God with Us: A Conversation with Ansley Quiros

Ansley L. Quiros is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama. Her new book, God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976, is available now.

Curtis: What is the main argument of God with Us?

Quiros: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.

Curtis: What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

Quiros: For me, the most challenging aspect of actually writing the book was balancing the narrative and the historical argument. I found myself, at moments, getting swept up in the story and momentarily abandoning the analysis, and then at others interrupting the sweep of events with more abstract historical musings. Balancing those impulses– presenting a swift narrative while also making a real argument—proved difficult but I’m thankful to great editors and readers who helped smooth the whole thing out. One thing that was delightful to realize was how even one careful word can hold the thread of analysis, one name drop can keep a story in mind.

Curtis: Your book is very theological and it wears that on its sleeve. Did you get pushback from other historians? It seems to me that historians, theologians, and religious studies scholars are often talking past each other even if we’re writing about similar things. Was it difficult for you to situate your book disciplinarily?

Quiros: It was, but just a bit. After an initial explainer of my choice to foreground theology, I found most historians to be quite supportive. Most know instinctively that historical research has tended to diminish the role of faith in people’s lives, not the institutions so much, but the content and effects of belief in the past. This is partly because these things are obviously difficult to get at, but also because the academy can skew secular. The religious studies/theology folks I spoke to occasionally wanted more theologizing, but most understood this was primarily a history book and appreciated the effort to bring lived theology into the conversation.

Curtis: You make a point of showing that white southern Protestants had theologies of segregation that were robust, sincerely held, and internally consistent. In doing so, I think you make a convincing argument against the cultural captivity thesis. Was that something you knew early on in the project you wanted to do, or did it take shape as your research developed?

Quiros: This actually developed as I read David Chappell’s work and the responses from Charles Marsh and Jane Dailey in particular. Truly, this question of theology and culture/politics —the chicken and the egg in some senses—is a perplexing one. On different days, especially in our current political moment, I find myself wondering about it. (I did so here, in fact!)

Curtis: Where do you see the field going from here? What is next for you?

Quiros: I don’t know where the field will go from here, but I think broad evangelical support for the Trump Administration and what I see as consistently racist policies will provide a lot of fodder! As for me, I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!

In White Evangelical Attitudes Toward Politics, Echoes of the Civil Rights Era

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Earl Stallings, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham, shakes hands with black worshipers on Easter Sunday, 1963. Stallings was one of the “white moderates” who called for an end to civil rights protests and whom King wrote against in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. After this picture was published nationwide, Stallings received many appreciative letters from white Christians praising him for his courage in welcoming black activists to his church.

During the 1950s some Southern Baptist leaders worried that the “race problem” had the potential to split the Southern Baptist Convention. They worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen. The way they thought about the problem and their responsibility for it is instructive in our own era of political controversy.

The “race problem” was a problem because it created heightened social tensions and threatened Christian unity. Most Southern Baptist leaders seemed to think of their responsibilities in this order:

1. Maintain unity with fellow Southern Baptists

2. Calm tensions

3. Gradually improve the situation for “Negroes”

To implement this agenda, Southern Baptist leaders invoked the principles of Christian love and spiritual equality. They reminded Southern Baptists that each individual was created in the image of God and that Christ died for all. They also urged respect for the law of the land and the Supreme Court, however distasteful its decisions might be. While denying support for “forced” integration, they positioned themselves squarely in the moderate middle and denounced the “extremists” on both sides.

This rhetoric positioned these Southern Baptist leaders ahead of their constituents, nudging them toward gradual change. If the non-negotiable goal was to maintain the unity of the Southern Baptist Convention, these moderate leaders pursued a smart strategy.

But there are other ways of looking at it. It seems clear that it was more important to Southern Baptist leaders to stay unified with white racists than to act in solidarity with black Christians. In a moment in which unity and justice seemed incompatible, unity was more highly prized. I am not aware of a single case in which a Southern Baptist church openly preaching white supremacy during the civil rights era was disfellowshipped.* What I’ve seen, instead, are polite letters exchanged between Southern Baptist leaders and brazenly heretical pastors.

And when Southern Baptist leaders denounced extremists, they were talking about the NAACP on the one hand, and the Klan and Citizens’ Councils on the other. In this world of white Christian moderation, those advocating equal treatment immediately and those advocating white supremacy forever (backed up by violence and economic reprisal) were dismissed alike as extreme. There are lots of words we could use to describe this posture, but I don’t want Christian to be one of them.

It is difficult for us to step into the shoes of those leaders, to be able to feel how murky it all seemed, how hard it was for them to imagine black freedom, how much courage even pitifully inadequate statements required. Pastors who spoke boldly tended to lose their jobs. Churches that integrated often lost key members, or split entirely in an angry divorce. When Southern Baptist leaders worried that unity was at stake, they weren’t wrong.

