How my community of beautiful weirdos helped me hear my teachers from the Civil Rights Movement, and make our Pledge of Allegiance more honest

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Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I’d like to invite you to imagine that you’re me.

You’re a pastor in a little church whose daughter is entering kindergarten, and you’re thinking about the Pledge of Allegiance. You’ve just been to the school and the teacher is absolutely amazing. And yet, there’s a giant American flag on the wall and she talks about how the children all say the Pledge.

This makes you think about your own experience of ambivalence and confusion, all the way through high school, about saying the Pledge. And as you stand there in this class with your teacher and daughter, you can’t help but think of Colin Kaepernick’s respectful kneeling protest and the astonishingly hostile reaction it has received. You’re reminded of some old organizing advice: the action is in the reaction.

You’re thinking seriously about how to approach the Pledge and the idolatry of government (vs. simple and appropriate loyalty) with your daughter, even before Donald Trump starts a tweet storm, accepting praise as the ‘second coming.’ You don’t want to live in a world where Trump’s unhealthy rhythms dictate the rhythm of your life, but this makes you begin to really, really think about the Pledge. After all, you know that early Christians generally obeyed the government, but disobeyed pointedly at moments that looked a lot like this.

Especially when you think of pledging to a flag, you remember this quote from Tertullian, a brilliant writer, a Berber from North Africa, the father of Latin Christian letters: “Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.”

So you ask your community for input on the Pledge. And because of your life in organizing and activism and church, your community is made up of a mixture of atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Christians, right wingers, left wingers, no wingers and third stringers. They’re beautiful, and they give you all kinds of helpful insights and thoughts, many of them conflicting, each of them a jewel. Each of them a reflection of the world in the eyes of a shockingly marvelous creation that can hold the universe in a skull. You decide to spend a day holding each of those jewels in thought and prayer.

And when you do that, after you’ve slept, you realize that your mind has been carried on a journey back through layers and layers of time, and that the journey really has taught you something. It has let you hear your own teachers anew, for the first time.

Here, in a couple of vignettes, is that 1800 year journey back through time, so that we can arrive at the present and see the future in it.

Please, join me.

The first stage of your journey is 18 years ago, and these are your real memories. (Because, remember, you’re me, and these are my real memories.)

You’re remembering a group of people you have known directly, if briefly. They came up through the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee: the movement of astonishingly brave and wise young black people who formed the non-violent ‘sword’ of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. They didn’t disappear after the Civil Rights Movement. They kept on training other young people who were brave and foolish enough to listen.

You’re just barely qualified to join a training they’ve helped organize. That is to say, you’re just barely foolish enough to go to a mass protest against corporate globalization where they have decided to try to train a huge number of cell groups from around the US, in preparation for a day of action the following day. It’s the early 2000’s. 9–11 hasn’t happened yet. The threat of police action against the protesters looms large, and people argue long into the night about tactics: violence, non-violence and whether property destruction is violent.

Later, you’ll come to understand that the trainings themselves have the heart of Ella Baker stamped deeply in them: the core of the training is about how non-violent resistance is not passive and weak, but powerful and transformative. The training is practical, and detailed. It is about thinking creatively, envisioning different outcomes, breathing deeply, pointing and saying “Ommmm” to change the tone of violent situations. Most of the people there, as far as you can tell, are atheists and anarchists and maybe some yogis. The trainers never proselytize or even talk about God, but you’re struck by the fact that you’re all meeting in a network of church buildings.

As a young, sort-of-Catholic, you wonder: why are we meeting in churches?

As you remember it now, as a pastor, it occurs to you that this is one of the seeds that grew in you, and eventually turned you into a pastor. You note this, then you turn the eye of your memory back to that training.

You also remember the way the young, mainly white and male anarchists chafed at the non-violence of the training. Even those who took the non-violence to heart used it to plan an aggressive street blockage whose “Theory of Change” you struggled to understand. It was non-violent, sure. But how would this help? Who was their audience, and what were they saying to them?

And then you remember a pastiche of other protests, all part of this same movement.

