“Malcolm and Jesus”

Howard Thurman once said: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself.” A few months ago, I finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and turned to the brief essay by Ossie Davis that closes the book. Yes, I thought, Malcolm was a man who knew how to be faithful to what Thurman called “the genuine.” One of the things I find compelling about Malcolm’s life is his self-directed education. At an early age, Malcolm’s family was shattered by his father’s death, his mother’s mental health struggles, the stresses of poverty and the racist practices of social service workers. In his teens, he moved to Boston, and then Harlem. For a time, he worked for the railroad, spending his nights dancing the lindy hop with an incredible athleticism. To look more “white” he bleached and straightened his hair with lye that burned his scalp. He dealt drugs and used drugs and eventually joined a gang of home invaders. One of the prisons he ended up in had an extensive library. He tried to read. But he knew so few words that he couldn’t understand the books. So for hours and days and weeks on end, he literally copied words, one at a time, until he had written out, and studied all the words in the dictionary. Then, he began to read, almost around the clock, books of every sort. Each night, he read in his cell, by the faint glow of the corridor light, until 3 or 4 in the morning.

Through all this study, and an intensive correspondence with Elijah Mohammed, the founder of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm came to understand the erasure of “the glorious history of the black man” and the white-washing of “horrible slave-trade truths.” (p. 185) The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils—literally. Though Malcolm eventually denounced this philosophy, he continued to proclaim the uncomfortable kernel of truth within it: the simple, clear fact that throughout history (as he put it) “the white man sure has acted like a devil.” (p. 186)

I am pondering Malcolm’s legacy today because, for me, he represents the truths about race that, by and large, white people and institutions have never really been willing to hear. Of course Martin Luther King preached about these realities, too. But Dr. King’s legacy is often co-opted, the most radical and difficult elements of his message and his methods of change, softened and silenced. The fact that only white people questioned Davis’ choice to give a eulogy for Malcolm X strikes me as incredibly important. It illustrates the profound gap between the way white people and people of color tend to see the world. This chasm of vision and empathy is evident today as well: in the way many white people cannot fathom the pain and rage that gives urgency to the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements of liberation led by oppressed peoples.

The system of white supremacy that continues to rule over us all doesn’t just disadvantage some people; it functions by denying their full humanity. I hear this in operation in our president’s troubling words this week. His comments about countries in the world in which a majority of people are not white are not merely rude; he is in fact speaking the language of dehumanization, the language that enables genocide. At the “Seeing All As God’s Children” event last Sunday, one of the speakers quoted holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who said: “No human being is illegal.” Wiesel pointed out that the Nazis made the Jews an illegal people. “When you are illegal,” he argued, “what can’t they do to you?”[1]

In our story from the book of I Samuel, God calls the young prophet to a life of deep listening. We learn that Samuel does not yet know God; he does not possess the experience or the wisdom to distinguish the voice of God from all the other noise that is within and around him. And yet, God calls him, awakens him, persistently and patiently. God calls Samuel through his mother Hannah’s prophetic voice—through her clear recognition that he was born to embody God’s intention to stand with, and amplify, the unheard voices of the poor, the hungry, the grieving. And God calls Samuel through the humility of his mentor, Eli, who knew, in his heart of hearts, that a time of judgment was coming upon himself and his sons. God would correct their abuses of power, God would restore the integrity of the institution they served. God called Samuel into a life of deep listening, a life of communion with honest truths, a life guided by the “sound of the genuine.”

The deep listening to which our faith calls each of us is a paradox. It is, on the one hand, an encounter with the living God. And God is a voice that comes from outside of us, a presence that breaks through all that keeps our perspective small, all that leaves our imagination barren, all the devil-ish lies we’ve been taught to believe, all the ways we grasp with greed at things that cannot comfort us. On the other hand, our encounters with the divine cannot really be pulled apart from our encounters with our own deeper self. Jesus’ call to repentance in his first sermon is also a call toward a life of deep listening. The time is right, and full, Jesus says. God is near. Repent—turn toward all that God is doing—leave a space inside yourself for the sound of the genuine to inhabit you, guide you, give you hope—and trust that your collaboration with God will bring good news, healing and liberation for yourself and for the world.

Malcolm X describes “fishing” for black Christians after they finished worship at storefront churches in Harlem. He would argue his case for Islam like this:

The blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a white Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that’s his God, the white man’s God. The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we’re dead, while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars right here on this earth! (p. 224)

Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s keynote speech at the Minnesota Conference of the UCC annual meeting a few years ago was a moment of revelation for me. She described how, in the late 1960s, white people and churches turned their backs on the Black Power movement, rejecting the call for reparations and clinging to a vision of immediate racial reconciliation. “In Black Power’s analysis,” she explained, “the primary problem was not segregation for which the fix became integration…. The problem was power and systemic white exploitation.” On May 4 1969, Black activists interrupted worship at the Riverside Church in New York to read the Black Manifesto, which demanded that white churches and synagogues offer $500,000,000 in reparations. Harvey remarks: “I probably don’t have to tell you that if white Christians disparaged Black Power, they positively excoriated the Black Manifesto, and ran from demands being made by their fellow Christians with more fervor and passion than they had ever run towards civil rights. If any doubt had remained about whether realizing ‘beloved community’ might be difficult, it was gone … So racial alienation came to rule the day.”[2]

Many creative and wonderful ideas are emerging now about how reparations might actually happen. Soon you’ll be hearing more about the project of MARCH called “Community Well.” And this week, ISAIAH is launching their faith agenda. Those who commit to be faith delegates will go to their caucuses seeking to become a delegate to their party’s state convention. ISAIAH’s goal is to put 100 faith delegates in place. As delegates receive calls from the candidates for governor and senate, they will remain uncommitted to a candidate. They will tell the candidates that they will vote for whoever can commit most fully to the faith agenda. This faith delegate process is about building real independent political power in our state. This is the work of repentance, of turning away from politics as usual and toward a politics that nurtures the concrete and material conditions in which the humanity of all can flourish. I’ve committed to be a faith delegate myself. In the back there are copies of the faith agenda and the dates and times when faith delegates will be trained. Let me know if you are moved to join me; many, many people will be needed to make this strategy work.

Today, let us honor Martin and Malcolm and all the prophetic voices of the civil rights movement by listening to them, more deeply than ever before. Let us listen within ourselves, for the sound of the genuine. Let us listen to that voice of God within us, which names us, and names all creation, beloved.


[1] https://longislandwins.com/news/national/no-human-being-is-illegal-and-elie-wiesel/

[2] from “Dear White Christians . . . Now What?” A speech delivered June 14, 2015, to the Minnesota Conference of the UCC.