But I submit that they were wrong to think that unity was the highest value. They were wrong to think that heightened tensions were the problem rather than a symptom. They were wrong to tell black people to wait for their freedom. They were wrong to try to stay unified with Christians who hated the commands of Christ.

Now in our own time of heightened political and social tensions, with an election just days away, many Christians want to prioritize unity. We don’t want politics to divide us. This sentiment isn’t wrong, but it does need to be contextualized. What is political does not come down to us from on high; it is negotiated and imagined. It is made up. And that ought to give us pause.

We are familiar with the partisan Christian who has made an idol out of politics. This is the person who will always find a way to toe the party line and make the scriptures line up to it. We are less familiar with the idea that Christians who espouse unity and political toleration can also make an idol out of politics. This is the person who defines “the political” so capaciously that vast areas of the Christian life are reduced to “let’s agree to disagree.” This person finds a way to stay in the moderate middle by framing important questions of Christian discipleship as merely political.

It is sobering to understand that millions of sincere Christians imagined the life and death struggles of African Americans as “politics.” They were wrong to think that way. Now, as the President and his party promote racism and hatred in the vilest terms, Christians who thrill to that message are turning away from Jesus. And Christians who insist that these “political” opinions should not affect Christian unity are profoundly mistaken. Christian ethics must guide us in all aspects of our lives. When we make an exception for politics, we only reveal what our god really is.


* Earlier this year a church was disfellowshipped for its racism. I want to research this more. Please let me know if you are aware of cases of disfellowshipping over racism during the 1950s-1970s.

Civility Is A Strange Hill To Die On

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John Stennis, one of the most civil white supremacists you’ll ever see.

A restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and suddenly we’re all debating the future of the republic. Civility or else! We’ve been here before. In my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s, I show how the idea of civility was integral to the memorialization of white supremacists in mainstream media. Here’s what I had to say about Mississippi Senator John Stennis:

Stennis had long embodied a particular kind of civility—what William H. Chafe in his classic study of the black freedom movement and white establishment in Greensboro called “a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action.” As the memorialization of Stennis would reveal, this sense of civility still held considerable purchase in the white American imagination. As the nation remembered the career of one of its longest-serving senators, Stennis’s civility loomed larger than his policy aims. Many memorializers held up civility as an ultimate good, without scrutinizing the limitations of Stennis’s brand of civility or the white supremacist purposes for which he deployed it.

To be historically minded is to understand that civility has often been used as a deliberate strategy to oppress people. This fact does not in itself mean that we should be actively uncivil. But it should give us pause and remind us that there are higher values–love, justice, peace—which are far more sturdy and uncomfortable and disruptive to the status quo than the concept of civility.

Was The Country Ready For Obama?

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Was the country ready for a black president? If Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is to be believed, Obama himself privately wrestled with this question after the 2016 election. Peter Baker reports on Rhodes’ new memoir:

Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.

“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.

He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.

In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.

This is a fascinating window into President Obama’s state of mind after the election. A few thoughts:

1. What does it mean to be “too early”? If the timing of progress is measured by the scale of the backlash to it, then the civil rights movement was too early, and by a lot more than a decade or two. Would it have been better to listen to the white moderates in the 50s and slow down? This isn’t even a question most people consider because it seems obviously wrong. When freedom is not demanded, it is not granted. If we’re thinking about backlash, emancipation was about a century too early! Justice can’t wait for oppressors to change their mind.

In the immediate shock of the backlash I understand why Obama would feel as he did, but this is what change usually looks like. Only after the fact, with the passage of time, do we craft tales of progress out of the chaos and uncertainty through which people actually lived.

2. Still, I continue to be astonished by the preternatural restraint Obama showed throughout his presidency. In the face of the Republican Party’s descent into outright racism and conspiracy theory, how could Obama not wonder, on an emotional level, every single day of his presidency, whether he had arrived too soon? I had profound moral disagreements with President Obama, but he demonstrated a decency and strength of character that is sorely missed.

In this respect I am a staunch social conservative. I have an old-fashioned belief that the moral standards of our entertainers and leaders really matter, not only for their jobs, but for setting an agenda and tone for the entire country. I hate that our popular culture is a cesspool of sex and violence. I hate that pornography is mainstream and acceptable. I hate that our President is an evil man who embodies all these things. I miss President Obama!

3. Obama probably did misjudge his influence on American history, and would have been well-served by more self-doubt throughout his presidency. This was one of his weaknesses.

4. A lot of this isn’t about Obama. We’ve probably underestimated the degree to which sexism played a role in the 2016 election. All else being equal, it seems there are a significant number of Americans who would rather be led by stupid men than competent women.

“Will the Jungle Take Over?”

