Sarah Thompson is the Executive Director of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). This post is adapted from a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech she gave last year at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. Thompson is available for 2017 speaking engagements on behalf of CPT.
“There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all people of good‐will will be maladjusted…I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence…” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was at Bethel College years ago when he spoke these words about maladjustment for one of the first times. His call was for us to be creative in our maladjustment to society. He echoed Jesus in talking about a creative way to respond to the terrible conditions of the day. He did not advocate self-righteousness disengagement or flight or passivity or avoidance from fear, but a third way: a way of engaging what shed light on injustice while also extending a clear invitation for the human doing that harm or participating in an unjust social system to change their ways.
There is a lot that can be said on this special day, for Dr. King was a prolific writer and preacher. This day honors him as a symbol of the broad-based social movement that confronted segregation and economic exploitation.
We know that the bodies of both humans and animals are suffering across this country and globe. And some of us feel badly, but there is so much else going on in the world. It would really take a social movement that confronted us to change our ways: one that stopped traffic and disrupted business as usual.
This is what a creatively maladjusted person does. They confront us. At their best, they are strategic and flexible; their firm conviction sits steady on a foundation of love and they draw from a well of compassion.
Nonviolence is critical because reconciliation is the goal and if you eliminate your interlocutor, there will be no one to reconcile with. But that does not mean that what they have to say has to be nice or make you feel comfortable. It probably won’t.
You may not even understand it at first, that’s fine. Know that hurt feelings are not the same as structural violence. You might be uncomfortable, but recognize that there is a lot of learning in a discomfort zone.
Disruption is what the Civil Rights movement did, and we’re in the midst of another Civil Rights movement in this country. You will need to answer to your descendants when they ask you, “What were you doing when Michael Brown was shot by police officers and then left on the street for 4.5 hours?” “What were you doing when the officer who shot him, or the officer who choked Eric Gardner in New York, were not indicted?” How did you respond?
You still have the chance to respond. The invitation has gone out from Ferguson, Missouri, from New York, from Chicago and from other places across this country to come together and to follow the lead of those most affected by the racist and economic violence of this country.
Let’s move toward this conflict, one step at a time.
Many of the escalating conflicts we have in this country are built on centuries of not seeing one another as worthy enough of our time and not addressing conflict or confusion when it arose.
Conflict avoidance can keep power dynamics that are unequal static. It is not the people that point out the conflict who are creating it. The white clergy of Birmingham accused Dr. King of this when he was imprisoned there. He replied that those who shed light on conflict are inviting those who have been advantaged by social conditions to experience the harshness of those same social conditions on others. Moving toward conflict and exposing it is part of restorative justice. It is part of healing the wounds that we carry on personal and societal levels.
Can you feel the knots in our stomachs forming? Sit with that.
What does this all mean on a global scale? What does it mean when a whole people have that collective knot in their stomach, that bad taste in their mouth, the mindset that makes it difficult to see any other way besides fight or flight?
Christian Peacemaker Teams works in some of those societies, and that society is also this one. We go only where we are invited and we currently have been invited to work in Palestine, Colombia, northern Iraq, and alongside the First Nations of North America.
In Colombia, a 50 year civil war has left many farmers displaced. Some groups have returned to reclaim their land, as is their legal right, only to find that it has been confiscated by an agreement between a wealth-class landowner and multinational corporations.
The structurally adjusted state is weak in the face of international corporations backed by U.S. military aid. So, similarly to the models used in the Civil Rights Movement, the villagers of Las Pavas began to make a daily pilgrimage out to the place where the corporation Daabon’s bulldozers and tractors entered the area to plow over their crops in order to grow palm oil.
And like the people of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, they sing songs about their culture of resistance and life. Songs get the breath moving; they get the Spirit rising. Notice when songs rise in your heart, those can be holy messages to help you overcome a situation.
At night, when the farmers were away, the corporate security guards would harass them by throwing fireballs in the midst of the thatch-roofed village, and during the day, they would directly threaten villagers. They also chopped down banana trees at the roots and destroyed other food crops.
The Las Pavas community called a council meeting, and CPT Colombia was there with them. We devised a strategy together. Some CPTers would stay alongside community members; others would do research as to where this palm oil was going.
We found out that it was going to The Body Shop, a company that prides itself on being ethical and “green.” We told them. They shrugged.
Because they refused to consider this a conflict worth paying attention to, we took our energy to another leverage point, the stores.
We sang, we sat down, we showed pictures of the destruction done on the Body Shop’s watch. And wow do people get mad when you mess up their shopping experience. Disruption of “business as usual” makes them think about the implications of their choices.
Most, but not all, refused to “move toward conflict,” and instead yelled that we weren’t respecting their freedom. We responded, when we could, that their freedom is not the only freedom that matters.
We got kicked out of stores.
We got arrested.
But just like the people involved in the Civil Rights movement, we trained for these scenarios ahead of time. There was a lot of training in the Civil Rights movement that prepared people to move toward conflict.
Maybe you feel like you couldn’t join something like this because you don’t know enough. Training is important. It is leadership development, and if you want to join a social movement, there are many people in this area who have it or know where to get it.
