Last summer, my family took a cross country tour heading directly east from Phoenix, through San Antonio, New Orleans, up north through Alabama. We went specifically to Montgomery to visit some of the civl rights museums and sites, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and home and the freedom rider’s bus stop. The tour guide for Martin Luther King Jr.’s home was an unexpected highlight. She had a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion for the subject. She is old enough to have experienced the abject poverty that came from being black in the Jim Crow south and talented enough to leverage the gains of civil rights for personal success. She has seen both sides of the civil rights movement and met a number of historical people along the way.
When we made our way into the kitchen of the home, she described the night when Martin Luther King came home late, lying in bed when the phone rang. Answering, Dr. King heard an anonymous person on the line threatening to kill his family unless they left Alabama in three days. After the call, he sat alone in the kitchen wondering how he could leave town without showing he was succumbing to pressure. Sitting there, pouring his heart to God, he received an overwhelming feeling to continue his work. The rest, of course, is history. The tour guide called that moment a prophetic call and declared that spot sacred. Just a bit later, she looked directly into my eyes and explained how as a young girl she was told to never look a white man directly in the eyes. It was a powerful experience.
The difference between then and now was that America, especially in the south, used identity politics as an oppressive tool to keep some in power and to suppress and terrorize others who wanted more of it. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to transcend identity politics. In his most famous speech, he describes what most definitely was post-racial, in which we are judged “not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character”.
Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting identity politics with compassion, energy and love, calling it out with force and energy. He opposed violence with peace and preached the Christian theology of unconditional love for one’s enemies. He did this with the nation watching and won the argument because he had the better position and eventually convinced the country of it. Laws were passed and eventually enforced and legal segregation collapsed.
I must admit, standing in his kitchen that day and visiting the civil rights sites, I felt moved. I felt a deep desire to become part of something similar, something bigger then myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to stand up to an oppressive power, to dig deep within myself to stand up against evil.
Which brings the political struggle of 2017 into context. Sam Harris recently tweeted in response to the recent events at Charlottesville:
In 2017, all identity politics is detestable. But surely white identity politics is the most detestable of all.
What’s interesting is the triviality of the subject matter that instigated the violence. The marchers were protesting statues but undergirding it was something bigger and darker – white resentment spurred on ostensibly by an economy that’s become more global, less certain, and that’s been threatening to knock the white male worker off from the pedestal he (we) have enjoyed for all these years.
So, given the context of American history, white identity politics is horrifying. Sam Harris has also been critical of black identity politics as manifest in movements such as Black Lives Matter. I can’t begin to defend or explain Harris’ objection to black identity politics, but I think I can add my own explanation for why it’s perhaps not the right response to what ails us in 2017 and why the impulse to recreate the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. is both understandable and wrong.
First of all, I believe racism necessarily persists. The systems and structures, the culture and the stereotypes that have been built up and driven into the American psyche since before it’s founding doesn’t just disappear without real work. One can’t look at our prison population, the political or business leadership, or the professional class and not notice the disparities of the black and brown representation in these important sectors. One cannot legitimately blame these population discrepancies on the black population themselves. Those in more elite positions have a responsibility here.
But both the cause and the response to black male imprisonment, crime and poverty are multi-faceted, disputed and complicated and will likely require money, resources, and sustained political commitment – a commitment to recruit black male and female teachers, a commitment to enact police reform, a commitment to find alternatives to incarceration that is both compassionate and effective. It’s hard, difficult, potentially expensive and not entirely satisfying work. Essentially, the response is largely political at all levels and will require bi-partisan support to make happen. I don’t think we get to that consensus through screaming matches or protest marches. We get there through painful, difficult conversations, intelligent voting and a deep commitment to the communities we live in.
Martin Luther King’s marches worked because the injustices were obvious and the solutions to it were obvious, though difficult. Stop lynching black people. Stop preventing blacks from enjoying the same resources as white people. Our racial past was shameful, obviously shameful. It took a charismatic preacher and television cameras to make this case and eventually the political will to do the most basic thing was achieved – enforce laws to protect black people from white violence.
What’s interesting here is that Martin Luther King was not evoking identity politics at least in my understanding of it. Rather, he was transcending it. He was arguing against it. It was George Wallace and the segregationists who were invoking identity politics. But identity politics continues, in both political parties in different ways. For the purpose of this essay, let me focus in on the identity politics of the left because it is a big reason why Donald Trump won. And I think that’s the key. If you want to end discrimination, we have to transcend identity politics and strive for a unified reform instead. A drive to reach for what we have in common rather than a constant obsession of what makes us different.
