Did he really say that?

“Pastor” John MacArthur — I’m putting the title “pastor” in quotes because he doesn’t sound very pastoral to me — has decided to proclaim that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a Christian. And before you ask, yes, MacArthur is an old White guy. Here’s what MacArthur said, according to Religion News Service:

“…Martin Luther King, who was not a Christian at all, whose life was immoral….I’m not saying he didn’t do some social good. And I’ve always been glad that he was a pacifist, or he could have started a real revolution….”

MacArthur was called out by a number of Black pastors. Rev. Charlie Dates, pastor of a Progressive Baptist church in Chicago, said:

“He cannot get away with this. He has to know that Black and Black-adjacent clergy around the country wholeheartedly disagree with him on theological grounds. He’s not the keeper of who’s Christian and who’s not.”

I’m sure MacArthur will simply ignore what Black Christian clergy say to him. MacArthur is another one of those Old White Guys in Power (OWGIPs) who think they get to set the rules. Actually, I’d say that people like MacArthur are the real heretics. They put themselves in the place of their God, trying to take away their God’s power to judge humankind.

With people like MacArthur saying stupid stuff like this, no wonder Christianity has such a bad name these days. Just try to remember that MacArthur is not really a Christian — Charlie Dates and Martin Luther King, Jr., are the real Christians.

A cartoon of John MacArthur saying, "Martin Luther King, who was not a Christian at all, whose life was immoral....I’m not saying he didn’t do some social good. And I’ve always been glad that he was a pacifist, or cluelss White guys like me would have been in big trouble."

Violence, nonviolence

A hundred days ago, Hamas unleashed their attack on Israel. In response, Israel has been carrying out reprisals on the Gaza Strip. And the war is spreading throughout the region, so that the U.S. and other countries have sent warships to protect shipping in the Red Sea. An initial act of violence led to an ongoing violent reaction, which in turn is leading to violence spreading even further….

Many years ago, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov had a character in one of his novels say, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” This pronouncement by a fictional character is a gross generalization subject to all kinds of exceptions (think about Ukraine). But there is a truth underlying this fictional pronouncement, and that is that violence does tend to beget more violence, so any use of violence can suck you into a vicious circle of more and more violence.

This was part of the genius of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his principle of nonviolence. It’s something worth remembering as we celebrate his birthday tomorrow.

MLK and Royce

I recently learned that Martin Luther King’s famous idea of the “Beloved Community” apparently derives from pragmatist philosopher Josiah Royce. So on this Martin Luther King holiday, I decided to look into Royce.

I’ve started looking through Royce’s The Problem of Christianity (New York: MacMillan Co., 1913), a series of lecture he delivered at Manchester College, the Unitarian college at Oxford University. It’s available at the Internet Archive. And while I’m just getting started in this book, I skimmed through it to look for references to the Beloved Community. It looks like Royce equates the Beloved Community with the Kingdom of Heaven:

“The Christian churches and nations of mankind [sic] have done as yet but the very least fragment of what it was their task to accomplish; namely, to bring the Beloved Community into existence, or to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth.” [p. 371]

Later on, it seems to me that Royce is saying the Beloved Community is the Spirit (note the capital “S”) in institutional Christianity (p. 428): “Let your Christology be the practical acknowledgement of the Spirit of the Universal and Beloved Community.” And then a page later: “The core of the faith is the Spirit, the Beloved Community, the work of grace, the atoning deed, and the saving power of the loyal life.”

In this and other passages, it sure sounds like Royce is providing a sort of theology or philosophy of institutionalism. Which is right up my alley. In fact, this is exactly what I’ve been thinking about recently: what is my philosophy or theology of religious institutions? In the past I’ve used a little Bernard Loomer and a little Starhawk and a lot of handwaving. But with the rapid decline of religious institutions, clearly this is an area to which I need to devote a lot more thought.

So I decided I had better start studying Royce myself. I immediately went to the Seminary Coop Bookstore website and ordered a recent scholarly edition of The Problem of Christianity. That’s a special order, but they also had in stock two basic introductions to Royce, Basic Writing of Josiah Royce: Logic, Loyalty, and Community, and The Philosophy of Josiah Royce. (On a whim, I also ordered Varieties of Transcendental Experience: A Study in Constructive Postmodernism, which apparently references Royce.)

What a great way to spend MLK Day.

