Sunday, December 8, 2013 was a day of reflection upon the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa who died December 5, 2013 at age 95. As I reflect upon the meaning of this extraordinary life, I return again and again to his dignity and to the power this sense of self bestowed upon him, even before the South African people elected him to lead them.
Mandela was born into an African royal family, and he was groomed from an early age to be an advisor to kings. And so he was. He became an advisor to world leaders and rose to be the leader of his country and a moral example to the world. This all came to be because of his unyielding determination to be respected as a human being and not to rest until his people were also respected as free and equal human beings. The goal of the end of apartheid [apart hate] in South Africa was constantly before him.
Since Mandela’s death, I have heard many commentators speak of his dedication to non-violence. They marvel at his willingness to forgive both personally and politically. As a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, some have placed him in the pantheon of heroes and sheroes who dedicated their lives to a cause larger than themselves, who worked diligently for peace. Make no mistake, Mandela deserves this recognition.
At the same time, it is more accurate to place him next to El Hajj Malik el Shabazz (the post Mecca Malcolm X) than to Martin Luther King, Jr. or to Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela was a radical humanist in the mold of Malcolm X. He makes a cameo appearance at the end of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X reciting Malcolm’s famous declaration:
“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
Mandela was willing to achieve his goal of human dignity for all “by any means necessary.” This included violence against a violent and vicious system and through forgiveness and reconciliation at the moment of transition from an [apart hate] society to a rainbow society where all races are treated equally in custom and in law.
It has been 14 years since the movie-going public has seen a group of college friends come together for the wedding of their friends, a football star and his fiancé – Lance and Mia– in The Best Man. In the movie, the best man for the couple – Harper– has written a novel based on the college days of the group. Tension arises when a secret from the past is revealed and the entire wedding is in jeopardy.
The best man, who questions the existence of God, encourages his friend, the groom, to rely on his own faith to make the decision whether or not to go through with the wedding. Now fast forward 14 years to the sequel –The Best Man Holiday– a movie full of laughter and tears, and we see how these characters have developed over the course of time. Friendship and faith remain the heart and soul of both movies, and, in my opinion, is the reason for their success.
There has been much ink about the first weekend success of The Best Man Holiday, the movie having earned more than 30 million dollars. (http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2013/11/18/245941099/the-best-man-holiday-and-the-language-of-expectations) There is much commentary about the thirst for African-American audiences to see positive images of themselves on screen. I say the movies that African-Americans choose to support are deeper than that. Such is the case with The Best Man Holiday.
On Veteran’s Day, we take a moment to remember what veterans suffer. We recognize post traumatic stress and moral injury, when vets carry guilt regarding the things they saw and sometimes did in war. We see the suicide rates among military personnel, and we do not turn away from those veterans who come home from war with physical injuries that will require care for as long as they live. We remind ourselves of those who are living on food stamps and those who are underemployed or unemployed. We think about all that veterans have to offer society, a set of habits and skills that make them excellent friends, neighbors, employees and employers.
On Veteran’s Day, we think about what we as individuals and as a society owe to veterans. I say: we ought never to forget that Veteran’s Day began as Armistice Day that commemorates the end of World War I. Armistice Day reminds us that what we owe to ourselves and especially to veterans is the end to ongoing wars and the prevention of new wars starting.
War is not encoded on human DNA. It is a choice that happens when groups are in competition for resources. It rises from the will-to power. Yet history teaches us that there is often a moment before a war begins when it could have been avoided. This is the case with World War I. Reading an excerpt of historian Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August in the anthology Approaches to Peace: a Reader in Peace Studies edited by David P. Barash, we learn how World War I was preventable.
It started out as an ordinary day. Get up, meditate, listen to Huggy Lowdown on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, do yoga, work on my next book, stop to watch General Hospital and have an early afternoon meal, back to work, 30-minutes on the stationary bike then dinner, evening TV and bed. But, this day a package came that transformed my ordinary day into an extremely extraordinary one.
A white ready post utility mailer waited for me along with some sale papers and bills in the mail. There was no return address. I was not expecting a package, so I opened it immediately. Inside I found a black genuine leather journal with gold edged pages and a long letter written on ivory parchment paper. The letter was written in small neat printing. Whoever wrote this letter was a careful, exacting person. It could not be a Halloween joke from one of my friends. None had the time to do a prank this elaborate. Something within told me to take this seriously. So, I turned on a lamp in the living room and sat down to read the letter.