You remember a young man climbing up a stop light and burning an American flag, hoisting a black one instead. The police are nearby, and they begin to press in around him, as if they are going to tree a raccoon. The crowd pushes back, screaming in the face of the police, “We’re non-violent, how about you?” Finally, an enraged officer loses control. He grabs a protester and starts beating him. The anarchist stage-dives off of the traffic light, into the crowd, and escapes.

You remember snake marches that follow a black and red flag, and the inescapable feeling that this thing is, somehow, an organism of its own. And you remember police surrounding a group of protesters, trapping them as they begin to pull in buses to arrest them all. You remember anarchists playing red rover to break through police lines and succeeding: like a ruptured cell, the police are pushed back and the protesters flow out. Many escape before the police gain control again.

But in all of that, here’s what you remember most: you remember one of your hosts, right at the start of your engagement with this movement. They had gathered all of these young anarchists to train them in non-violence. Your host is an older black woman who tells you that she was in SNCC, which she pronounces “Snick.” Some of the young white activists are arguing that property destruction isn't violent, and she isn’t having it. Most of all, you remember what her face said so clearly that you’ve never forgotten it: “You guys don’t get it.”

This is the thing you remember the most. This is the thing you’ve wrestled with the most. And you’ve spent the last 18 years trying to understand what she thought they didn’t get.

To try to understand what they didn’t get, let’s travel back deeper in time, to a time when a relatively small group of young black people were taking on a brutal 400 year legacy of white supremacy with almost nothing but their bodies, and kicking its ass down the hallway.

Now you aren’t me any more. Or if you are me, you are me trying to imagine yourself in another time and place. Does this make you uncomfortable, being in someone else’s skin, and again in someone else’s skin? Good.

Remember: it’s not your skin. But somehow, we’re also all in here together. If you’re not at least a little uncomfortable, get uncomfortable. Notice the discomfort. You’re allowed to move forward in that discomfort. If you come along on this journey with me, you’ll face much more than discomfort. Might as well get used to it.

And so you dare to try to imagine yourself into the life of your teacher from SNCC, because you desperately want to understand what she was trying to tell those kids. What didn’t they get?

So now you’re living in Mississippi in 1961. With everything in you, you want to see segregation end. No: you need it now. You can’t live in this suffocating air any more. And you understand that part of the way segregation has been enforced has been by denying you and your community the right to vote, through a combination of vigilante violence (to which the police turn a blind eye, when they aren’t behind it themselves), police harassment, and cynical bureaucratic maneuvering. They have the legal guns, they have the illegal guns, they have the political power and the public offices. What do you do?

Well, empowered and encouraged by your church, you start to live in the future you envision and hope for, consequences be damned. You want segregation to end, so you start acting like it has ended. You start sitting down in restaurants and buses where you aren’t allowed. You want the suppression of your right to vote to end, and so you start to register voters, knowing that people are going to die when you do.

But actually, you’re too smart to simply ‘damn’ the consequences. You make the consequences part of the story you tell with your bodies, and through your work with the media as well. You’re going to live in the future you want. They can kill you, hose you down, sick dogs on you, insult you, malign you, accuse you. But they can’t write your story, or put you where they want you in their story, any more. You’re going to write the story, and you’re going to make sure the world hears it.

Notice this, and mark it well:

What you start isn’t really a protest movement. Not fundamentally.

It is a movement rooted in living in the future you hope for, as if the lies of the present had already been defeated.

It is only through the reaction against you that these actions become protests. Of course, you know and anticipate that. But the power of your protest is that it isn’t a protest on the inside. It’s simply life in the future.

To be crystal clear, you’re not the least bit naive. Even as a young person, you’ve seen and heard far too much to be even the tiniest bit naive about the costs involved in living in the future. But you’ve learned from church about another person who bore attacks and insults, who even gave his life. He acted like he was already living in the future he hoped for. And he allowed his attackers to take his life, but he didn’t let them write the story. He wrote the script, and his people told and wrote the story, and made sure the world heard it.