Distorting Martin Luther King’s legacy

In a Religion News Service interview with Adelle Banks, Lewis V. Baldwin, a scholar of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s works, makes the following point:

“[Dr. King’s] legacy is being hijacked, misinterpreted. For an example, on the extreme right of the political spectrum, there are those who argue that Dr. King was opposed to affirmative action, and they make that argument without any proof at all. There are also those on the right who make the argument that Dr. King, if he were alive, would be opposed to critical race theory. Some have argued that he would be a Republican if he were alive. So all of these claims are made without any foundation whatsoever. Because the people who make the claims obviously have not read Dr. King. They don’t understand his message.”

Banks then asks if political liberals a distorting King’s legacy. Baldwin replies:

“The only problem I have with the left is that there has not been enough of a pushback on what is happening on the right, in terms of their [the right’s] distortion of Dr. King’s message, his ideals.”

In memoriam: Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for popularizing the concept of “Engaged Buddhism,” has just died. (He died Jan. 22 in Vietnam, on the other side of the International Date Line, which was Jan. 21 here in the U.S.) He had been incapacitated by a stroke in 2014, and in 2018 finally received permission from the Vietnamese government to return to his home temple to spend his final days. His name is more properly rendered as Thích Nh?t H?nh, but I’ll use the more common romanization without tonal indications.

Thich Nhat Hanh is probably best known for his series of popular books on Buddhism. Worldcat lists the following titles as the five “most widely held works” in libraries: The Miracle of Mindfulness; Living Buddha, Living Christ; Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life; Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames; and Being Peace. Nhat Hanh arguably did more than anyone else to popularize the concept of mindfulness in the West.

The book of his that I found most interesting, though, one to which I’ve returned a number of times, is The Sutra of the Full Awareness of Breathing (Parallax Press, 1988). This book includes Nhat Hanh’s translation of the ?n?p?nasati Sutta, along with his commentary on the text. This Sutra is no. 118 of the “medium length” sutras that have been collected into the Majjhima Nik?ya. (A later revised version of his translation is now freely available on the website of his Plum Village Buddhist community here.) Nhat Hanh translated the text into French, which was then translated into English; I found the English translation to be lucid, readable, and non-technical. I also liked his The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra; I find Buddhist scriptures difficult to understand, and Nhat Hanh’s commentary helped me understand a little bit about this complex text.

But I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s real impact as a writer and teacher was through his many popular books which give good sound advice for living life. I’ve read a little bit in some of his many books on mindfulness, and was impressed by the good common-sense tone of these books. Unfortunately, mindfulness grew into a fad, and big corporations have learned how to use mindfulness as an opiate to drug their workers into submission. But what Nhat Hanh said about mindfulness had nothing to do with submission to a corporate overlord. Quite the contrary: Nhat Hanh’s writings are permeated with the spirit of Engaged Buddhism, and mindfulness connects one fully with the fate of all beings; instead of quietism and retreat from the world, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness moves us to become engaged in seeking justice.

If your corporate overlord forces you to do mindfulness — or if your school forces you to do mindfulness — try reading Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. You’ll find out that mindfulness is not a drug forcing you to submit to your employer or your school. Nhat Hanh used mindfulness as a way to advocate for peace during the long-running war in Vietnam. Mindfulness helped empower him to criticize both South Vietnam and North Vietnam, and also to stand up against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, at great personal cost. Mindfulness helped bring Nhat Hanh to the U.S. in 1966, where he helped convince Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak out against the injustices of the Vietnam War. In short, unlike the mindfulness that corporations and schools teach, which seems designed to ensure passive compliance with tyranny, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness is designed to resist tyranny, oppression, and injustice.

I’m less interested in Nhat Hanh’s teachings on mindfulness — personally, mindfulness does nothing for my spiritual self — and far more interested in him as a teacher. Everyone I’ve talked to who saw him in person has said he was a riveting teacher. Apparently, his English skills weren’t great — I’m told Vietnamese and French were his main languages — but even through an interpreter his teaching was compelling. I get the sense that it was his presence as a teacher that most impressed those who went to hear him. This has been true of the best teachers I’ve known: there’s something about the way they move, the way they hold their bodies, it is their very being that teaches us. The best teachers, I think, cultivate their persons — or as we might say in the West, cultivate their souls — and it is this cultivation of the person which shines through in their teaching. While I never experienced Nhat Hanh in person, I can catch glimpses of this cultivated soul in his writings. I would unhesitatingly call him a brilliant teacher.

Our troubled world needs brilliant teachers like him, teachers who can empower us to stand up for justice and peace. Thich Nhat Hanh will be sorely missed.

