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The Myth of Time – 1/18/2015

Tomorrow, our nation will mark its annual observation of Martin Luther King Day, and so this weekend, in churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country his memory is being invoked and his words are being intoned. To join with that practice, I want to begin with a long passage from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which is, in my opinion, the most insightful and eternally relevant of all his well-known writings. Before I begin reading, let me remind you of the context of the text. In Alabama, and in fact throughout much of this country, in 1963 racial discrimination by means of segregation was not only legal but the law. In order to confront an unacceptable status quo, a coalition of local leaders and organizers from across the South led a month-long campaign of protest and non-violent resistance in Birmingham, Alabama, then one of the most segregated cities in America. Dr. King was the leading face of the campaign, and was among those arrested for it on April 12th – the Friday before Easter. While he was in jail, a friend smuggled in a newspaper to him which included a letter published by white faith leaders in Alabama – 4 ministers, 3 priests, and 1 rabbi – denouncing the campaign. They called it ‘unwise and untimely,’ claimed that it was inciting ‘hatred and violence,’ and dismissed it as the work of outsiders. Dr. King penned his response while still in jail, beginning in the margins of the newspaper itself until his lawyers were eventually allowed to bring him a writing pad. Here now is a crucial segment of his response:

“In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

It is this myth of time that I wish to speak about with you this morning, this idea that things will get better, left unto themselves. Put plainly like that, I believe that most of us would reject such a belief on its face. It seems straight-forwardly illogical: on the level of our own lives, what we do not attend to generally does not get done. Perhaps you have, like me, surveyed your living space and the clothes you have not folded, the floor you have not swept, and the dishes you have not washed and thought to yourself, “Gosh, the little elves who are supposed to clean my place are really falling down on the job.” ‘Of course time is neutral,’ most of us think to ourselves, when we set out to confront our problems or to change something we feel needs changing. But this thinking creeps back in again, over and over, whenever we consider problems that we hold to be someone else’s and not our own. There is always a direct relationship between our personal distance from an issue and our sense of urgency and necessity towards that issue.

The kitchen-table wisdom that ‘time heals all wounds,’ is something that we counsel others with – rarely ourselves. It is easiest to say, ‘Wait! Be patient!’ when we are not the ones whose patience is being tested. So that anyone who would invoke that famous instruction attributed to the teacher Jesus – “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer them the other,” – must remember this: That the teacher Jesus and his audience were all living under the same military occupation and that his demise seems proof enough that he was under no less threat from it than were any of they. Counseling calm and peace and patience in the face of danger means little if you do not share that danger yourself. And just as an aside here, I should say something about the group of protesters who shut down part of I-93 this week in an act of civil disobedience on Dr. King’s actual birthday. I might quibble with their strategy and tactics, and fret that their action might alienate more than it activates, but their protest still springs from a goal of interrupting the normal course of things and creating urgency. And I must also confess, if only to myself, that their protest was far more than anything I did, for the cause of racial justice on Martin Luther King’s birthday this year.

The human impulse to seek the comfortable is very powerful, and it is not something I want to simply deride and dismiss. The world can be dangerous, and life can be hard, and it is natural and understandable how often we seek to establish for ourselves a firm existential footing; some scheme by which the universe makes sense. In the early days of quantum physics, when the leading minds of science were only just coming to terms with the idea that the whole universe is, at its most fundamental level, a matter of probabilities rather than certainties, there was one notably loud, strong voice of dissent. Albert Einstein, by then already a giant in his field, was deeply troubled by the existential implications of quantum theory and famously argued that, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Fundamental randomness was opposed to real truth, in his view. To this Einstein’s chief adversary, Niehs Bohr is reported to have retorted, “Einstein, you can’t tell God what to do with his dice!”

