Creation: The Real Loser in the Nye vs Ham Debate

I don’t usually write about cultural events – at least nothing too specific or too current. (I feel like I should then say, “but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.”) But last night’s debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye has resounded in my mind all day today. Not so much the actual content of the debate, but the method and trajectory of the debate. And, in the name of full transparency, I didn’t watch the actual showing. I did pay attention through the vicarious tweets and Facebook statuses, making this truly not a critique of the specifics of what was argued, but the arguing itself.

The debate itself seemed reminiscent of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the ensuing Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early 1920’s. Pitting the legal and educational systems of the day against the religious institution was an exercise including rationality and hermeneutics, theology and public policy. Prior to, throughout its proceedings, and even after the court’s dust had settled, the focus fell upon the origins of humankind. The magnitude of this event was far too large to kept within the courtroom. Regardless of the details, influences, and outcomes, culture at large was now engrossed in the search to understand Genesis 1.

To this day, we haven’t been able to escape the grip of this search. The creation/evolution debate has long stood the test of time – at least modern time – in holding our attention to the minutiae of detailed case studies and fossil records on the one hand and the Ancient Near East context and Hebraic cosmology on the other. We have been unable to loose ourselves from this cultural battlefield ever since, despite its absence from everyday conversations. However, it has loomed heavily in the minds and imagination of people on both sides of the fence. Bring up creation by using the term itself and see what happens. In my experience, once anything relating to creation (or evolution) is brought up, definitions are often sought in order to rout out the potential heretic among us. Just try it.

This search has been primarily intellectual and last night once again affirmed this. Historically speaking, the Scopes Trial took place at what was perhaps the height of American rationality. World War 2 had not yet occurred, progress was the impetus behind the American milieu, and science and religion were in the throes of competing for dominance. Intellectual rigor and strength were highly valued in that day; values still sought after today regardless of its arena. Power comes along with this rigor making it an even sweeter fruit to obtain.

Last night seemed to be another futile exercise in obtaining this dominance. If only we can prove so and so. If only axiom A will be shown to be true(r) than axiom B, then our side will win. Yet in the end, I wonder if it only fanned the flame of a bygone era, namely one where intellectualism reigns. I wonder if it was a bringing the remnants of yesteryear out of the dark for a moment of shining. Even the postmodern world we inhabit, modernity can still rear its enlightened head. As my friend said yesterday, “There are incredibly strong modernist currents that still prevail upon these postmodern seas.”

Furthermore, debates in our day and age have taken on a different embodiment than their predecessors. Rather than being events of persuasion that affect life change, they have become vaudeville circus acts engendering sentiment bereft of action. The social imagination of yesteryear understood and valued the import of such events due to this. Now, debates fill the parts of our imagination where political figures feign allegiance to their constituents. Coupled with the amusement factor inherent to television – and screens in general – modern debates only reinforce the notion of consuming the material being presented. There is no intention of actually acting upon the received information. Television and its steroid-induced cousin, the internet, produce consumers, not participants. Combine this with a predominantly intellectual exercise and this is even more so. (This is what I was alluding to by the method and trajectory mentioned above.)

This is where we have allowed ourselves to get stuck. Our insistence on “getting the origins question correct” at an intellectual level has kept us from turning our attention elsewhere. The memory of basing our existence off of this rational understanding has paralyzed us from moving forward. Coalescing forces of winning the culture battle and being theologically correct as God would want have left us bereft of actual practices pertaining to creation. Ironically, this same tradition of reading Scripture and the spirituality it rendered have sought to prove the method of creation yet with the end goal being individual souls reaching heaven’s shores. With one side of its mouth it wants a creation made in six days while simultaneously praying for its destruction by fire some future day.

All of this has allowed us to keep creation itself at bay.

So I wonder:

What if instead of arguing over the creation texts, we moved our preoccupation a few verses further along in the story? What if instead of arguing over the meaning of “In the beginning” and “day” we pondered anew what it meant (and means) to “cultivate” and “keep” creation? What if we moved beyond compartmentalizing ideas from practices and figured out how they are two sides of the same coin? What if the Church shifted away from its often myopic dependency on things of faith being taught and towards lives of interdependency where they can be caught? What if instead of debating over creation we questioned how to live with creation?

