While I am certain I’ve been guilty of this in the past, one of my new pet peeves is white people who quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to support positions he would have found offensive. White people love to pretend his “I Have A Dream” speech with its color blind references to black and white children holding hands was the pinnacle of this thinking. It was not. If anything, it was one of his more gentle and measured speeches, missing some of his more pointed opinions on racism and white supremacy. He was being polite.
Ironically, one of the more common ploys of racist white people is to critique black voices today with the words of Dr. King. They will quote some snippet from a King speech and say, “If Black Lives Matter would only adopt the non-violent, non-confrontational approach of King, people (meaning themselves) would be more likely to listen to their complaints.” Such complaints remind me of something Jesus is reported to have said two thousand years ago.
In the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in the shedding of the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”
Those words seem especially applicable to my experience in past couple of years. If what Jesus says is true, we are far more likely to honor the words and deeds of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today than our ancestors did during his day. Unfortunately, if what Jesus says is true, how we think and respond to voices of color in our day is probably synonymous to the hostility with which our ancestors responded to Dr. King. We are them. Whether we realize it or not, we treat the prophetic voices today with the same apathy, disdain, resistance or anger with which our ancestors responded to the Civil Rights movement.
We saw this exposed a couple of weeks ago when many white people expressed moral outrage at a Muslim congresswoman – Rashida Tlaib – who said of the president, “Impeach the Motherfucker.” I saw this dynamic at work after a Black Lives Matter protest in 2017, when many of my white peers were critical of chants of “Fuck the police.”
I mention those words intentionally, with the same intent as the words of Dr. King, or Rashida Tliaib or Black Lives Matter, to provoke us to think more deeply about what is truly offensive and what is really about silencing the voices of our present prophets. According to Jesus, every generation says, “If we have lived in that day, we would have not taken part in the silencing of the prophets” even while silencing the prophets of their day. Whether in Jesus’s day, during the 60s or today, these two things are certain. Prophets always speak in a way that provoke. Those in power always critique their tone.
Middle class whites are the people in power. We may not be the 1%, but nearly everyone us is in the 5%. We are the oppressor or at least the chief beneficiaries of oppression in this world. We haven’t owned slaves and we may not have directly mistreated people of color, but much of our wealth was passed to us by ancestors who did. We may not directly act to diminish the lives of others around the world, but we live in a country largely built on the exploitation of others. So perhaps we can have some sympathy when the oppressed find our complaints about civility suspicious.
Let me be clear. Politeness is a privilege of the powerful and a requirement – by them – for the powerless. When the oppressors, or the beneficiaries of oppression, complain about the use of profane words, this is less an expression of moral outrage and more a defense of the status quo. What really offends us? The profanity or the exposure of an injustice we’d prefer to ignore.
Indeed, the complaints of the oppressor about tone and civility are always hypocritical, self-serving and ethically suspect. The scribes and Pharisees were so offended by Jesus’ rhetoric. After all, he called them the equivalent of Motherfucker. That doesn’t mean his accusations weren’t valid. Too often, our complaints about tone seem designed to distract attention from the legitimacy of an identified injustice. We act as if Congresswoman Tlaib’s use of a profanity somehow justifies and excuses the treatment of Muslims by this administration, or that tolerating one profane chant by Black Lives Matter levels the scales after four hundred years of racial abuse.
Or, if we’re progressive, we argue strategy. We complain that the profanities are counterproductive, that this approach allows people to discount a just cause. We advocate for politeness, patience and process, never considering the possibility that they choose their words precisely because they’re tired of years of having their more measured complaints discounted. While complaining strategy, we might want to examine the effectiveness of our own strategies. Critiquing the emotionally passionate expressions of the oppressed might not be the best approach.
One of the first lessons in de-escalation training is too never tell an emotionally enraged person to “calm down.” Indeed, to do so is to almost guarantee an even stronger emotional response. Asking someone to calm down is more about our discomfort than their need to be heard. The proper response to strongly expressed emotion is to reply, “I hear and share your sadness and anger over past and present injustice.” An emotionally charged person wants to be heard and understood and not critiqued.
Our attempts to silence the complaints and profanities of the oppressed are akin to the rapist who demands his victim, “Shut up and enjoy it.” While it might be strategically expedient for the rape victim to comply, a lack of resistance is not a moral requirement, especially when this passivity may be interpreted as permission and presented as such in a court of law. Christine Blasey Ford was required to be polite and measured in her complaint of sexual assault while Brett Kavanaugh could be aggressive and ugly.
This is the paradox for the oppressed. When the oppressed complain loudly, vehemently and even profanely about injustice, they are often criticized for their tone, even while those who patiently and politely advocate for justice have their absence of aggressiveness interpreted as a lack of urgency. Dr. King understood this dilemma well. Listen to his provocative words.
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
These are the words for which our ancestors rejected and ultimately killed Dr. King. Note that they did so even though he spoke no profanities. In actuality, the ability of people of color today to call the President a Motherfucker and tell the police to Fuck off may be a sign of progress rather than incivility. What King had to say in the private, they can finally say more publicly. The oppressed have enough power to challenge the privilege of politeness, to demand that we listen and really hear.
Let me be clear. Those of us for whom life has been privileged have no right to police the tone of those who’ve experienced oppressions we do not understand and for which we are partially to blame. When we do so, we deserve their curses. The swampy morass from which we condemn them is not the moral high ground we pretend.
After nearly sixty years, I have learned at least one thing. When I encounter strong expressions of emotion, I do not focus on the words. I try to listen for the deeper pain and loss those words represent. I remember an often ignored story about Jesus. Near the end of his life, when the forces that would kill him were gathering, he walked by a fig tree and reached up to pick some fruit. Unfortunately, figs were out of season and he found none. Jesus immediately cursed at tree.
I like that story. It’s so human. Though we don’t know what profanities Jesus used on that day, we do know this. It wasn’t about the tree.
Jesus cursed in response the religious people of his day, who were more concerned about proprieties than poverty and injustice. Jesus taught us that some things deserved to be cursed.
When Rashida Tlaib cursed a President who has systematically sought to marginalize, denigrate and harm Muslims, she was being Jesus like. Some things deserve to be cursed.
When Black Lives Matter protesters curse the police for their systemic profiling, harassment and even murder of black folk, they are being Jesus like. Some things deserve to be cursed.
Dr. King said it this way, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
When we are critical of those who curse in response to evil and oppression, we are not being good Christians or moral giants, we are scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites.
We’re being Motherfuckers and we need to stop.
Some things deserve to be cursed.