Category Archives: justice

Wishing for a Treaty

In distress, my daughter who loves the music of Leonard Cohen phoned us parents just after the November U.S. elections. Cohen, she said, was dead. I was reminded of the prior Sunday when Cohen’s just-released “Treaty” came on the radio and we heard it, rapt, for the first time.

Now Cohen is dead at 82. An election has been held. A presidential transition has been completed. Shock and awe is underway. We yearn for safe passage across unmapped terrain. I wonder if in “Treaty” Cohen gives clues. In lyrics that, as so often with Cohen, echo the Bible, he evokes turning water into wine, Jubilee, the snake baffled by sin. Wishing “there was a treaty we could sign,” Cohen sings of being angry and tired and not caring “who takes this bloody hill.” He wishes for a treaty “Between your love and mine.”

“Treaty” also reminds me of Will Campbell’s journey during dynamics so different yet so connected with today’s. A Baptist minister who sharply challenged his own denomination’s racism, Campbell was a fiery civil rights fighter in the 1960s. In Brother to a Dragonfly (Continuum, 1977, pp. 245-247), a heartrending memoir of brokenness and justice and grace, Campbell tells of putting his life on the line for civil rights—while gradually realizing that even the “enemy,” the KKK, deserved some understanding.

Campbell tells of President Johnson’s nationally televised warning to the Klan, in which Johnson says, “Get out of the Klan, and back into decent society while there is still time.” Then he says this:

The closing five words must certainly have been heard by those in the Klan as a threat from an impending police state. And the President did not tell them just how they could get into the decent society of which he spoke, how they could break out of the cycle of milltown squalor, generations of poverty, a racist society presided over, not by a pitiful and powerless few people marching around a burning cross in a Carolina cow pasture, not by a Georgia farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right, but by those in the “decent society” to which the President referred, the mammas and the daddies of the young radicals who would soon go home to run the mills, the factories, the courthouses and legislative halls, the universities and churches and prisons they were then threatening to burn to the ground.

Campbell is not interested in justifying the Klan. But he is realizing that the Klan is not only a fount of evil, though it is that, but also a product of the “same social forces” that have produced national structures of violence and violation, including the then-raging Vietnam War.

As he grapples with tragedies of race and class and cruelty shredding 1960s America, Campbell remains a fierce prophet. Listening to leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Campbell also concludes that “to do something in race relations maybe we should go work with our own people“ and that in relation to the Klan he was “learner more than I was teacher.”

Offering a striking echo in The New York Times, Trevor Noah insists that “We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.”

Presidents, governors, politicians scorn opponents. Executive edicts are issued and political “nuclear options” are launched. The wheel of power turns; the flamethrowers rotate; the prior regime’s goals burst into flame. The next regime, somehow always sure its era will forever endure, happily starts piling the tinder for its (and maybe our) own demise.

There are stunningly problematic trends strengthening in the U.S. as brothers and sisters belonging to vulnerable populations are reviled or barred, scriptural commands to take special care of the strangers and sojourners are violated,  money talks louder than ever, a fragile earth is trampled. Prophetic naming of travesties is called for. Yet if we can do no better than vilify, will the turning of the wheel ever stop?

Writing of her quest to participate in a women’s march in a spirit of “Solidarity Without Enmity,” Lindsey Paris-Lopez says that

the spirit of solidarity that infused Saturday’s marches worldwide was hopeful and invigorating. But solidarity can be channeled over and against enemies, or it can be channeled toward a vision of ever-widening inclusivity that rejects the concept of enmity altogether. Such a vision is fueled by fierce love that doesn’t let injustice stand, but honors the truth that even perpetrators of injustice can be redeemed. It acknowledges that we have come and are coming together through reconciliation and mercy, and it offers to extend the same mercy and reconciliation to the people behind the oppressive systems that must be torn down. May such a fierce love guide the movement birthed in these women’s marches around the nation and around the world.

“I wish . . .” sings Leonard Cohen, as his life fades toward its end while a country divides, “I wish there was a treaty / Between your love and mine.”

—Michael A. King is dean of Eastern Mennonite University’s seminary and graduate programs. The Campbell section is indebted to King’s book Fractured Dance (Pandora Press U.S., 2001, pp. 174-176). He writes the column “Unseen Hands” for Mennonite World Review, which published an earlier version of this post.

Mysteriously Upheld

KCMainBlogPostThumb200x200x72Experiencing the known world as falling apart is no new thing. That’s what reading Dead Wake, in which Erik Larson tells of the German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania and how this drew the U.S into World War I, reminded me. To be suddenly plunged into World War I or II would stun us.