Possum learns about protest

When Castor the Beaver asks Possum why he’s protesting, Possum decides to ask Dr. Sharpie why people protest. Sharpie fires up her time machine, and together they look at some protests from the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t quite what Possum was expecting….

Click on the image above to view the video on Youtube.

Full script below; this week the script has not been corrected, and may diverge from the video.

Continue reading “Possum learns about protest”

Montgomery to Alpharetta, Ga.

We planned to meet Carol’s cousin for dinner; that left us with the rest of the day to spend in Montgomery.

We went to the Rosa Parks Museum and Library, which is part of Troy University in Montgomery. The museum has a well-designed exhibit that tells the story of the Montgomery bus boycott through artifacts and creative audio-visual displays. The audiovisual presentation on Rosa Parks’s refusal to get out of her seat on the bus was especially good: it told and showed enough so you could follow along even if you didn’t know much about Rosa parks, but it left enough not told and not shown so you recreate the story in your imagination, which is what really makes it come alive.

Out in front of the museum is a historical marker that reads:

“At the bus stop on this site on December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to boarding whites. This brought about her arrest, conviction, and fine….”

There isn’t much except the marker to remind you of 1950s Montgomery: there’s no longer a bust stop, the sidewalks are different, all that’s there is that historical marker with some words on it.


I wanted to walk up towards the Capitol building to see the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and Carol was willing to go along. You couldn’t get near the church; the whole city block was closed to pedestrian traffic because Oprah Winfrey was filming her movie “Selma.”


A couple of white guys with cameras were standing there talking. “Last night they let me walk up to the church,” one of them said. He had a fancy-looking digital single lens reflex camera on a monopod. “They changed the name on the church to the original name” — that is, to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — “and on the sign board it said, ‘Sunday morning, Dr. Martin L. King preaching.’ I got some good shots of that. But now they’re not letting anyone in.”

Small buses rolled in regularly. Extras in 1950s-era clothing walked from each bus into the Dexter Avenue Baptist church. A middle-aged black woman came up and cheerfully asked when Oprah was going to show up. Someone said she was going to be there at 5:30. We hadn’t seen any stars; all we had seen were extras.


I got to talking with the man with camera on the monopod. He pointed out his church, in the next block down, the River City Methodist Church. He said that they had gotten down to four members, when the bishop stepped in and settled a dynamic young pastor there. This pastor, said my friend, got rid of the organ music, brought in a praise band, started a thrift store, reached out to the homeless population in downtown Montgomery, and in less than a year had gotten the membership up to 65 people. My friend with the camera was the drummer in the praise band. “We’re Methodist in name only,” he said. “I was a Baptist, but they chased out the pastor of my church, just when River City Church was looking for a drummer. My sound guy used to be a Pentecostal, and I’ll look out when I’m playing and he’s there with his arms in the air. We’re from all different backgrounds. Our pastor says, ‘Church is not inside this building, church is out there, everywhere.'”

We left Montgomery to visit Catherine Coleman Flowers, someone Carol had met through her work in ecological wastewater management. Catherine was born in Lowndes County, Alabama, one of the poorest counties in the state, and is now the executive director of Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE), a non-profit devoted to environmental justice. Catherine told us about a study recently conducted by ACRE that discovered evidence of hookworm in close to half of the stool samples they tested. This is a remarkable study because hookworm was supposedly eradicated from the United States in the early twentieth century. Yet people who live in poverty in rural areas may not be able to afford to install adequate wastewater management systems.

Plus, because of global climate change, Catherine believes that hookworm may find the South a more congenial place to live these days. Here is a serious issue linked to global climate change that cannot be solved through installing solar panels and purchasing fuel efficient cars — the solution will involve a combination of economic justice, economic development, and ecological justice involving decentralized wastewater management solutions.

If Rosa Parks were alive today, I’ll bet she’d be involved in environmental justice.

More on Thoreau

Lecturette from the second and final session of a adult RE class on Thoreau — typos and all.

At the end of last week’s session, you asked me to address a number of points about Henry David Thoreau. In no particular order, you asked me to talk about the following:

(1) Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience
(2) How Thoreau was affected by Eastern religions
(3) The circle of writers and thinkers who came and went in the town of Concord during Thoreau’s life
(4) Why Thoreau left his Unitarian church, and place his departure in the context of wider trends in Unitarianism
(5) Thoreau’s later influence on Unitarianism, and then on Unitarian Universalism Continue reading “More on Thoreau”

A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1

Opening talk from a class on Henry David Thoreau, given at the UU Church of Palo Alto on 18 April 2012.