What if local churches began sharing their land? What if they started to hold trainings to understand the geography and ecology of their shared regions? What if instead of paving parking lots, they planted gardens? What if they held neighborhood-wide meals from the food they grew? What if instead of using stale bread and cheap grape juice they used organically made breads and vibrant wines?

In short what if the Church became known for its new creation-centered methods in the midst of an intellectually origins-obsessed world? What sort of trajectory would that put us on?

Until then, creation will continue to be the loser.

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“Typographic America”: Chapter 3 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the third installment of a dialogue I’m having with Neil Postman and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’d love for you to join me; consider this your formal invitation. Here is the first part, which is a general introduction to this work. This is the summation and thoughts on the first chapter. And here is the working through of the second chapter. I’d love for you keep coming back as journey into this modern classic.

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There was a revolution brewing in the early years of the sixteenth century. It wasn’t a violent uprising seeking the head(s) of tyrants, although they were certainly happening. It wasn’t an international conflict, pitting one country against another, although, again, they were certainly on the horizon. Rather, and perhaps underneath the aforementioned scenarios, another shift was taking place:

Beginning in the sixteenth century, a great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, the printed page. (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 33.)

Looking at early colonial American history, the nature of books in society becomes evident: there was an equal amount of reliance upon the written word as there was in its ubiquity. This was especially true of our New England forebears.

Whatever else may be said of those immigrants who came to settle in New England, it is a paramount fact that they and their heirs were dedicated and skillful readers whose religious sensibilities, political ideas and social life were embedded in the medium of typography. (p. 31)

Thoughts, axioms, and all other forms of reasoning were distributed through the typographic word. Political reform, religious doctrine, and social program were all given to the masses in the form of books. They were everywhere. And despite the strong Christian influence of the day, the books in print were not solely of Christian persuasion.

…the famous Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640 [is] generally regarded as America’s first best seller. But it is not to be assumed that these people confined their reading to religious matters. Probate records indicate that 60 percent of the estates in Middlesex County between the years 1654 and 1699 contained books, all but 8 percent including more than the Bible. In fact, between 1682 and 1685, Boston’s leading bookseller imported 3,421 books from one English dealer, most of these nonreligious books. The meaning of this fact may be appreciated when one adds that these books were intended for consumption by approximately 75,000 people then living in the northern colonies. The modern equivalent would be ten million books.

In the midst of this shift, it wasn’t long before education took a new direction as well. During this time learning became known as “book-learning.” Moreover, due to the pervasiveness of books, schools began to be just as prevalent. Yet, unlike our current thought of education being the ticket to financial abundance and opportunity, literacy rates and the proliferation of books didn’t give birth to an aristocracy. Rather, all classes were literate and able to articulate reasoned thoughts and beliefs. Postman brings this to our attention with a quote from Jacob Duche in 1772:

‘The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or scholar…Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind that almost every man is a reader.’

In matters of sheer volume alone, the quantity of books and other typographic material distributed is astounding. Furthering the above statistic in New England along with the literacy of the population despite class designation, we find that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold more than 100,000 copies between January 10, 1776 (its date of publication) and March of the same year. In the time of Postman’s writing – 1985 – it would take a book selling 8,000,000 copies in two months to be on the same level. Insane.

The only competition books had to face during these early years was its cousins newspapers and pamphlets. Bringing the printing press to America resulted in a proliferation of newspapers and pamphlets as printing presses popped up across the landscape. So much so that in 1786 Benjamin Franklin quipped “that Americans were so busy reading newspapers and pamphlets that they scarcely had time for books.” (p. 37) Their ease of dissemination and cost allowed every person to be informed regarding the happenings of their locality. Circulation did not require much effort allowing both farmer and city-dweller to equally informed.

