This is a strange week. It began with the annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and will end with the inauguration of Donald Trump, whom many critics see as the antithesis of the late civil rights leader’s vision of a “beloved community.”
We are a divided nation.
Many believe in Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again.” They think the billionaire developer and reality TV star can restore prosperity for people slipping out of the middle class because of economic shifts beyond their control. But many others believe Trump is a bully and a bigot, a dangerous con man who will make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Trump launched his political career by promoting the “birther” lie against President Obama, which he finally had to admit was false. He is the least popular incoming president in modern history. And despite an election-night promise to “be president for all Americans,” he seems to divide us more with each new tweet.
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I am not a Trump fan, and I have to wonder: Is King’s dream of racial healing and social justice more threatened now than at any time since his assassination in 1968? Or will the next few years finally prompt more Americans of conscience to speak out and work to bring King’s dream closer to reality?
The Episcopal Diocese of Lexington asked me to moderate a panel discussion Sunday at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church that focused on this question: “What can we do to promote racial justice and reconciliation in our church and community?”
“The things that (Trump) said to get elected let demons out of the box and gave permission to a whole group of people to say the most vile things to their fellow brothers and sisters,” said the Rev. Dr. Charisse Gillett, president of Lexington Theological Seminary and one of the five panelists.
The featured speaker was Dr. Catherine Meeks, an author, retired professor at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga. and chair of the Beloved Community Commission on Dismantling Racism in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, which has 110 churches with 56,000 members.
“We in the United States of America have been living a very big lie,” Meeks said. “We’ve been playing this game of, oh, you know, we elected that black man president eight years ago. That means we’re post-racial. We’ve made it.”
Instead, she said, Obama and his family have been subjected to intense racial hatred from many quarters that has had widespread impact. “We should have been outraged (but) we just sort of acquiesced to it,” she said.
If Obama’s election was not a turning point, Meeks said, perhaps Trump’s will be.
“We have to see this situation as an opportunity that’s being presented to us to stand up and be counted, which we have managed to not have to do up to now,” she said. “We have to decide what we’re willing to risk, and I think that’s what this election is about.”
The Rev. Kenneth Golphin, pastor of Quinn Chapel AME Church in Lexington, said people often are “seeking simplistic answers for complex questions. This begs for a self-examination of what our values really are. For a lot of us, our values are so egocentric that all we can see is what helps me and my household and we forget that we live in a community.”
Golphin and Gillett noted that King often tried to engage people who disagreed with him, including Birmingham jailers who taunted him. That, they said, should be a model for people seeking to bridge political division and promote racial healing.
“I see the world as a jigsaw puzzle, and we are all pieces of that puzzle,” Golphin said. “There are not any two pieces exactly alike. And the more pieces there are, the more difficult it is to put the puzzle together. Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is the ability to hang in there when all hell is breaking loose.”
The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said Trump’s presidency will be a test of American values.
“The moral character and fiber of our nation will be decided in the next four years,” she said. “Love may be the only answer, but it’s not going to eliminate the conflict, and the conflict may in fact be the crisis by which we can move toward that kind of beloved community.”