Henry Thoreau is one of those literary figures that everyone likes to think they know. But having read him (and even studied him in a desultory way), and having read a good deal about him, and having lived the first forty years of my life in the very landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, in which he lived, and having been licensed as a tour guide in Concord, and having preached about him, and having in short devoted rather too much attention to Thoreau — the more I know about him, the more I feel that we tend to impose our sense of what we want Thoreau to be onto who he actually was.

What I would like us to do is to try to understand Thoreau as he really was, not as we would like him to be. That means that we cannot understand him as an environmentalist, because that is not a term he would have known, nor am I convinced that he would have been comfortable with that term. That means that we cannot claim Thoreau as a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or an atheist or humanist, as various people have done over the years, for as an adult he would not have accepted any of those labels. That means that we should not think of him as one of the key figures in nineteenth century American literature, for in his own lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a writer, especially as compared with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and while Thoreau may today be considered a key figure in American literature, arguably he remains misunderstood primarily because his gifts in broad humor and the telling of tall tales are rarely acknowledged.

So who was Thoreau? Continue reading “A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1”

Memphis: Civil Rights Museum

Carol and I went over to the Civil Rights Museum this afternoon. The museum has been constructed on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed on 4 April 1968. The exhibits are well-done and exhaustive, and very heavy on text — it took me two hours to read through the exhibit material, skipping over about half of the reproduction documents and explanatory text, and I only got halfway through the museum. You read about the big events — the sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the Highland Folk School, and so on — but you also get to read about some of the smaller cities where things happened, and the one-person sit-ins that took place. For me, though, the most powerful moment in the museum was towards the end of the documentary film that served as an introduction to the museum, when Rev. Billy Kyles tells the filmmaker that King got shot because he was beginning to talk about economic inequality; in Kyles’s opinion, when King spoke out about economic inequality, that was more dangerous than speaking out about racial injustice. Given the increasing economic inequality in the United States today, that really struck home for me.

We headed out of the dark air-conditioned museum into the heat of a bright, sunny Memphis afternoon. Carol wandered over to where a woman sat behind a booth under an umbrella. On the front of the booth was a sign that read “Gentrification is an abuse of Civil Liberties.” We got to talking with the woman, whose name was Jacqueline Smith. She was the last person to live in the Lorraine Motel — apparently it housed quite a few permanent residents in the 1980s. The state of Tennessee forcibly evicted her in January, 1988, so they could take over the Lorraine Motel and turn it into the Civil Rights Museum. She said she believes that a more fitting monument to King would have been to turn the Lorraine Motel into housing for the poor, or some other project that furthered King’s ideals. She also pointed out how the neighborhood was being gentrified. “There’s an American Apparel store now, over in the next block,” she said scornfully. “Where are the poor people supposed to live?” She has a point. Chain stores like American Apparel usually mean the death of small locally owned businesses. In an article in today’s New York Times business section titled “A Slowdown for Small Businesses,” reported Catherine Rampell points out that small businesses are not doing well these days:

While big companies are buoyed by record profits, many small businesses, which employ half the country’s private sector workers, are still struggling to break even. And if the nation’s small businesses plan to further delay hiring — or, worse, return to laying off workers, as they now hint they might — there is little hope that the nation’s 14 million idle workers will find gainful employment soon. [p. B1]

Jacqueline Smith pointed out that the Civil Rights Museum was sponsored by many large businesses. I had already noticed that — half of one memorial mounted below Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel, the room where King had been staying before he had been shot, was devoted to extolling the virtues of its big corporate sponsor. That struck me as crass commercialism, at best; or disrespectful, at worst; take your pick.

Carol asked if we could take Jacqueline Smith’s photo and post it here, and she said we could. Ms. Smith also gave us a poster showing Dr. King, with the words “I tried to be right, I did try to feed the hungry, I did try to clothe the naked, I tried to love and serve humanity,” and in the photo below she is holding this poster. You can see the balcony where King was shot just above her in the photo.

Photo by Carol Steinfeld.

Ms. Smith has her own Web site where she promotes her point of view. She says in part: “Sadly, [the Civil Rights Museum] fails to live up to [its] ideals. The truth is that the museum has become a Disney-style tourist attraction, which seems preoccupied with gaining financial success, rather than focussing on the real issues.” And this raises the very interesting question for me: has Martin Luther King’s legacy become too sanitized?