Thus, by the time the 19th century began to be ushered in, America was solidified as a print-based culture. Libraries could be found in all regions of the States; not just general libraries, but “mechanics’ and apprentices'”(working class) ones as well. Congress had lowered the postal rates in 1851, which allowed for “the penny newspaper, the periodical, the Sunday school tract, and the cheaply bound book [to be] abundantly available.” (p. 38) Authors of now classics were revered and held in awe due to their continuous thought and story telling. For example,

When Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson. (p. 39)

Dickens himself wrote of how his time in America could not be rivaled by emperors and other royalty. So splendid and overwhelmingly lavish was his reception all because of his writing prowess. Although she never received the same welcome, American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin “sold 305,000 copies in its first year, the equivalent of four million in today’s [1985] America.” (p. 39)

Astounding.

The influence of the printed word could not be held within books, newspapers, pamphlets and the like. Concurrent with the printing press’ power was the attraction and authority of the lecture hall. Similar to the printed word’s transcendence beyond class, lecture halls opened their doors and speeches to all. As Alfred Bunn, an Englishman visiting America in 1853, reported “practically every village had its lecture hall…It is a matter of wonderment…to witness the youthful workmen, the overtired artisan, the worn-out factory girl…rushing after the toil of the day is over, into the hot atmosphere of a crowded lecture room.” (p. 40) Audiences were captivated by a smattering of the day’s authors, intellectuals, and humorists – who were all writers in and of themselves.

It isn’t that these lecture halls employed something of a competing form with the printed word. Rather, their orality was resolutely formed by the printed word. This wasn’t just the case with lectures and other forms of speaking. It was true of all of society due to the monopoly of the printed word.

But from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play. There was no television. Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse. The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere. (p. 41 emphasis mine)

For the imagination and practice of the everyday person in this time period, the printed word was not just a medium, it was, in Postman’s words, a metaphor. It didn’t supply information; it constituted the manner of engaging the world through a given epistemology. To say that it simply influenced the form of public discourse wouldn’t be saying much.

How does typography act as a metaphor? What is the inherent epistemology the printed word hands the world? The next chapter, “The Typographic Mind” dives head first into these explanations. Come back as Postman continues to pave a way towards how we presently are “amusing ourselves to death.”

Are the above stories and stats surprising to you? Why or why not?

What can you infer about typography’s metaphor and epistemology?

In your own life or the culture of your community, does the power of the written word still stand?

“Media As Epistemology”: Chapter 2 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the second installment of a dialogue I’m having with Neil Postman and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’d love for you to join me; consider this your formal invitation. Here is the first part, which is a general introduction to this work. This is the summation and thoughts on the first chapter. I’d love for you keep coming back as journey into this modern classic.

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Epistemology is a complex and usually opaque subject matter concerned with the origins and nature of knowledge.” (p. 17) Now that you have a firm grasp on and a working definition of epistemology, let’s move on.

There are many examples in our world where truth is assumed to be lacking. We do not necessarily have solid answers as to why we don’t think statements, propositions, or people are true, but we deem them as such regardless. In many cases, it is that our bias is presupposed by the media-metaphors in which the content of a message is being carried.

For example, Postman details how in an oral culture, wronged persons would approach a judge – generally an elder of some sort – with the story of what occurred. Being print-less, this elder would preside over this debate not through a rummaging of legal notebooks and a history of prior judgments. Rather, he would “search through his vast repertoire of proverbs and sayings to find one that suits the situation and is equally satisfying to both complainants. That accomplished, all parties are agreed that justice has been done, that the truth has been served.” For the oral culture, proverbs and sayings are not the stuff of the periphery.

They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them. – Walter Ong, quoted on p. 19

This, however, is not true in our print culture. In a modern day – or at least one back in 1985, the year of the book’s publishing – stories, proverbs, and general aphorisms do not fly as proper judgments brought down by those cloaked in black. It does pass for witness testimonial, but could you imagine a judge saying, “Let us render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s”? Jury, lawyers, and bailiff: snickers from all.

What separates us in the print-centric culture from the aforementioned tribal chief is a media-metaphor. Words have taken on a truer form in print over speech. The form of their presentation weighs heavily upon the contents’ veracity.