Dear Dr. Dixon,
If you are reading this, I am dead. I have asked my attorney to send this journal to you. I am sending this to you because I think that you will know what to do with the information that it contains. I know that you study the religions of the African Diaspora as well as ethics, political philosophy and rhetoric. I hope that you will be able to at least begin to undo some of the harm I have done. I am also writing to you because I believe that you will know how to solve this problem without violence. You understand that we wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness in high places. You know that these are emanations from idols, the created things we worship rather than worshiping Divine Love. So you know that what I am about to say to you is not a warrant for violence. You know that what I am about to say about the soulless living among us means that you and others will have to find a way to help these people find their humanity. You will have to love them back to health.
When I saw the movie Gravity in 3-D, there was a moment when a tear shed by the main character – Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock – appears to float off the screen and into the audience. The tear contains her image. Suppose we live in a world that exits inside the 3-D contours of a universal tear. Tears of sorrow, tears of joy, and praying tears are the stuff of our human connection to each other. The movie is about survival through the seen and unseen cords that keep us from drifting into physical and spiritual oblivion. It is about a return from space to terra firma, to earth.
In the movie, Stone, her in-space colleagues – Matt Kowalski played by George Clooney, and Shariff Dasari played by Paul Sharma– are working outside their spacecraft to make repairs on the Hubble space telescope when a debris storm damages their spacecraft and leaves them in danger of their lives. Dasari is killed immediately. Stone and Kowalski must weigh their options and Stone must summon the will to live. We see the international connections where Russian and Chinese crafts aid in the new mission of survival. Faith represented by an icon of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers and a statue of Buddha, opens a window to transcendence. Faith in an afterlife gives her life sustaining hope.
Life calls to life as she responds to a radio transmission where she hears a human voice, a baby crying, and the ubiquitous barking dog. She howls back. Kowalski gives her courage and bolsters her determination to survive. In this movie the artistic imagination reminds us that we need each other to survive.
That we are connected beings is obvious when we go about our daily lives: a little girl holding her father’s hand in the store, an elder couple walking close to each other, our family and friends surrounding us when a loved one dies or when a couple marries. However, we fail to see how much we are connected through the apparatuses of government until the government shuts down. Research on illnesses; passport renewal; the functions of the Centers for Disease Control; food safety inspections; environmental protection; issuance of various permits all stop. Federal workers, federal contractors and businesses whose clientele is composed of federal workers suffer. And this is the short – very short – list.
The late Hip-Hop artist Tupac Shakur told the truth in the song “Ghetto Gospel” when he said: “Before we find world peace, we gotta find peace and end the war in the streets my Ghetto Gospel.” This is especially important to remember as we observe Peace Day – The United Nations International Day of Peace and Global Ceasefire – September 21. (http://internationaldayofpeace.org/) We ought to honor the day in our secular and in our faith communities and know that peace is a possibility when we understand that world peace begins inside each of us, one person at a time.
Peace Day was established in 1981 as a day to shed light on the universal ideal of global peace and non-violence. Very often when we think of world peace, our minds go to the various wars being fought between or within nations. We do not think of the daily/nightly gunfire we hear in our communities. We do think of the homicides that we read about in our local papers every day. We do not connect events such as the horrific shootings in Chicago with distant wars.
But, every global conflict is someone’s local conflict. The violence happens in someone’s neighborhood. It is local violence that disrupts daily life. Whether it is the violence of civil war in Syria or Iraq or gun violence in Chicago or New Orleans or a mass shooting in Colorado, Connecticut or Washington DC, what seems to be distant violence is up close and personal violence that happens on someone’s block, at someone’s school or at someone’s job. The violence leads to stress caused by the trauma, and it is possible that stress leads to more violence.
Now the question becomes: what are we going to do to end the violence in our communities? I say there are at least two things that we can do. The first is to think about making peace inside ourselves. Life is full of things that cause stress. We ought to learn the techniques that will help us reduce personal stress. One such technique is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Mindfulness is about living in the moment. It means that we do not rehearse the past; we do not fret over the future; rather, we live each day, one moment at a time.
My tears waited.
In March 2012 when the story of Trayvon Martin’s murder became national news, I waited to comment. Like those who took to the streets in hoodies, I could not understand how George Zimmerman could shoot and kill an unarmed teenager who was simply walking home from the store, be taken into custody by the police, and then go home to sleep in his own bed the same night without being charged with a crime. Zimmerman told the police that he acted in self defense, and that was enough. Trayvon Martin’s family had to hire a lawyer and the lawyers had to contact national civil rights leaders before a prosecutor brought charges. I did not comment.
Trayvon Martin’s parents said they had faith in the criminal justice system. They wanted a trial. When I learned of the verdict on Sunday morning, July 14, my delayed praying tears ended their wait. I wept. I grieved for Trayvon Martin and for all the teenagers whose lives are lost to gun violence, and I grieved for our criminal justice system and for our nation.
