All Souls Kansas City

January 20: “Chaos and Community – MLK Celebration” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Call it entropy if you like – that frost-heave in the ground, and gravity, that makes the mortarless stacked stone of a rural New England farm wall unstack itself over the course of the winter, and tumble down to one side or the other, leaving gaps like missing teeth. You have to be steadfast, and patient, to keep a wall like that in place. Every spring you have to go out and put it back together again in certain spots, stone upon stone; it takes a persistent energy to keep that kind of wall going. Left to its own devices over time, it will dissolve into a scattering of rocks across the landscape, blocking nothing, preventing nothing. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down. Some primal energy, like a planetary shrug…

It’s a quirky group of spirits that hover here this morning over our gathering. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., meet Mary Oliver. Joan Olsen, Schwab Major, let us introduce you to Jakelin and Filipe. How shall we remember you all, carry our recollections of you into the shape of our days and the larger meaning of our lives? More than 50 years now since the assassin’s bullet ended Martin’s prophetic career, although his message lingers in our minds and hearts – “I have a dream…” “Not the color of their skin, but the content of their character…” “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Mary’s poetic vision and provocation – “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Schwab and Joan, each in their own way faithful advocates for decades of this community, its message and its well-being as an institution, clear in the expectation that we will carry on where they left off. The little brown children, following their families’ hope to find a safer place, a larger opportunity, dead of fever in the hands of an organization called ICE. How shall we live in this cruel, beautiful world, that clobbers us with wonder, and betrays all that is sacred without pity?

It is not enough to do the MLK soundbites; that is the cheap way out — always it is easier to pay homage to the prophets than to heed the direction of their vision. Dr. King was a subtle and erudite thinker, who took on complex topics and argued bold claims in his writing. Sentimental memes only serve to domesticate him, and drain the power of his legacy. Remembering the man and his times does him no honor unless it asks us, What injustice and inhumanity would he be calling out today? What do we learn from his example about what is required of us in the present moment? It is not hard to imagine where we would find Dr. King today; he would be in San Diego, arrested with dozens of other clergy and faith leaders, trying to deliver a message of solidarity to asylum seekers at the border of Tijuana. He would be marching with the residents of Hidalgo County, Texas, who do not want their property seized by the government to destroy butterfly sanctuaries and wildlife refuges in order to build a wall. He would be working with No Mas Muertes in the Arizona desert, to leave life-saving supplies of water and food where scores of refugees have died. Until earlier this month, he would have been protesting at the fence around the camp in Tornillo, Texas, where more than 3,000 children, including many separated from their parents by US authorities, were warehoused – 3,000 out of some 15,000 and growing total, according to NPR.

Martin Luther King would have recognized, with every prophetic bone in his body – like a message straight from the almighty – that we are breeding a new generation of implacable terrorists in those camps; angry young men and women whose families and childhoods were stolen from them by a government utterly without human decency. When the bombings start, no one will need to ask why they hate America. It makes a sad kind of sense that teachers and school facilities in these camps are all but non-existent. What could be more dangerous for comfortable Americans than to let these dispossessed children learn to read?

One of the things I wonder – what I wish we could ask – is how Dr. King would have offered the gospel of non-violence to these traumatized young people? Would he have been able to make the moral high ground make sense to them? Or will their soul murder be so complete that no scrap of dignity or compassion remains to be nurtured and to build on? Consider the fact that one third of these children at least, have identified relatives in this country prepared to house and care for them until their applications for asylum can be reviewed by a backed-up, chaotic, and now furloughed system. Yet the administration would not allow these children to be released until everyone who lives in the household that was to receive them had undergone a fingerprinted background check. This ostensibly was to protect the children, though its practical intended purpose was to uncover other undocumented immigrants. And the proof of this hypocrisy is that adults hired to work at the understaffed detention facility at Tornillo were not subjected to similar examination – although they were required to sign legal agreements not to discuss anything they saw or experienced in the camp.

The Tornillo facility was closed recently; it was too obvious, too public, too well known. Protesters were camping by its walls, singing to the children. People were watching it on Google Earth, and with cameras on drones. Some of its captives were released to waiting families; others were transferred to lesser known locations, and my guess is that when we find out where those are, the same thing will happen again. There won’t be any iron signs proclaiming El Trabajo Nos Libera – that’s too permanent, too accountable. It will all disappear overnight, all the evidence, all the children, whisked away from the cameras, and the public eye.

Reflecting on the legacy of slavery, in which he participated as we know, Thomas Jefferson wrote: Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are… not to be violated but with God’s wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; that wants it down. Call it ingenuity if you like. A serious student of history would recognize how costly and ineffective walls have generally been. The Berlin wall lasted for less than 30 years, during which time 5,000 people succeeded in escaping from East to West Berlin anyway. The famous and costly Maginot line, intended to protect France from invasion by German troops, proved useless against either aerial bombardment or military advances through Belgium and the Netherlands. The Great Wall of China, completed by the Ming dynasty in the early 17th century, failed utterly to stop the Manchu invasion of 1644, when a corrupt general opened the gates to attacking forces. Feudal European cities were organized around walls for protection against local wildlife, foreign armed forces, and irate or desperate peasants. Yet advancing economic and cultural development tended to favor those who were least invested in or dependent upon their walls. The idea of a barrier wall is attractive to the unsophisticated mind, but it rarely works as intended; if human beings are motivated to find a way around it, they pretty much always do.