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National Review, 1961

My new article, “‘Will the Jungle Take Over?” National Review and the Defense of Western Civilization in the Era of Civil Rights and African Decolonization,” is now available online from the Journal of American Studies. If you don’t have access through your institution I’m happy to email you a copy. Here’s a taste:

In the fall of 1962, William F. Buckley, Jr., intellectual dynamo of the new American right and founder of National Review magazine, was in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. As Buckley would later relate, in the town of Laurenco Marques he had to cross a river “full of crocodiles and hippos” without the benefit of a bridge. Instead, “in a spirit of easy-going chaos,” four Africans pushed a small ferry across the river using “bamboo poles.” The entire operation consumed forty-five minutes. Buckley, while emphasizing his own ineptitude in manual labor, informed his readers that he could have readily reduced the voyage to half an hour using the same tools as the four black men. Still these men persisted, day after day, in pushing their little ferry across the river in the same chaotic manner. “They simply do not use their minds,” Buckley wrote, “and do not change their ways.” For Buckley, the moral of the river-crossing tale was clear: African backwardness justified European rule on the continent. Yet much of the “West,” enthralled by abstract notions of equality, had set itself on a “suicidal” course of decolonization. Portugal, with hard-headed good sense, did not give in to this idealistic egalitarianism. Instead, it dealt with Africans “as you would treat grown-up children,” Buckley noted with satisfaction.[1]

What does this have to do with the civil rights movement? How were conservative intellectuals’ views of African decolonization and the American civil rights movement linked? When and why did National Review begin to promote scientific racism? You’ll have to read the rest to find out!


[1] William F. Buckley, “Must We Hate Portugal?” National Review, 18 Dec. 1962, 468.

 

Another White Evangelical Self-Critique, And Its Limits

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The crushed body of Reverend Bruce Klunder lies in the mud, April 1964

It is common to make distinctions between northern and southern white evangelicals during the civil rights era. Northerners are cast as more moderate, while southerners are assumed to be more reactionary. Even if this interpretation captures a truth about the overall posture of these regional groupings, it definitely undersells the extent to which segregationist theology had made inroads among white evangelicals nationwide.

In June, 1964, an editorial in Eternity critiqued white evangelicals as a group with little regional distinctiveness:

Let’s face it. Most evangelicals, whether they are from the North, South, East or West, are supporters of the status quo, and consequently tend to be segregationists. They would rather not discuss the matter at all, but if you press them, they will spout almost the same defensive arguments as the most reactionary Southerner, whose white-dominated world really is threatened. They speak bitterly against the liberals who, they say, substitute social action for the gospel of redemption.”

This is another remarkable critique of white evangelicals from white evangelicals. I find these sorts of documents fascinating in part because it helps us to see how the intra-evangelical debates of today are very old. We’ve seen this movie before. In the age of black lives matter and Donald Trump, the claims and counterclaims and misunderstanding among fellow evangelicals feels very, very familiar.

In that same 1964 editorial, the authors described themselves as “editors of an evangelical magazine that has suffered for taking a position on the racial issue.” Perhaps a dig at the wishy-washy cowardice of Christianity Today is implied there.

Yet even Eternity placed sharp limits on its support for black aspirations. The moment protestors turned to violence the editors were prepared to condemn their behavior with particular venom. After a civil rights protest in Cleveland left a white pastor dead and black protestors attacked the driver of the bulldozer who had inadvertently crushed the man, Eternity described the “animal-like fury” of their assault and condemned “demonic” efforts to “whip up the passions of the crowd.” These descriptions betray a visceral horror lacking in their criticisms of white violence of the same period.

White Evangelical Self-Criticism in the Civil Rights Era

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1963 was a pivotal year for the civil rights movement, and white evangelicals increasingly took notice. As Eternity magazine put it in August, “Let’s not kid ourselves…this is a revolution. And before it is over it will affect your family, your community and your church.” Amid a climate of protest all over the country, evangelical media commented on high-profile events such as the Birmingham Campaign in the spring, followed by the March on Washington at the end of the summer, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church weeks later. But while mainstream media debated the prospects of a civil rights bill in congress, white evangelicals debated the responsibilities of the church.

An August 1963 editorial appearing in Eternity magazine is revealing of the way evangelical self-criticism could be at once hard-hitting—brooking no excuses from white evangelicals who supported the status quo—and yet blind to its own theological paternalism.

The magazine criticized white evangelicals for being “ostrich-like with our heads in the sand” while a revolution swirled around them. “For too long we’ve contented ourselves with platitudes,” when decisive action was needed. What would it look like to move beyond platitudes? It would look like local, church-based activism. “[I]f there are Negroes living in your community, these Negroes are as much the spiritual responsibility of the church as the whites are.” And white evangelicals’ responsibility extended beyond the church walls. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, white evangelicals must love them.