Before the trial
Nothing happens outside of a context, and the context for this tragedy is race in America. Race is not nature. It is a construction. It is a way to order the world in ways that allow a particular system of power relations to stay in place. It came into being and remains so to allow people to continue to make money from inequality. Human beings have always defined ourselves in relationship to group identities. Race understood as a biological classification based on physical characteristics was a way to understand the differences between Europeans and the various other peoples they met in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. When slavery became racialized – the black African could not run away and easily hide among the indigenous people or among the white population – a human hierarchy took hold where the enslaved were thought to be not only different but inferior, even vicious by definition.
In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice — the longest daylight day of the year — happens in ordinary time. There are times in the Christian calendar that signify specific aspects of the mystery of Christ. Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany celebrate the birth of the Christ child and the visit and gifts of the magi. The time from Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, through Easter and on to Pentecost celebrates the temptation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, then the coming of Holy Spirit to dwell with and within humankind. Ordinary time is the space between Epiphany and Lent, between Pentecost and Advent. This is usually between the end of May, or the beginning of June, until December.
So the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere saunters into our lives with no muss, no fuss, each day giving a little of its daylight back to the cosmos until the winter solstice arrives with the promise of longer daylight days.
The birds have been singing since spring. And to my untutored ear, the various tweets, chirps, piping, squeaks, and squawks together make a beautiful cacophony of anonymous nature that reminds me that there is a wondrous world beyond the banality of human affairs. A bird’s nest on the patio has been occupied for weeks. We watched the parents sitting on the eggs; then one day there were baby birds peeking over the edges. They are a family of robins who are our most immediate neighbors. Mulberry stains in the birdbath remind me of nature’s provision for her own. Birdsong and bird family and mulberries are ordinary.
The summer solstice comes when the summer garden is already planted: Basil, rosemary, thyme, peppermint, oregano in one box with cabbage; big boy tomatoes and cherry tomatoes along with cucumbers in another box; turnips, Swiss chard, and romaine lettuce in a third; and marigolds in all three. The summer garden is ordinary.
Every moment is a particle of the eternal that contains within itself the past, present, and future of now.
When President Obama stood on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate on June 19, 2013, a historic moment, he spoke of the past, present, and future of the struggle for freedom, justice, and peace. The first African American president is a living example of the hopes of enslaved African Americans, and June 19th – Juneteenth – is the day we set aside to commemorate that day in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger and federal soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas. Granger delivered the news of the end of the Civil War and of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Granger also announced General Order #3 that said in part: “This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves. . . .” That moment contained the seed of freedom that would grow to allow the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Juneteenth remembers the past and looks with earnest expectation to the future. Juneteenth.com says: “It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement, and for planning the future.” (http://juneteenth.com/)
Intentional to Juneteenth or not, this was the spirit of the president’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate. He acknowledged a distant German tribal past, Reformation, Enlightenment, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, World War II, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the restoration of Germany. He said: “For throughout all this history, the fate of this city came down to a simple question: Will we live free or in chains?”(http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/19/barack-obama-berlin-speech-full-text/print)
Memorial Day is a day of gratitude, memory, and faith.
The first Memorial Day was a day when freed slaves in South Carolina exhumed bodies of Union soldiers from a mass grave to bury them individually. It was an act of respect and thanks. Black hands executed an ancient African spiritual imperative to honor the dead, to decorate their graves, to remember their names and deeds. Theirs was a cosmology and a definition of community that survived the unspeakable horror of the Middle Passage and the dehumanizing intent of slavery, an understanding that the community is composed of the not-yet-born, the living, and the dead remembered. When the work of reburial was done, the occasion was made sacred with sermons, singing, and a picnic.
Today Memorial Day is one of the high holy days of the American civil religion. We pause to honor, with gratitude and with memory, those who have given their lives in service to their country. And, along with the solemn ceremonies, we fire-up our family grills, making offering of worship and devotion to the gods. Lady Liberty, Blind Justice, the Goddess Columbia, Nature and Nature’s God enjoy the sweet savor of meat and fish and a variety of vegetables cooking over smoke and flame. We gather with friends and family to eat and drink, to tell tall tales, to enjoy each other’s company and to celebrate the de-facto beginning of summer. Some of us who live near the ocean will go “down the shore” to keep traditions of summer fun alive.
The gods of the nation are pleased. Their favor, however, is a dangerous idolatrous thing because they require blood sacrifice, or at least they live because women and men are willing to sacrifice themselves and their children for the sake of the nation. Idols require blood and tears because they have none of their own. Warriors die for love of country, but the country cannot love them back. Only human beings can love other human beings in return. Only a God that is Divine Love itself can love in return.