There was a period of my life when religion garnered a bad rap. The term characterizing a phenomenon consisting of creeds, values, and practices taking shape in a formal setting. Religion consisting of hierarchy demanding the completion of several doctrinal assessments, the announcement of particular beliefs delineating those possessing membership and those outside the group, and the demonstration of periodic practices offering some form fraternal affirmation and connection to a phenomenon larger than one particular individual. Religion, the presence of hierarchies, power differentials, and creeds began to lose steam for more fashionable terms such as “non-religious” or “spiritual.” These terms acting to create new individual expressions of understanding the human experience outside the demanding and discriminatory environment of religion. Those who chose to leave determined to find life and vibrancy outside of an organizational form judged to be shallow and lifeless.
While I do not agree with the conclusions regarding religion many of my peers and their children would assert, I am empathetic to those conclusions. Who would not get tired of hearing authority figures offer pontifications which did not touch everyday life? While the words of a particular sacred text offer mysterious claims and reality challenging conclusions, even I at times said to myself, “So what?!” Sometimes one needs to step out and reflect on his or her position in relationship to this particular way of life, also known as religion. Admittedly, you can step away and never return, choosing for yourself a new way of religious fervor. Your reflection can lead you to some particular modifications as a result of considering old practices with your particular human experience. Finally, your reflections can offer a renewed vigor, essentially doubling down on what you have found comfort and familiarity with over the years. Whatever the case, and I am not one to judge, at some point we recognize the shallowness of our religious life. I firmly believe-here comes a religious statement-human beings desire to discover the depth of the human experience. We earnestly desire to be challenged and come close to facing the deepest of all possible waters.
Our nation once again is on the precipice of celebrating the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. This national holiday approved by Congress in 1983 with its first celebration occurring in 1986 and the final state, South Carolina approved the holiday at the state level in 2000. Yes, 2000. While there are many significant federal holidays such as Independence Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day, MLK Day offers an opportunity of moral reflection on how we perceive one another as human beings. As the reverend aptly spoke, “judged not by the color of one’s skin but by the content of one’s character.” The national holiday of Dr. King has led to the creation of a magnificent monument in Washington D.C., and “Days of Service.” Men and women gathering on the third Monday of the month to worship essentially. Gospel songs bellowed by choirs, moving speeches offered by all types of orators, and people for one day fanning out into their communities to conduct some offering of volunteerism in the name of the Civil Rights martyr.
If I may be so blunt, after thirty-five years of sermonizing with various political and ethnic sides invoking the name of King to defend particular ideological causes, what has this religious activity brought the men and women today? More directly, the ideas and values of Dr. King find no place in the last year. We have retreated from the words of King determining to animate once again the dead belief skin color should have a primacy in our national life. What good are songs like “We shall overcome,” which surely will be sung in the next few days, when we will return to categorizing in a negative light whole groups of people because of ethnicity? In the last year, in the shadow of racial unrest, deaths on all sides, loss of economic stability, and the growing suspicion of the “other,” it is not surprising Dr. King’s idea of a society flourishing without the necessity of race primacy has fallen to the wayside. Recently, Dr. Ibram Kendi asserted, “the most threatening racist movement is not the alt-Right’s unlikely drive for a White ethno-state, but the regular American’s drive for a race neutral one” (How to be an Anti-Racist, 2019). Those are depressing words to say the least.
So what will happen after we gather on Sunday or Monday of this upcoming week of 2021? We will sing. We will march. We will ponder the future. The question becomes for me, “Will this be a shallow future of separation on the shores of America or a future of the deep waters looking beyond the simplicity of skin color?” It is far easier to remain on the shores of this human existence remaining safe as the water wash between our toes and the sand is somewhat unstable under those feet. It is a whole other experience to walk further into the deep waters of ethnic relationships learning over time, if we do not want to drown, we will have to depend on those who are not like us in terms of ethnicity. This will take courage and the accompanying recognition the individual next to you is being courageous.
Maybe after being in the deep waters of this type of human existence we can return to the shore and challenge others to leave such shallow observances and do the hard work of discovering our humanity. Discovering our humanity as Dr. King exclaimed in 1966 at Southern Methodist University,
“This is why I say that a doctrine of black supremacy is as dangerous as a doctrine of white supremacy. God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers. And every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”
Somethings are just worth dying for in the deep waters of the human experience.
That right there is true religion.