Still we live amid our own sense that normalcy is not holding. That’s why stories about the end of civilization are popular. Of many apocalyptic novels I’ve read, a favorite is Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s elegiac account of disease striking all Earth, grounding the planes, leaving her main characters living in an airport before finally they must see what’s left beyond.

Her vision sears my heart. This is because she shows in fast-forward what we fear is already unfolding in slow motion. It’s also because, even post-apocalypse, she spies hope. Her final pages gleam.

Mandel inspires me to keep pursuing hope. Even now. Especially now. That’s what I’m pointing toward with “Unseen Hands,” the title of my new quarterly column for Mennonite World Review (which will also appear as Kingsview & Co blog posts). I want to pursue the unseen hands in personal experiences; larger church, cultural, and global dynamics; biblical resources.

The image itself, which comes from a dream I later heard echoed in Marty Stuart’s “The Unseen Hand” gospel song, launches me on the journey. Unseen hands are for me first of all personal. They came to me in that years-ago dream when the mountains seemed too many and high. I was climbing what in waking moments is the steepest grade I regularly encounter. Suddenly unseen hands, giant invisible hands, supported my back. Same hill. Same life. But newly walkable.

Years later an invitation to an assignment that scared me came by cell phone just as I was climbing that same hill. I remembered the dream. I felt the hands. I said the yes that might otherwise have been no.

Meanwhile in the larger culture I glimpse unseen hands in, of all places, those richly layered, streaming TV shows suitable for binge watching. Two examples: The Killing and River. Both touch on painful issues of the day, whether racism, immigration, tensions across cultures and religions as diversity soars. They address sin, shadows, sickness of soul. Yet also, quite strikingly, they ask about atonement, forgiveness, healing. Main characters in both are broken people, grappling with addictions, abuse experienced and inflicted, abandonment. Both show tussles with mental illness that simultaneously scar and strengthen sufferers.

And both, so sparingly yet so movingly that when the moment comes it outshines most sermons, point toward unseen hands. Each offers scenes in which golden light breaks through not only metaphorically but literally. Yet what could be cliché makes the soul shiver—maybe because earned by the unsparing (if perhaps over the top in latter episodes of The Killing) portrayals of streets and characters drenched in rain, violence, wrong turns, and sorrow.

I sometimes wonder how the Jews survive their own apocalypse. As exiles by the rivers of Babylon they weep, hanging up their harps rather than, as Psalm 137 indicates, singing God’s song “in a foreign land.”

Walter Brueggemann (The Message of the Psalms, 75-76) says they do it in ways I recognize from The Killing and River: honestly naming their bitter realities, including their raging thirst for vengeance, while maintaining a “resilient . . . . hope against enormous odds.” They stay true to a vision of the Lord’s unseen hands through which “There will be a homecoming to peace, justice, and freedom.”

They have much to teach us.

Michael A. King is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and a vice-president at Eastern Mennonite University; columnist, “Unseen Hands,” for Mennonite World Review which first published this post; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC.

Friday night at the IWC* Guest House, by Jonathan Beachy

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Friday night at the IWC* Guest House

The knots in the homemade comforter
Feel like prayers trying to keep the
Hardness of the cold wooden floor
From seeping further into my back

Tonight the house is full of pain, past
Abuse, death, violence, terror—
Beds and sofas are full of guests
But there is floor space, and a comforter

The true comforter, however, is not under my
Back but in the room next door—
Abused, raped, threatened, desperate she
Pled for asylum for ten months

Her midnight songs and prayers opened doors
And now shake the earth in my heart
Rattling my complacence and false
Comfort on a hard wooden floor

—Jonathan Beachy, San Antonio, Texas, has spent a life time caring for and being enriched by persons society often rejects. Currently those persons are special needs students, but historically they have also included prison inmates, and indigenous persons in South America. Volunteering with Interfaith Welcome Coalition has allowed Beachy to see the face of Jesus over and over in the faces of refugee women and children crying out for help, for “caring for one of the least of these, is caring for me” (Jesus).

*Interfaith Welcome Coalition. IWC is a response and presence for refugee women and children who have fled unspeakable horrors in their Central American countries of origin. On their arrival at the Unites States border, they turn themselves in, requesting help. Their “crime” is to have requested help, and so they are detained in for-profit prisons (euphemistically called “Family Detention Centers”) until they can meet bond or are granted asylum.

Editor’s note: I want to thank Jonathan Beachy for being a catalyst for the launching of Kingsview & Co. His asking about venues for publishing poetry like this helped me decide it was time to extend DreamSeeker Magazine, which often published poetry, through this new blog. In light of this, I’m particularly pleased that Jonathan’s is the very first guest post. —Michael A. King