Mary Keeps the Party Going, and So Should We
The nominations for the 2016 Oscars were announced this past week. No one really expects the Oscars to set the example for progressive sensibilities in the art world, but it was disappointing, nonetheless, that none of the major nominations went to black actors. The protest hashtag has become #Oscars so White. Chris Rock, who will host the Oscars this year called them the White BET awards. Some pointed out in satiric settings like the Daily Show that the problem was not so much that there were no good movies about and starring black people, but that they weren’t the right kind of movies. White audiences like movies about black struggle like Twelve Years a Slave or Selma.
Selma the movie about the struggle leading up to the passing of the Civil Rights Act was granted two nominations last year, for best picture and for best actor. No nomination for the director. Some were upset, very much so, that the movie failed to accurately portray the crucial role and friendship of President Lyndon Johnson.
That’s funny to me. I saw the movie and it didn’t seem like Johnson was at all not crucial nor was he portrayed as a villain standing in Martin Luther King’s way. But of course there’s only one thing audiences love more than a movie about black struggle and that’s a white person who helps them out. See The Help or The Blind Side for beloved examples of this phenomenon. Even Twelve Years a Slave has a Brad Pitt ex machina in the final act. That’s ok. I sometimes wish Brad Pitt would rescue me too.
The part I liked about the movie Selma, but thought could be even better, was that it showed King as a man who needed to be prodded and pushed, a man who needed others to be his best self and who needed others to help in the work. Without John Lewis, Diane Nash, Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King, and yes, without Johnson, the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have happened.
It’s important to get that part of the history right, the partnerships, the disagreements, the compromises, the evolutions. It’s important because as we proceed year by year further and further away from King’s actual life, his mythological life gets stronger.
According to the mythology, King was a great man, a genius, who envisioned a color blind society. He was non-violent (we like to down play the resistance part of non-violent resistance). He was eloquent. He’s impossible to dislike. His legacy is malleable to fit almost any agenda it would seem.
The marble man does not tell the story of the mess – the messy man or the messy community. The mythology remembers the “beloved community” as a high minded ideal that is supposed to make us all behave. Can’t we all get along?
Yet, the beloved community was never supposed to be about good behavior or an unachievable utopia; it was a realistic plan for how we interact, in fact the only realistic plan for humanity’s continued future. This beloved community doesn’t depend on a great man, but on the entire community who are trained and prepared for living together in peace and harmony. Poverty, hunger, racism, bigotry are not tolerated in the beloved community because of the people’s commitment and determination to live and solve problems non-violently.
Non-violence doesn’t have anything to do with respectability or politeness or etiquette; it’s about pushing, prodding, resisting, until there is real change. Again, this kind of life is not about wishful thinking, but about training and discipline and commitment.
I think of the beloved community when I hear this gospel story. The context is a wedding. A gathering of friends and families and neighbors. The wine has run out. Jesus’ mother comes to tell Jesus, who at first doesn’t seem very interested in the problem. But his mother seems to know he will, in the end, act. And he does. The servants fill the large pots with water and new wine is plentifully available. The best wine is saved for the end. I love John’s gospel; it’s my favorite. I love its combination of very down to earth (what could be more down to earth than the problem of running out of beverages at a party?) and its mysterious, other worldly quality. This is the Word made flesh, by the way, who is solving this problem of lack of beverages.
This miracle is supposed to demonstrate Jesus’ power to the disciples; it is a sign of who he is. But I am most struck by Mary’s role. She notices the problem; she’s the one who is worried about it; she is the one who brings it to Jesus’ attention. And, despite his seemingly negative reaction, she’s the one who tells the servants what to do, trusting that he’s going to do something about it. Jesus isn’t going to do anything about the problem, but she prepares for the miracle anyway.
Theologian John Roth writes about the theodicy of protest. Theodicy is the struggle to answer the question of why God doesn’t do something about evil and suffering in the world. Those who are troubled by this question assume that there is a benevolent God who cares about human suffering. Some say God doesn’t do anything about suffering because of our freewill or that God can’t do anything because God needs our hands to do the work. Roth says that God can do something about suffering and protest is a part of engaging God in the human story. He writes, “Religious vitality depends on more than one way of encountering the divine. None lacks risks and problems, but a religious perspective that allows room for quarrelsome protest against God can, in fact, be an asset and not a hindrance to moral commitments.”1
Mary nudges Jesus to consider the thirsty people at the wedding who don’t have enough suggesting that the beloved community is really a community, not a lone man performing miracles.
I don’t suggest this way of thinking about God because I want you or me to think about us actually or literally prodding a reluctant God, but instead as a kind of attitude of continual protest that waits for and expects change.
For those who look for the beloved community today, they are likely to be disappointed. Bishop Woody White of the Methodist Church, writes a yearly letter to King on the occasion of his birthday. And this year, White’s letter was exceedingly dismal. 2015 was a terrible year for the beloved community. The litany of continued crimes committed against black bodies that seem to go unnoticed without video footage is stunning. Even with video footage, these crimes go unpunished. White writes:
“This leads me to my great disappointment — the near silence of the churches in the recent racial discourse. I wait for some outcry of moral indignation at the racial climate in this country, some ethical compass for political and civic leaders, some call for racial unity, some serious challenge to the voices of hate!”2
The progressive evangelical magazine, Sojourners, reports that while 80 percent of black Christians believe that recent police involved killings stem from a larger issue of racism, 70 percent of White Christians believe the opposite. And lest we think that these are those kind of white Christians, not like us, in other words, that number includes 73 percent of white mainline Protestants.
We have a lot of work to do in if we care about the beloved community. Black people are being erased, not just in our art and in our award winning movies, but are actually being erased. There is a lot for us to do politically. We should be supporting Black Lives Matter – that’s just one example. And there is a lot for us to do right here in our own community. I have heard and others have told me that people of color who come to St. Mark’s do not always feel welcome. We have some prodding and protesting to do. Not because I or anyone else is Brad Pitt coming to save the day, but because we are all part of a community. And our role is as partner and ally (probably more often as a silent, listening partner than some of us might be used to). I encourage you to join me at diocesan workshop on diversity in churches at the end of February so that we might learn more about how we can provide radical welcome in all its messiness.
People are thirsty. The guests are waiting. Like Mary, let’s keep demanding new wine.
1 John Roth, “A Theodicy of Protest”, in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. Stephen Davis (Louisville, KY, Westminster, John Knox Press 2001). 34
2 Bishop White’s 2016 letter can be read here: http://www.interpretermagazine.org/topics/a-letter-to-martin-luther-king-jr1-2016