The point I am leading to by this and the previous examples is that the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression. Truth does not, and never has, come unadorned. It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the ‘truth’ is a kind of cultural prejudice. Each culture conceives of it as being most authentically expressed in certain symbolic forms that another culture may regard as trivial or irrelevant. (p. 22-23)

With the mirror clouded over by our cultural assumptions, it is easy to pick and choose media-metaphors that seem silly or antiquated. However, we all have these assumptions needing to be wiped away by a dose of humility and historicity. This is why it is essential to see our place on the world’s timeline and how as time marches on, so do our media-metaphors. The above quote is not an affirmation of epistemological relativism; it is a recognition of how we denote what is true and what is not. Furthermore, “Some ways of truth-telling are better than others, and therefore have healthier influence on the cultures that adopt them.” Again, Postman states

As a culture moves forward from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it…we might add that every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development. Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.  (p. 24)

As the changing tides of epistemology shift with the sands of our media, so do our ways of deciphering intelligence. Once again, in a purely oral culture, intelligence manifests itself in being able to repeat stories of old. One who can memorize aurally is the one who has proper intelligence. To forget something is to be a communal outcast. Contrastingly, in a print culture, memory is not deemed necessary. And why would it be? When everything is written down, there is no need to engage the memory aurally. All is contained within a text, not a mind. The mobile library of the mind gets upstaged by the brick-and-mortar library.

“What a culture means by intelligence is derived from the character of its important forms of communication.” (p. 25) Essentially, this is what is happening. The member of the oral culture is demonstrating intelligence in being able to use the “important forms of communication” in proper ways.

Intelligence in a printed culture is whole different ball game. Here Postman brings clarity on what is (literally) right underneath our noses:

You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. If you cannot do this…our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency. The printing press makes rather stringent demands on our bodies as well as our minds. Controlling your body is, however, only a minimal requirement. You must also have learned to pay attention to the shapes of  the letters on the page. You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can do directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely thought to be stupid. If you have learned how to get to meanings without aesthetic distraction, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity…you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument. And in judging the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument. And in preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images…To be able to do all these things, and more, constitutes a primary definition of intelligence in a culture whose notions of truth are organized around the printed word. (p. 26-27)

Were you aware of all that going on at this very moment? Quite a bit, huh?

Postman’s main argument here is the manner by which truth is transmitted depends heavily upon its media-metaphors. As these shift, so does our understanding of truth itself. Culture is comprised of and constituted by conversations and as such, we must be aware of the form and content of these conversations.

So before we close this chapter out, Postman wants to make sure we don’t come to conclusions too swiftly. He gives us three admonitions to take heed of:

1. “…at no point do I care to claim that changes in media bring about changes in the structure of people’s minds of changes in their cognitive capacities.” (p. 27) Intellectually speaking, the tribal chief is not less developed than the television people. “My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content – in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.” (p. 27)

2. “…the epistemological shift I have intimated, and will describe in detail, has not yet included (and perhaps never will include) everyone and everything.” (p. 27) Shifts happen slowly and don’t always bring everything with them in their wake. It takes time and effort for things to become completely integrated and/or eradicated. People still read books in spite of the dominance of television. However, Postman declares, “They delude themselves who believe that television and print coexist, for existence implies parity. There is no parity here. Print is now merely a residual epistemology, and it will remain so, aided to some extent by the computer, and newspapers and magazines that are made to look like television screens.” (p. 28) Prophetic words, indeed.

3. “I am arguing that a television-based epistemology pollutes public communication and its surrounding landscape, not that it pollutes everything.” He is not arguing for television’s demise because it has indeed aided in some beneficial ways. For some, namely, the elderly, infirm, or motel-room frequenters, it is a source of pleasure and comfort. It can insight protest in positive ways. In many ways, he is not seeking for television to be taken lightly. We must, Postman encourages, keep an open mind to the future and any benefits unseen that television may potentially provide.

Yet amid these three warnings, Postman consistently comes back to his axiom: “I will try to demonstrate that as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines.” (p. 29)

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Thoughts?