Let me shift to the identification of sexuality. In my church, one of its leading members took a lot of heat when he said in response to the question “how can homosexual members of the church live and remain steadfast in the gospel” that there are no homosexual members of the church:
If that’s all you heard out of context, you would think he was trying to say gay Mormons simply don’t exist, which is an obvious absurdity. He wasn’t, keep listening. Rather than classifying an individual along the single dimension of sexual attraction, he wanted to think about each of us as children of God, all connected and alike, though each with an innumerable collection of characteristics that make us unique. Our sexual attraction is one physical characteristic among many. Really, we all have to walk a life filled with challenges. Our physical, emotional, and social gifts, quirks and limitations will open some doors, close others and provide both challenges and opportunities. The challenge through it all is to extend love and grace in all of the dizzying array of circumstances we encounter in our life.
Of course, there is more to this response that one can take issue with, but in terms of identity, I think Elder Bednar makes a good point.
And I think that’s generally right. Though it’s true that gay, lesbian, transgendered people are discriminated in horrifying ways, especially within the Mormon community. Carol Lynn Pearson writes movingly, story after story about gay Mormons rejected by family, depressed and isolated. It’s heartbreaking and unnecessary. How could a parent reject a child who comes out as gay unless they are somehow able to reduce them solely to their sexual preference and then dismiss them for that alone. They are still their child. They are still a child of God. They are still worthy of love. Their identity is so much bigger than this one characteristic, no matter what your religious or ethical views of that characteristic might be.
I think one way to transcend identity abuse is to move beyond identity politics. I think there are ways to reach a broader consensus then to boil down a person to a single identifying label. I believe the reason why gay marriage became legal was not because an obsession of the LGBT community as a minority group distinct and different from the rest of us. Rather I think the marginalization of the gay population as an distinctly different class of people was what justified government neglect in the face of AIDS back in the 1980’s. Saying gay people deserved the AIDS virus was a practice in identity politics.
What worked, instead, was when people from all walks of life came out as gay. When we saw ourselves in each other and when we realized how much we have in common. It wasn’t identity, it was unity that eventually pushed the country toward marriage equality.
Perhaps there is a lesson here.
Because I don’t believe God plays identity politics. I think He actively works against it. In The Vision of All, the Mormon scholar, Joseph Spencer, dives deep into the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. Basically, the Book of Mormon prophet, Nephi, spends a lot of scriptural real estate quoting and explaining Isaiah. The reason, Spencer argues, has a lot to do with God’s desire to transcend tribalism and to bring peace.
In Chapter VII:
And so God calls Abraham. He takes one man and through him launches a new nation – or really a non-nation, a nation that won’t work like a nation. Remember how the story begins, with God telling Abraham, ‘Get thee out of they country, and from they kindred, and from they father’s house’ (Gen. 12:1). He’s to strip himself of nationality, and then he’s to go wandering. Through him a new nation would come into existence, but from the outset it’s to be a rather different sort of thing from the other nations. They mark borders and claim lands, but his children are to do everything possible to establish peace among the nations. And they’re to do so by blessing ‘all families of the earth’. They’re to rework the very order of the world, replacing the national with the familial, war with peace. This is what the stories of Abraham in the Book of Genesis are all about, remember. Abraham is the figure of hospitality and peace. He’s the guy who makes peace with Egypt, with Lot, with the king of Sodom, with Melchizedek, with Abimelech, with Ephron the Hitite. He’s the guy who welcomes the strangers in and feeds them, the same strangers that nearby nations (Sodom, Gomorrah) treat with terrible violence (rape as a way of putting newcomers into their place). Abraham is the figure of faith and obedience, but also of hospitality, of peacemaking.
His children inherit this task. Israel is born, a whole nation that’s supposed to be ready to assume the Abrahamic project. But the rest of the Bible is the story of their failure to understand this. They want to be a nation like other nations. They want imperial power and they hope to extend their borders. They see their covenantal relationship with God to mean that they’re different from other nations only in that God backs them up. And so they find themselves in constant trouble. And God sends them prophets to get them out of trouble, or at least to call them back to their responsibilities. There’s an especially important prophet who comes along in the eight century when the covenantal status of Israel is under the most serious threat since Egypt. You can guess his name: Isaiah. He lays into Israel, trying to call them back into their covenantal task, to the work of redeeming all the Gentile nations by teaching them peace. At the outset of his remarkable book of prophecy, there’s an especially Abrahamic promise of what’s to come when Israel finally fulfills its task. The Gentile nations won’t be learning war anymore, because they’ll be beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Abandoning violence at least, they instead decide to join Israel in worshiping the Lord at his temple.
This is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.
See what’s described here? The Abrahamic covenant was never meant to separate Israel from the world. It’s goal always was to bring the gentile population into the covenant with them, a covenant of peace and unity. A covenant to “beat swords into plowshares”.
But I get it. Marches are fun. We all want to hold up a sign and shout and scream. We all want a revolution.
But you know, we don’t need a revolution. The problems we’re facing right now doesn’t call for one, because “you know it’s going to be alright”.
But what we really need right now is love. Yes, all we need is love…