King’s proclamation that time is neutral is designed to shake the listener out of that moral laziness which makes us all-too patient with the suffering of others. Yet viewed another way it almost reads like candy-coated flattery for time itself. Time which grinds down mountains and scatters nations to dust. Time which dries up oceans and buries dreams unfulfilled. Time, which may be no friend to those with broken bodies or broken hearts, which is the assassin of all living things. In 5 billion years time, our sun will go out – which makes time seem like hardly a neutral thing at all. The poet Saul Williams speaks of struggling against time and the way that history can seem to dictate the present. I’m going to quote him here, but first I should tell you that he uses the phrase, “Sha-Clack-Clack,” I believe, to evoke the tyrannical violence of slavery. And I should also give fair warning: out of respect for the poet, I haven’t cleaned up his language for church. He speaks,

“I am not the son of Sha-Clack-Clack

I am before that, I am before

I am before before

Before death is eternity, after death is eternity

There is no death there’s only eternity

And I be riding on the wings of eternity

Like HYAH! HYAH! HYAH! Sha-Clack-Clack

But my flight doesn’t go undisturbed

Because time makes dreams defer

And all of my time fears are turning my days into daymares

And I live daymares reliving nightmares

Of what taunted my past

Sha-Clack-Clack, time is beatin my ass”

It’s an incredibly common impulse to want to go back and change the past, and makes time travel a theme in countless novels and films. In most of those stories, there ends up being some explanation for why, even if once impossibly transported into the past, we cannot change it. Yet, we do not need to break the laws of physics in order to achieve that feeling of powerlessness before the unfolding of history. This week I went to see the movie Selma, which I commend to you. As you probably know, the film tells the story of the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Already knowing that story, I knew going in that there were three people who would die in the course of it: Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. They were not famous people, not major leaders. They were rank-and-file protesters, and they were murdered for it. As I sat in the dark of the theater, knowing how the story had unfolded when it happened, how it had to unfold again in this depiction, did nothing to soften the shock when it happened on screen. As the film itself portrays, Selma could never have been the axial moment in time that it was without those three deaths. They brought attention, anger, and urgency from people who were distracted, disinterested, and disengaged. But, of course, this can’t justify those killings because nothing can justify killing. So they simply remain frozen in time, sealed behind the immutable glass barrier that separates the present from the past.

It made me think of a midrash, a story from the Jewish tradition elaborating on the narrative and teaching of the bible. The Jewish tradition teaches that the whole of the Torah – Judaism’s foundational scripture – was entrusted to Moses by G-d. In the midrash, it is said, that Moses asked G-d about an intricate detail in the precise calligraphy of the text; it meant nothing special to him, so who was it for? So G-d took Moses forward in time, to visit the academy of Rabbi Akiva, one of the most renowned scholars in all of Jewish history. He would be the one with insight enough to understand and explain even the most minute detail in the careful lettering of the Torah. Moses was to deliver the Torah and promulgate it even though he did not fully understand it, because one day others would come who would peer into it more deeply. There is a comforting message in this story; how we may not fully understand all the consequences of our actions or live to see the realization of everything we work for, but our contributions to the world can still yield great things beyond our reckoning. But the midrash does not end there. Moses asked G-d to show him what the fitting reward for such a great man as Akiva must be, so G-d ushered Moses a little bit further into the future, only to see Rabbi Akiva murdered by the Roman authorities during their occupation of Judeah. He was a martyr; someone killed by those who wished to silence a cry for justice, just like the teacher Jesus. Just like Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. Just like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

This is the generous and terrible neutrality of time: that beauty and tragedy are both made possible by its passage. Kurt Vonnegut praised time in his Humanist Requiem as, “Merciful Time, who buries the sins of the world.” The beauty comes about more often, and the tragedy less so, in those places and times touched by “the tireless efforts,” of all those, “willing to be co-workers with God,” as Dr. King put it. I might say as well – or instead, if you do not understand God as a potential co-worker – that the holy possibilities which time affords are most often realized by those who bend themselves along the arc of the moral universe. That famous quotation of King’s, that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” is a more elegant rephrasing of our spiritual ancestor Theodore Parker’s words,

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

The moral universe, and the physical one, through which time passes, only intersect where human action brings them together. Accomplishing the moral repair and social regeneration that is needed in our time as in every time, requires of us hard work, creativity, and a profound impatience with the suffering of others, whether they be near or far, and whether they be similar or different to ourselves in skin-color, gender-expression, language, philosophy, or faith. For this reason, the danger in the myth of time is not only the false idea that time will cure all ills, but the mistaken belief, perhaps unique to the age that succeeded Dr. King, that time has, in fact, already cured all those ills. We have not reached the Promised Land, friends. Not in an era of mass-incarceration, and not in a land of plenty still marred by poverty. Instead, it remains to all of us who might wish to be counted as people of good will, to be co-workers with one another, as we work to turn the march of history to better match the moral universe’s arc.



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