Come back again as we’ll dive further into this argument found in chapter 3: “Typographic America”.

“The Medium Is the Metaphor”: Chapter 1 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the second installment of a dialogue I’m having with Neil Postman and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’d love for you to join me; consider this your formal invitation. Here is the first part, which is a general introduction to this work. I’d love for you keep coming back as journey into this modern classic.

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Throughout history differing cities have taken on the vocation, whether they wanted it or not, as “the focal point of a radiating American spirit.” Early on in American history it was Boston, followed by New York City, and perhaps more recently, Chicago. In 1985, Postman argued this focal point had shifted to

Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot-high cardboard picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death. (p. 3-4)

Indeed.

I’d certainly agree with this assessment dating back to 1985. Now, in 2013, this reality has become the proverbial water we unconsciously swim in. Nothing is worthwhile if it is not entertaining. And entertaining has often come with the price tag of shortsightedness, shallowness, vapidness, and an overall spirit imbibed by individualism.

Indeed, in America God favors all those who possess both a talent and a format to amuse, whether they be preachers, athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, teachers or journalists. In America, the least amusing people are its professional entertainers. (p. 5)

Postman contends that within our entertainment-centric culture, it is essential to take note of the “conversations” we have and the manner by which we have them. He uses the term

metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all the techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages. In this sense, all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms. (p. 6)

What he is getting at is the relationship between content and form. We all have conversations of all kinds. All of these messages are carried out through differing “symbolic modes.” For instance, you wouldn’t, or better yet, couldn’t, expect smoke signals to be the best choice for discussing philosophy. “You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.”

Likewise, “You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.” This is due to the form television employs to distribute its content: visual images. Television is mainly a conversation “in images, not words” making it difficult to see – quite literally – past an unattractive person giving forth wisdom on a given topic. Our listening is predicated upon the level of attraction to the image we see, not the level of information/experience/knowledge of the content.

If this all beginning to sound Marshall McLuhan-esque, it should. Postman is not shy about his reliance upon McLuhan and his famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” Yet, he differentiates between message and metaphor.

A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols through which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like. (p. 10)

Furthermore,

We are told in school, quite correctly, that a metaphor suggests what thing is like by comparing it to something else. And by the power of its suggestion, it so fixes a conception in our minds that we cannot imagine the one thing without the other: Light is a wave; language, a tree; God, a wise and venerable man; the mind, a dark cavern illuminated by knowledge. And if these metaphors no longer serve us, we must, in the nature of the matter find others that will. Light is a particle; language, a river; God (as Bertrand Russell proclaimed), a differential equation; the mind, a garden that years to be cultivated.

The trouble with our media metaphors is their inherent complexity. They are not easy things to recognize, let alone their subtle power and influence. Again, they are the proverbial water we’re swimming in and, as such, we are hardly cognizant of their effect.

For instance, think about the very media you are engaged with right now, namely the computer and internet. They enable you to connect with me via my blog (my content). I am here in the greater Syracuse area and you, well you might be right around the corner or around the world. My words are the digitized version of my thoughts coming to you through a combination of 1’s and 0’s. The light from the computer screen hits your retinas and as a written word, you have some fun interpretive moves to make. Moreover, the form – the computer – molds, shapes, and allows for the message to be accepted in myriad of ways. When we begin looking behind the curtains of our media metaphors – complexity and all – Postman encourages us to begin with the following: “And yet such digging becomes easier if we start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.”

I love the example Postman borrows from Lewis Mumford. Mumford was one of these people who noticed the unnoticed. He was enamored with the clock, both its function and formative nature. In his thoughtful “digging” regarding the ubiquitous clock, he concluded,

“‘The clock is a piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes.’ In manufacturing such a product, the clock has the effect of disassociating time from human events and thus nourishes the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself about and through a piece of machinery he created.”  (p. 11)

We effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers” with the invention of the clock. It seems the clock carries with it an idea beyond its implicit function.