So how did you get to the protest? You got there by asking: “What do we hope for?” And then you started doing it. Even if it was illegal. Or maybe more precisely, “illegal,” because you understand very well that the “justice” system around you is so corrupt that the law itself will illegally turn a blind eye to people who come and murder you. If they could, your legal system would charge you for your own murder, so they could throw you in a jail where you would spend eternity picking cotton without pay, almost exactly like your ancestors did in life, on the very plantation where the prison now stands.

You’re not the least bit naive. You know the score, and the price, and the powers you’re up against.

You understand the consequences, and you’re afraid.

You’re a person like any other, even if the whites don’t understand that: your pains and fears are just as real as theirs. But you’re also brave. And so you step into another story, one from an almost un-imaginable future.

You walk into restaurants and act like they aren’t segregated. You register voters, almost as if you won’t get shot for it. You don’t return evil for evil, when it inevitably comes, but instead return evil with love.

And damnit, you win.

You don’t win it all, mind you. But you win the specific future, the almost unimaginable one, that you enacted. In the span of several years, you can sit in a restaurant without being thrown out. And you can register voters without getting shot, because the federal government has finally stepped in to stop the most rampant abuses and corruption. (There’s still plenty to go around now, but it isn’t quite the way it was.)

You haven’t managed to live in the fullness of the future. There’s still a lot of the past left. But the specific future you lived becomes the present. And you know that without non-violence, you couldn’t have done this. And you also understand the power of living in the future, to create a future you can live in.

Now dear friend who is me, your dreams don’t stop there.

Your mind is drawn back farther to another group of people, creating a different future by living in that future. Like our friends from SNCC, we are living in part of the future they have built. But this future, like theirs, is still very much under construction.

Let’s dive in.

You’re part of a minority religious sect in the Roman Empire. The year is what we now call 150 AD. But you don’t live in a world where things are dated according to an approximation of the birth of your king, a crucified laborer from Judea named Jesus. That will only come centuries later. To you, it is the 12th year of Antonius Pius, the most peaceful of all the Emperors of Rome. Still, his government is one which routinely uses torture in criminal trials, and it makes slaves of some and masters of others, and its peace which spans the world has been purchased through terror and brutality. Like all slave-making regimes, the system is constantly enforced through the most obscene cruelty and torture.

Your king isn’t like that at all. While Antonius tortures, your king was tortured and faced a farce of a criminal trial. While Antonius makes slaves, your king has abolished the master-slave relationship by teaching masters to be ‘slaves’ as well. Wherever this teaching is practiced, it does more than abolish slavery: it abolishes exploitation, coercion and cruelty in all forms. As your king has taught: anyone who comes to him as a servant is made a friend, instead. You share everything, and strive to out-do each other in loving and serving each other. There is still more there, to grow into, but this sort of companionship and deep care and sharing is the norm among you, and not the exception.

And though your king has no swords or spears that anyone can see, he continues to conquer hearts as you abide by his laws: to love each other and even your enemies. As your great teacher Clement says, and you understand with ease: you are part of an army of peace that carries no spears and no swords. They are obsolete, in the future you live in. This is utterly clear, utterly practical advice and you live it out each day.

And as you live in that future, you see that the most powerful place your people can stand is at the point of another’s spear. This is what your king taught you by his example, and you celebrate the martyrs who have died while following the example of your king: forgiving and loving their enemies. Never, under any circumstances, returning evil for evil, but overcoming evil with love.

When the imperial processions and banners come, and when people go to worship the emperor, you abstain. It isn’t so much that you’re forbidden to do that, by your religion. It is that your king is Jesus, and through the power of enemy love he has already conquered Antonius Pius. Antonius might torture and kill you, or he may be more lenient. The constant hope and prayer of your community involves a prayer for lenience: keep us from the test. You do not crave battle. But if it comes to it, you know exactly how to fight. You will allow them to strike you with their spears and clubs and swords, and you will not retaliate. You’ve already beaten them, because they can’t write your story. You’re going to write the story, and you’re going to make sure the world hears it. And it is the story of your king, and his reign.