If Martin Luther King were reflecting upon the current alleged ‘crisis’ of immigration, I wonder if his thoughts might not go back to the ‘crisis’ mentality of slave owners in the antebellum South. They were an anxious bunch, those plantation masters and urban aristocrats, worried about several things. They worried a lot about their human property taking to its heels and escaping from bondage, reclaiming their inalienable rights and dignity in a place of more equality and justice. They worried about the contempt of their northern neighbors, who demonstrated little respect for their ‘peculiar institution’ and the way of life that depended on it, who were disposed to prevent the spread of slavery, and to abet the loss of their economic investment, by helping enslaved people to ride the Underground Railroad to freedom. The Southern elite worried about the power of their voting bloc in congress, if there got to be more and more slavery-free states, to outnumber the slave-holding coalition. But more than any of these concerns, the thing that gave them nightmares was the possibility of a coordinated slave uprising. There were precedents enough to give substance to this fear; lurid tales, with truth behind them. From the banks of South Carolina’s Stono River as early as 1739, to Denmark Vesey’s uprising in 1822 and Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in 1831, to the successful takeover of government in Haiti by enslaved people in 1804, and John Brown’s abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Each of these events brought with it violence against former masters and other whites that would readily have been regarded as terrorism by those it threatened. The more frightened the owners became, the more cruelty and repression they exerted to control their own, and other owners’, slaves. The more inhumane treatment they suffered, the more incentive the enslaved people had to escape, to conspire and rebel, and to exercise violent vengeance against their captors.

Something doesn’t love a wall – call it human dignity, the bell of freedom; it brought down the Bastille, and many another defense of privilege, wealth, and prejudice. Something in us, it seems, does love a wall, though; loves the idea of protecting ourselves and our habits and our power against the desperation of those we choose to exclude. The same impulse, I suppose, that back in kindergarten, didn’t want to share the red crayon, or liked to keep all the Legos for ourselves, or was willing to shun the ‘weird kid’ in order to secure our own peer acceptance. By the time of composing the manuscript of his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, Dr. King had concluded that racism was not a uniquely American phenomenon, but the tentacles of specifically American racism had international reach, particularly south of our borders. “The life and destiny of Latin America are in the hands of United States corporations,” he wrote. “Decisions affecting the lives of South Americans are ostensibly made by their government, but there are almost no legitimate democracies alive in the whole continent. The other governments are dominated by huge and exploitative cartels that rob Latin America of her resources while turning over a small rebate to a few members of a corrupt aristocracy. Everywhere in Latin America one finds tremendous resentment of the United States, and that resentment is always strongest among the poorer and darker peoples of the continent.” This was written in 1967, just months before his death, and it was prescient. Nothing about our nation’s current struggle to adopt a rational approach to immigration, or a just and humane procedure at our borders, would have surprised Dr. King – outraged and saddened him, I expect, but not surprised. The drugs and gangs and violence from which the refugee asylum seekers who throng our borders wish to escape are our doing; we created them through corporate exploitation, political and military opportunism, and humanitarian neglect.

The ensuing fifty years have taken Dr. King’s title from a national to an international question – Where do we go from here? Do we descend into chaos, or arise into community? So far, chaos appears to be the likelier bet – in part because our internal national chaos seems unable to manifest order on any larger scale.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” says the farmer next door, quoting his father’s wisdom to Robert Frost, as the two of them reset the fallen stones of their wall. “Really?” replies the poet, if only to himself. “My apples are not going invade, and eat your pine cones.”

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…

What are we walling in? Stolen land, the ill-gotten gains of centuries of genocide and slavery? White privilege, traumatized families, oppression and suffering? What are we walling out? The hopes and the trust of thousands of people who still believe, in spite of everything, that America holds the light of promise for human liberty and opportunity? The children who will come to love or to hate what our nation stands for, depending on what we teach them by our actions? To whom are we like to give offense? Well, something there is that doesn’t love a wall – call it elves, says the poet; or call it all that is holy, call it the energy of creation, call it god and be done with it. What is sacred at the heart of all things, that bends toward justice and summons us relentlessly to our better selves; that power, that judgment, that universal mercy and mystery – doesn’t love a wall. Has never loved a wall, and wants it down.

In 1964, at the height of the struggle for negro civil rights in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a visit to Germany.
In a sermon delivered at the Berlin wall he said this:

Here on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women [all people] search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.

Regardless of the barriers of race, creed, ideology, or nationality, there is an inescapable destiny which binds us together. There is a common humanity which makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another.”

Call it that, then. The common humanity that makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another. That is the thing that doesn’t love a wall. Because more than ever now, we know that this is one world, and nothing that we do or build can separate us from each other’s suffering, from the common good, or from our shared future. Let’s say so in song, shall we?