The question is now: What effect has our transition “from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics” had on us? How can we begin to dig into the media metaphors we are swimming in? In what manner have our metaphors altered our messages? The Age of Electronics has dawned; how has it changed things?

If Postman is correct, it begins with the recognition of our conversations, in both form and content. Essential to the rest of his work is this foundational axiom: the medium is the metaphor. It doesn’t give us direct messages, yet discretely and profoundly shapes the message. If we want to begin to examine our culture, we need “to attend to its tools for conversation.” 

As we move forward in this conversation, I’ll leave you with Postman’s clearest words on the scope and intent of this book:

To say it, then, as plainly as I can, this book is an inquiry into and a lamentation about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television. This change-over has dramatically and irreversibly shifted the content and meaning of public discourse, since two media so vastly different cannot accommodate the same ideas. As the influence of print wanes, the content of politics, religion, education, and anything else that comprises public business must change and be recast in terms that are most suitable to television. (p. 8)

Thoughts?

See you next time for chapter 2: “Media as Epistemology.”

Was Huxley Right?: Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman

Back in 2010, I read Aldous Huxley’s classic, Brave New World. Somewhat embarrassingly, It is one of the few fiction books I’ve read over the past several years. However, the imprint it left with me is perhaps enough to make up for my lack of reading in this particular arena.

What would the future look like if it was centered around pleasure? Would society crumble if hedonism was one of its pillars? Could a society where distraction ruled move beyond anything but triviality? Questions like these are what Huxley was after in this insightful, eerily prophetic book published in 1932.

Neil Postman picks up where Huxley left off, yet his work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse In The Age of Show Business is not fiction. Written in 1984, the year of George Orwell’s fictional dystopia where pleasure and distraction were banned, he tells of the fulfillment of Huxley’s vision. Postman says of Huxley: “As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” From this point of reference, Postman sets out to show how it was Huxley, not Orwell, who was correct in his foresight. Following suit with Huxley, Postman wrote of the trajectory Western culture was on in 1984. Now, in 2013, his words ring true with a shrill brilliance that we must attend to.

Or so I’m assuming having read the Foreword.

I plan on reading this over the next several weeks (perhaps months) and blogging about his prophetic foresight and insight. In particular, I’m interested in his take on how technology effects identity formation and communal life. 

For now, read this section from the Foreword of this modern classic for yourself:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Genesis, Vocation, and Master Penmenship

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Every human being has a call to be a maker. This vocation is one of cultivation, of using the resources before us, alongside the talents within us, for betterment of those around us through partnering with the God among us. This is (partly) what it means to be made in God’s image.

This is part of the creation mandate found in Genesis. Many readings of “the beginning” focus on particular polemical readings, either glossing over or completely ignoring the narrative trajectories these primal texts put us on. From the onset of our story, we find a God getting down in the dirt – the image of a gardener on his knees comes to mind – hands covered in earth. Breath is infused into the earthenware known as human and he is told to get on with being this cultivator, this maker. In short: be a culture maker. This is not a solo venture, but one completed and carried out in community, as the Genesis story tells.

And so we find that our spiritual life is comprised of our physical life. Our vocation is a holistic one: the spiritual manifesting itself in the physical. The two are intimately incorporated into one. Proper usage of earthly materials along with the proper wielding of our personal beings is at the center of the spiritual life. We do damage to the Genesis story and in turn to what it means to image God when we set up false dichotomies between the spiritual and the physical. God is one who gets down in the muck, not who stands above it all.

True spirituality, therefore, is not a denial of or seeking an escape from earthy stuff, but is a participatory relationship with and resting in one’s interconnected place within all this earthiness.

This vocation is not dependent upon one’s occupation. The call – vocation literally means “calling”; same word as vocal – is to use and put forth objects of love. Love in the sense of making them with love for others whom you love because you know a God who does the same. Be it a plumber, teacher, or mayor; those employed, unemployed, or under-employed; the call is the same: creatively use what you are given and who you are to be a cultivator of love.

To be human is to cultivate love.

