by Rev. Kwame Osei Reed
Today I remember words that were spoken on the eve of the first official celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My pastor, a friend of Martin King said, We need this holy day: not just to honor one man, though he is the martyred prophet whose voice continues to speak to our seeking justice. He said, “May our hearts and minds be united.” As we celebrate this prophet’s message that spoke to the struggle for justice when he lived and served—when he spoke to the hope that humanity will realize the beloved community as the realized fulfillment taught by our faith and other faiths.
I still agree that the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday has to be an occasion for calling for new prophets and affirming those who are proclaiming that which is right, but who are being little recognized. I hear that call being answered in other voices—other prophets who continue in the unfinished work of bringing about the healing of our society and our world. I hear it in the incisive words of Arundhati Roy, when she says,
What is this thing that has happened to us? it’s a virus, yes, but it is more than a virus. It has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could, our minds are racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.” Nothing could be worse than a return to normality, historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. this one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudices and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready-ready to imagine another world. and ready to fight for it.
I hear the call being answered in the total ministry of Desmond Tutu and certainly in his words, “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of human rights.” I hear the call being answered in the message of Bryan Stevenson, the author of the book Just Mercy, and the name of the movie based on it. When you read or view either, you quickly see that his approach to the struggle for justice is guided by his faith. Stevenson talks about his being struck by the scene in John 8, when Jesus encounters the woman who has been caught in adultery. He says what’s so powerful about it is, no one says, “Oh she didn’t do it.” Not to mention the fact that nothing is said about the man who obviously was also caught “in the very act,” but not brought to be stoned. It is not an innocence story. That has nothing to do with it. And those who are there judging her say that the law says we should stone her to death. “So, Jesus what do you say?”
Jesus knows that they are trying to trap him. He does not let them rush him. He casually writes on the ground, before saying, “Let him of you who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they are stopped in their tracks. They know that none of them is sinless. One by one they drop their stones and walk away. It is a powerful story of redemption and grace. But Stevenson then says that he realizes in this era, we have our self-righteous religious folk who would not put their stones down.
We know that he is right. We have too many people who, despite the exhortation, would still cast the stones. They do not see themselves as convicted by the hypocrisy and judgment that this implies. How do we see that it is incumbent on us to intervene, to catch the stones? It does not mean that the vulnerable should be condemned in the first place. But it does mean that some of us are going to have to be stone catchers.
The reality that people won’t recognize the right and just thing that should be done does not mean there are no answers. We can’t just say it is not right to cast those stones. That cannot be the end of the struggle for justice. We need the mentality—the spiritual commitment—to stand up. We have to be prepared to stand in front of those who are vulnerable. We have to catch those stones. That certainly became an epiphany for me. One of the callings of this moment. Because the stones are going to fly. Each one of us will face the challenge to be such a justice seeker, in small ways and large ones. And it helps to see examples; to have models.
My enduring model of a justice-fighting stone catcher came from a story that I first heard as a child. It is a famous story. But those persons who told it to me had a first-hand experience of the incident. I grew up knowing World War II veterans who had been Tuskegee airmen. Mr. Ellsworth Jackson, who lived across the street. And over time, many more. So I got to sit and listen to them recounting their experiences as members of the greatest generation. But the Tuskegee airmen were a group of Black soldiers who were the first Black airmen in the history of this country. Black soldiers had been prohibited from flying aircraft despite the need to use all of the resources that we had for our national and world survival in that war. Under pressure, President Roosevelt ordered that Black soldiers be trained as airmen. They were kept in this segregated all-Black unit for training. But racists continued to succeed in preventing their being deployed to fly planes in combat, despite their being well trained, because of the color of their skin. There were debates in Congress questioning whether African Americans had the physical capacity to handle the altitude, or the brain capacity to fly a plane. Nothing changed, for a time. The Tuskegee airmen kept training, staying there in Alabama, while the war raged on in Europe and the Pacific. But later in my childhood and in my adulthood, I heard the then aging Tuskegee airmen tell the story of the stone catcher who made the difference.
The tide turned when Eleanor Roosevelt went to Tuskegee herself. In my childhood, I listened to former Tuskegee airmen tell how it all changed as a result of this stone catcher. She brought the media with her and they chronicled what happened next. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady of the United States, got into a plane that was flown by a Black pilot, a Tuskegee airmen. They went up and flew over the Alabama countryside for forty-five minutes. The press took pictures of every phase of the flight and those pictures, in today’s jargon, went viral. That changed the debate. The debate all but ended. Tuskegee airmen were given combat duty. And in their role of flying escort to American bombers in battle, these Black pilots, still segregated, did not lose one bomber that they escorted.
What caused Mrs. Roosevelt to go and make this happen? Harold Ivan Smith addresses this in his spiritual biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was her faith that America could live up to the promises made at the nation’s founding. Smith writes that “she wanted her critics to join her in working toward a new America that lived out the declaration of independence and the godly calling to justice that so many claimed this nation represents.” She wanted to raise a specific call to being that just America, just when doing so was needed in the very survival of this nation. She did not wait for the stones to be thrown. She was proactive in disarming the haters. She held deeply the promises of this nation; the promises of the God that some of us claim as our guide, and the call for each of us to be a witness; a stone catcher.
So when our nation, our world, seems to be in peril in ways that are not really unlike other perilous times, can we say, “This too shall pass?” I say that cliche does not acknowledge the role that we play in a pandemic that totalitarians tried to deny. They saw that it would interfere with their movement toward taking the nation by fiat. In perilous times in which evil forces have not given up on trying to impose their absolute control, where are we? We have prophets of God who continue to shine the light. Arundhati Roy has identified the portal that is opening before us. We are called not to go back to normality. Yes, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. To walk into it with little baggage. Our God is doing a new thing, still. And by walking through it lightly, we are called to make that path straight.
James Weldon Johnson called us from a dark past onto a path to a world that we imagine anew. Another world. “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. Out from the gloomy past. Lift ev’ry voice and sing!” Amen.