the Trump tape first leaked, when she asked women to Tweet their first experience of sexual assault. At one point, she received fifty tweets per minute – for fourteen straight hours.

So, every time I’ve let those sexist comments and gestures slide, even for “feminist reasons,” I’ve sided with the sexists. Every time I’ve chuckled at “locker room talk,” (much, much tamer than what Trump contends was just “locker room talk”), I’ve tacitly condoned rape culture. Every time I’ve applauded someone else’s stand against misogyny while I myself have remained seated, I’ve felt good but I’ve done little (if anything) to actually help advance the cause of equality.

That’s why, even if it’s a little late, speaking up is something important for me, personally, to do here and now. What Donald Trump said on that tape is reprehensible. At a minimum, he needs to apologize to and ask forgiveness directly from each and every woman he has molested.

And in the future, * I * need to speak out more quickly whenever women are objectified or patronized. All men need to, if we truly believe in equality.  It’s easy to pretend patriarchy isn’t really our problem, because we’re “not like that.” We’re enlightened and progressive. Nevertheless, the lust – both the carnal lust and the lust for superiority – that undergirds patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism resides in the male psyche, not the female body, and that makes it our problem. It makes it our responsibility. We need to own it and deal with it at the source.

This is especially true for those of us who claim to be disciples of Christ Jesus. There’s an old bumper sticker that reads: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” Christians should take this assertion one step further, because the gospel contains the radical idea that women are people created in the image of God. Who would ever talk about God the way Trump talked about Nancy O’Dell – or defend someone who did? I wonder.

So, men of the world: we need to speak up, each one of us, each and every time sexism rears its devilish head – individually and collectively. We need to check ourselves each and every day. We need to talk to, talk about, and interact with women as people made, like us, in the image of God. If we long to see a world in which women and men are truly equal, that’s the only way it will happen.

The cause of equality needs more than our applause or our thumbs up on Facebook.

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