An example of these thoughts is found in the video of Master Penmen below. I hope you find it both challenging and inspiring as I did.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Threat of Incarnational Living

If you were to ask me, “Who is the most influential Christian in American history?” Martin Luther King, Jr. probably wouldn’t immediately come to mind. In the world I come out of, the likes of a Billy Graham would be the answer to that question because he “saved souls.”

As a Christian American who happens to be white (and I ordered them in that way on purpose) and grew up in a middle class suburban family and Christian church, I am embarrassed to say I am not as familiar with MLK, Jr. as I should be. For someone who has lived most of his life within the Christian conservative bubble, I cannot recall many, if any, references to his life and work outside of the mandatory remembrance come every January.

And perhaps there is reason for this. King embodied a faith that was just that: embodied. It didn’t have the common trappings of conservative Christianity. The dichotomies of doctrine over praxis, privatized belief over public engagement, and Jesus as Savior for the afterlife over Teacher for the present weren’t evident in King. Rather than solely sit behind a pulpit preaching peace and justice, his preaching also took the form of sit-ins for peace and justice. His was a faith of love. And love by nature pushes us outward towards others.

The divisions that kept his work and legacy out of many churches was the manifestation of such dichotomous faith. It has been said that the most segregated time in America is 10am on Sunday mornings. This segregation is true in regards to both race and issues of faith and they are connected. Is it not a dualistic faith which accepts Jesus but neglects his family? Is this not the result of the division between loving Jesus’ blood, but hating our own crosses? Should not our personal beliefs rally us into a community for the public eye to see?

I believe it does. And, from what I know, King thought the same.

But this is what makes him so dangerous. The world has always been hesitant when it comes to this embodied, head-heart-and-hands life in the way of Jesus. It has always been threatened by such living because it up-ends the world-as-is and exposes how the world really should be. This type of life pulls off the mask of what we think is true and reveals how love pushes out oppressive power. Theologically, we call this an incarnational life. Jesus is the Incarnation of God, putting flesh to God and “moving into the neighborhood.” And we killed him. It wasn’t just the religious of his time, but the political empire as well. The world is fine with dualistic thinking because it leads to loud cries with little to no follow through. But incarnate – put flesh to your character – and the world will turn against you. How can adhering to loving one’s enemies actually bring about change? How can non-violent acts of defiance perpetuate anything in a world enamored with violence? Perhaps this is why we still attempt to compartmentalize King: for the public, he was a social activist, but we forget the foundation from which his activism sprung, which was his love from and for Jesus. Or for the conservative faithful, he was a preacher, but we neglect to follow him into the public arenas, where his Jesus-type love led him. This unification of faith and action (which for Jesus, belief was shown through action) is what made King, Jr. the influence he was and is today.

So maybe today, as the Western church hustles to find a “solution” to our steady decline and further push to the margins of society, we ought to recall Martin Luther King, Jr. As we seemingly grope in the dark for a faith that is embodied and cries out for justice, a faith that is whole – body and soul – we ought to look again with fresh eyes to King, Jr. as a patron saint. As we prayerfully seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, perhaps we should look beyond the scope of our white Evangelical Church for examples of people doing this. King reminds us that our missional efforts are in vain as long we neglect the incarnational and communal aspects of life. We may not agree with the direction he took or his American nationalistic patriotism, but we can and should imitate his constant urge for a whole way of life found in Jesus.

Below is King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Read it through and sense his visceral reaction to the religious leaders of Birmingham who are separating that which should be together.

Read and listen well.

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April 16, 1963

MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here.  I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I. compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoralty election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run-off we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run-off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct-action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken .in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain for civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited .for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly (not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming “nigger, nigger, nigger”), and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “An Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this ‘hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At fist I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do-nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.

If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black-nationalist ideologies a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or. unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides–and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence. This is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.

But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that an men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some–such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non-segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find. something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.

I have travelled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham, and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation–and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

I must close now.  But before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if .you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I’m sorry that I can’t join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a .degree of discipline in handing the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’s sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thusly carrying our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter (or should I say a book?). I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think strange thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.