After a year and a half of pressure, which involved the nonviolent direct action in the stores, a letter-writing campaign, the Las Pavas community on the ground, and an economic boycott, the Body Shop cut their contract with Daabon. Because of this, Daabon had to pull out and the farmers got their land back.
This stuff works. And when it doesn’t work immediately, there are other benefits to standing up and speaking out about what hurts you or what is hurting someone else.
This is a part of building the Beloved Community: the picture of society that resonates with how I understand the Kin-dom of God.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth in a sustainable way. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and exclusion will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. In the Beloved Community, there will be conflict as we seek to figure out the healthiest ways for us to share this planet with people of different and similar truth claims.
Conflict can be a generative force. Conflict is two ideas rubbing up against each other; it is the friction that helps things move and go forward. We need to embrace nonviolent conflict and expand our ability to hold tension so that new ideas can grow.
It can be hard to open the space. There is a historical weight of division and inequality that plagues this nation. We know that police officers cannot get away with killing white youth like they get away with killing black youth, one every 28 hours.
While you may feel far away from these realities, you are not. Think about what impact our socialization has on our lens as we analyze the world around us, and as we analyze the news we see of people in Palestine and in Ferguson.
The Rev. Dr. said, “There are millions of poor people in this country with very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be encouraged to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”
Larry Cox and others are working on the Poor People’s Campaign, which is what King was working on when he was assassinated. In 2017, it will be the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the Poor People’s Campaign. And this time it will be a global campaign.
Larry writes, “Dividing poor and working class people along color lines is an ideological and cultural basis of division. It is essential for the maintenance and functioning of our current unequal and unjust system that people of color be identified with poverty and crime. It is equally essential to identify all white people, even the poorest, with the white planters of our day: the enormously wealthy tiny minority who control our economic and political systems. This dominant narrative has worked well. It has, for example, enabled some 18.8 million white poor people…to largely disappear from public sight and discussion. In many states, it has enabled politicians to gain a majority of those working class white people who vote to support policies that have kept their wages stagnating or falling for decades. Those in power have used this narrative of fear to line up majority support for police killings that can be seen on videos to be morally and in every other way indefensible.”
We may not all be guilty, but we are all responsible.
To move away from the conflict that will be necessary to change this reality, or to be passive aggressive or avoid responsibility, is to be complicit with racism and classism in this country and around the world.
You may not be comfortable with the way the movement is manifesting, but it would be wrong to displace your anger on to those who are out there on the frontlines trying to do something. We must redirect that anger. Take a deep breath and turn it into righteous anger. Don’t hide it, but direct that energy at the system that has caused this deep gulf of grief.
And do something, in your own way, to join the struggle. When you hear someone else bringing up a conflict, do not be passive, do not withdraw.
When a person of color or someone targeted by any oppression says something is racist or sexist, it is not your job to debate the issue. They are waving a red flag. Whether or not they are 100 percent correct, what they are flagging is pain.
The church at its best is a place where no questions are off the table or feelings unwelcome. Churches can be places to grapple with our history, our complicity, and the brokenness of our lives and communities. The Beloved Community is a space where people can be vulnerable and where there is shared accountability.
Accountability is what this new Civil Rights movement is calling for. They are in a struggle to stop police killings of black people. They make necessary demands for police accountability and criminal justice reforms.
But what gives the assertion Black Lives Matter its revolutionary power is that it directly challenges the larger social system that has used racism to control us all. Of course “everyone’s lives matter.” But just the mere fact that Black Lives Matter needs to be said shows that not all of us share the assumption that the lives of black and brown and native and queer and poor and non-American folk actually do matter.
“Their struggle raises what has always been a determining question in this country: Can white people, and in particular the white poor and working classes, not only see and value black lives, but also understand and join that fight to liberate all of us?
There is a growing need and yearning to connect these often isolated battles and begin creating a broader and deeper social movement: a movement with the power and vision to take on not just the rotten fruits of poverty, inequality, and oppression, but the national and global systems and structures that produce them.” –Larry Cox
This is the kind of movement that Dr. King envisioned in his last years.
And if we aren’t willing to work through the tension that we feel on small things, it will be really hard on big things. Do the small things now.
Move toward it. Yes European-American Mennonites, I am asking you to move towards conflict. Those who have traditions other than or in addition to European-American, or people who have lived authentically in other cultures, you can help us to see ourselves and question our aversion to conflict or passive-aggressiveness. Yes, for MLK Day we should work on reducing passive-aggressiveness!
Like King said many years ago, we are called to be creatively maladjusted to the general flow of our militaristic, racist and materialistic culture. Kin-dom of God people don’t always go with the society flow.
When you move toward conflict, you can be confident God is with you. We just came through Christmas (for me the holidays really don’t end until MLK Day celebrations have concluded) and this is a story all about God who is holy, other, and moving into the spaces of conflict that we call life on Earth. God moved toward conflict and became incarnate in it.
It is in the struggle that we see that injustice doesn’t have the last word! We see growing numbers of whites joining the fight to say that Black Lives Matter and demand that racism must end. We see major unions and other labor groups taking up the fight, led by low-wage workers, for a living wage. The healing is happening, and you are invited to be a part of it.
No excuses. Now is the time! Honor Dr. King’s legacy by taking a step toward the Beloved Community by moving toward conflict.