The following reflection was prepared in 2009 to mark the occasion of the inauguration of the first African American president in U.S. history. It was a time of gala celebrations and for patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. It was a time to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday in a special way. Since then, something has happened! The 2016 presidential election will go down as one of the meanest and most divisive in U.S. history. All kinds of “isms” have been proclaimed as perfectly acceptable. The America of which I wrote and spoke in 2009 has changed. Or, has it? I’ll let you answer that question for yourself.
As we marked the 2009 occurrence of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday celebration and the start of African American History Month, we should take a moment and say “well done America,’ for we’ve also just witnessed the inauguration of our first African American president. No matter your politics or for whom you voted, this is an enormous unfolding of the dream that Dr. King boldly proclaimed - yet knew he would never see.
However, the world is a much more dangerous place than it was in Dr. King’s time. The Black-White dialogue has been enlarged to include shades of brown, black, white and yellow. In addition, the continuing Muslim growth in this country has broadened the dialogue even more. We are headed toward a time according to Newsweek magazine of January 26th, when people who are considered minorities, will, taken together, account for a majority of the U.S. population.
If the inauguration of President Obama is a partial realization of Dr. King’s dream, what will it take for the remainder of the dream to be realized? We live in a sea of people who do not look or believe like we do. These are the people who comprise “the other” to us. These “others” are our neighbors, our students, our community, and our nation. As long as the “others” remain “other,” however, the dream will be deferred.
Intolerance of all sorts—including racial, religious, and ethnic--embroils the world to such an extent that in the words of the 60’s song— “We are on the brink of destruction.” Every major conflict in the world today may be linked to some kind of intolerance.
What can we do about this hate and intolerance? There is something each of us can do. And it takes us in two different directions. One direction is found on the faces of people who surround us every day: People who are different than we are. People who are not the same color as we are. People we work with, walk with, and mingle among - people of other nationalities, religions, and cultures. They are also neighbors who live next door to us, or on the same block. Do we get along? If not, why not
It is pretty clear from all we know about human development that God has made us incomplete. Where do we find our completion? We find it in our parents, friends, and family. But, we have “the others,” to help us broaden our understanding of differences.
Our incomplete natures are much like an internal puzzle. To make ourselves whole and complete, we need to find the missing pieces of our puzzle. Let’s look around us and begin.
The second direction I take is a look at the life of Jesus, for he found his missing pieces in his encounter with those with whom he might not and should not have been engaged. Can we be any different? If Jesus realized his divinity in others surely our humanity will be found in a like manner.
I believe God has a wonderful sense of humor. In designing us incomplete, God has forced us to find our completeness in others? Who are the “others” in my life? They are those who do not look like or believe like me. As Abraham experienced so long ago, God comes to us in the stranger. God came to Abraham in the strangers, to Jesus in the others, and so to us in a similar way.
On January 20, 2009, we welcomed a new President – a biracial man who during his long campaign, had to introduce himself to millions of “others,” for they knew nothing about him. The faces in the crowds who welcomed him were not only black and white, but shades of black, white, brown and yellow – a reflection of Americans today.
Throughout the years, theologians have agreed/disagreed with how much Jesus knew regarding his divinity. Was he born with full knowledge that he was “the Christ,” or was there gradual understanding of who he was throughout his life? The Gospels are notoriously silent on the issue.
The Gospels present Jesus at birth, when presented at the Temple, at approximately 12 years of age, and finally the more complete story when he was 30. While most of us have not given much thought about where and when Jesus knew he was “the Christ.” To follow the thought that Jesus’ knowledge of self was gradual has some interesting possibilities of how the Father worked with and through the Son, and how that same God might be working with us.
Let’s think a moment! If Jesus’ knowledge of his divinity was gradual and the Father provided certain triggers in Jesus’ life that led him to an eventual understanding of his divinity, what might these triggers be? They could be the natural phenomena that surrounded the child as he grew, which is the same phenomena that surrounds us—the wind, the stars, the storms that sometimes seem to rage. Or, they could be in people and his daily encounter with them. In this line of thinking, I suggest that “other” people were the most influential triggers that enabled Jesus to understand himself as the Christ.
The Gospels describe numerous people associated with Jesus, but a single group stands out—those with whom he was not supposed to be associated: The Wise Men, The Woman at the Well, the Leper, the tax collector, the deceased Lazarus, the prostitute, etc. I believe that when Jesus encountered these “others,” he learned something about himself.
For example, the encounter with the Wise Men introduced him to a world much larger than his small Jewish community. He was in a foreign land, in a stable no less, greeted by an African, an Asian, and a man of unknown ancestry. These royal visitors demonstrated that Mary’s son belonged to the world at large, that he somehow belonged to royalty itself. In his encounter with the sick and with his deceased friend Lazarus, he learned of his ability to heal and be healed (the grieving for Lazarus). In Mary of Magdalena, he learned of his ability to forgive, to love and be loved. Through his engagement with “the other,” we see Jesus grow in love and wisdom - of himself. Through these unique individuals, God was preparing Jesus for the full awareness of who he was and who he was to be. In a real way, God came to His Son through others.
As Mary stored all these things in her heart, did she ultimately have an “uh-o” moment? Did it all of a sudden make sense to her, to him? We can only imagine. But if the divine plan was to allow the child to grow in wisdom and knowledge of what and who he was, the encounter with “the others” was absolutely formative and crucial.
So, what about us? If Jesus’ encounter with “the other” was formative, can the encounter with the “others” in our lives be any less important? How do we treat “others?” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday is a celebration of otherness, so let us learn how to continue the lessons he taught, on our own.
This was my reflection in 2009. I clearly was optimistic and full of hope. America was getting better—wasn’t it? Was I wrong, misinformed, or has something turned us back rather than forward? Is America, like Sisyphus, destined to roll the rock up the hill only for it to roll back?
William J. Carroll
Hunter Global Education, LLC