There is often conflict and trouble when you refuse to bow to the Emperor or his banners, which are rivals to Christ. But you bear it cheerfully, with peace and love. You take it as an opportunity to tell people about the true King, the one who has conquered Antonius and who reigns among you. As long as Antonius lets you proceed in this way (and he has learned through the experience of his predecessors that it gets worse for them when they try to stop you) you are happy to go on telling the story and living in the future.

The others, those who haven’t sworn allegiance to your king, don’t understand why you won’t pray to the gods. They’re afraid that their security will collapse if you don’t honor them and the Empire. Do you take its peace and protection for granted? Why do you protest like this? What has gotten into you? Why can’t you just go along, get along and act normal? Why do you insult our ancestors and our Empire in this way? Don’t you realize the peril you place us in?

Your response to your enemies is consistent, though. You love them.

What they don’t understand is that when you refuse to bow to the Emperor or carry his banners, it isn’t a protest. Not fundamentally. It is their reaction that makes it a protest.

It is just that you are living in the future that you hope for, as if the lies of the present had already been defeated.

You simply can’t bring yourselves to lie and call Antonius the Son of God, even at the point of the spear. He isn’t. He never was, and now that you have sworn your allegiance to Jesus and seen his power, the power of enemy love, it is even more obvious than ever.

Of course, you don’t think that Antonius is your ultimate ruler. But that’s only the ghost, the echo of the truth you live in: that Jesus is the king. The enemy-loving, master ‘enslaving,’ friend making, peaceful Jesus is your king. The protest is an essential echo, and you work it into your song. But it is an echo, not the message.

As you live in the future that your king has established in you, you see the future break out around you all the time. And wherever it goes, the resistance to that future rears its ugly little head. Usually with discouragement and deception. But sometimes the enemy, the spiritual force and system that has captured the people who you seek to free, loses its head. Then, in frustration and impotent rage it pulls out the spears and swords and clubs. You don’t relish those moments. But you don’t truly fear them. You understand that this is not the moment of the old, dead regime’s greatest strength. It is the moment of its defeat, and you are about to claim a lot of new ground for your king in the only ground that matters: the hearts of your enemies.

Your life is not easy. But it is one filled with the most profound marvel, joy, and power. The power you walk in is the power of your king, who needs no violence because he has conquered violence itself, and who needs no slaves, because he is the servant of all.

Now you’re me again. Welcome back. You’ve almost finished writing up your trip to ancient Rome when your daughter cries out for comfort. It is about 5:50 am in Columbus, Ohio in the United States in the year 2019, AD. You hold her until she falls back asleep.

And you make a decision, a gift from your teachers and your community.

You’re going to talk to her teacher and explain that your family lives in the future we hope for, even when that creates friction with the present. When it creates friction in the present, we love and work to win over those who it creates friction with.

I plan to show my daughter’s wonderful teacher this article, and at the end, she will read what you are reading now. She will read that our family’s real issue with the Pledge is that we can’t allow our daughter to be taught to lie. In the plain text of the Pledge, it claims in the present tense that we have “liberty and justice for all.” The broader context of the Pledge provides no indication that this is a future hope, and every indication that this is a present reality.

And so she can say the Pledge as long as she can modify it, so that it clearly isn’t a lie. Our proposed modification is this:

“With the hope of liberty and justice for all.”

She and her class are welcome to modify it in any way they like, and make it so that it is not a lie, so that my daughter can participate.

I hope for a future where our nation’s pledge is, unambiguously, not a lie.

My family is going to start living in that future now. (And yes, I shared this article and got permission from my wife before saying that.)

It might look like a protest, if you don’t get it. But that’s not quite it. That may be the outer appearance of it, but it isn’t the heart of it.

We’re just living in the future we hope for, as if the lies of the present have already been defeated.

I know it’s a small thing. But the big things are always in the small things.

So if you pray, please pray for us, whether you agree or not.

And if you agree, please join us here in the future. We like it here. There may be some real conflict, as time rubs against time. Let’s love our way past it.

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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