To those who did not want to upset the norms of a segregated church, the editorial pointed to 1 John 3:14: the Bible said that those who did not love their fellow human beings “abideth in death.”* This was an explosive context in which to raise this biblical interpretation, for it implied that white evangelicals who supported Jim Crow had not actually experienced a saving faith and were thus on the path to eternal damnation.

In an evangelical context, this was the equivalent of going nuclear. In the broader setting of American political debate, there was nothing quite like it. Perhaps the closest analogy would be calling an American citizen unpatriotic or traitorous, a claim that casts one’s opponent outside the community of belonging. For some white evangelicals, the stakes involved in their community’s response to the civil rights revolution were eternal.

For all the hard-hitting criticism the editorial contained, it interpreted white evangelical failure through the lens of theological paternalism. The main reason white evangelicals’ ambivalent posture toward African Americans was so sinful was because black people would be without the gospel if white evangelicals did not reach out to them. The editorial assumed that the gospel was somehow something that white evangelicals—despite their failures—had possession of, in contrast to the gospel void in the black community.

The editorial rhetorically asked its readers if they were trying to reach out to African Americans, or were they forcing them into “a Negro ghetto where they have neither the chance nor the inclination to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?” Combining assumptions about the inadequacy of the black church and the evils of the city, the absence of Christian witness in the ghetto was so obvious to Eternity that it could be assumed. In conclusion, the editorial said the gospel was “hid to the ten per cent of the American citizenry who happen to have colored skins. And we are doing the hiding.” This only made sense if the gospel was the property of white Christians.


*The editorial quoted 1 John 3:14 in the King James Version. The entire verse and the one immediately following it reveal the intensity of Eternity’s criticism: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.”

 

A New Study Suggests the Christian Right Is Souring Americans On Religion

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One of the most important changes in the American religious landscape in recent decades is the dramatic rise in the numbers of people claiming no religious affiliation (now around a quarter of the population). Everyone agrees that this is happening, but why is it happening? A new article in Political Research Quarterly says the Christian Right has a lot to do with it. The authors argue that the rise of the “nones” is not consistent across the country, but is instead correlated with the clout and visibility of Christian Right politics in various places:

We argue that the rate of change is uneven across the states, driven by the salient policy controversy linked to Christian Right activism. Our findings suggest that Christian Right influence in state politics seems to negatively affect religion, such that religious attachments fade in the face of visible Christian Right policy victories.

If they’re correct, we may see this trend intensify in the Trump era. Whatever you think of the Christian Right, in decades past there was at least a case to be made that the movement had some sincerely held convictions. Now, it is impossible for anyone not in that bubble to take their claims about anything seriously.

We’ll have to wait and see the data that emerges on religious affiliation in the coming years. The authors note that this wouldn’t be the first time political engagement appeared to reduce religious affiliation:

American religion has faced similar trade-offs before. The turbulent 1960s witnessed a new breed of religious leaders from more liberal, mainline Protestant denominations taking positions on the pressing issues of the day, often (from the perspective of organizational maintenance, at least) to disastrous effect. Clergy involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements precipitated losses in lay membership. For instance, one survey found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of church leaders who participated in acts of antiwar civil disobedience reported that their churches had subsequently lost members (Quinley 1974). Another study found that Protestant ministers who were involved in efforts at desegregation faced increasingly empty pews as their flocks bolted in favor of other congregations whose leaders espoused more pro-segregationist views or stayed out of the matter altogether (Campbell and Pettigrew 1959). These “storms in the churches” (Hadden 1969) are often credited with leading to membership declines among more liberal mainline Protestant churches (e.g., Wuthnow 1999).

In light of this history, there is a certain irony to the present situation in which elements of the Christian Right find themselves, as the early movement modeled many of its tactics after those employed by mainline churches during the civil rights movement (Findlay 1990). And just as involvement in the controversies of the day ushered in a period of organizational decline in which parishioners deserted mainline Protestantism in droves, it appears as though the Christian Right is following a strikingly similar path.

It may be that large numbers of Americans across the political spectrum want to believe that there are somehow discrete domains separate from one another—one that we call “religion” and another that we call “politics”—and that these Americans are inclined to withdraw from affiliation with those who dare to transgress those imagined borders.

As we imagine religion as something private and symbolic and of the mind, we look askance at those who take their religion as the basis of their public and political acts. I think that’s a mistake. We need the public activism that comes from the wellsprings of faith. You can’t applaud the civil rights movement and then lament the influence of religion in public life.

The problem with the Christian Right is not that it’s political religion but that it’s political religion based in fear and hatred. In response to this destructive movement, there is an understandable desire to cut religion out of politics, or vice versa, but these are pipe dreams. You can choose the politics of your religion, but apolitical religion is not one of your choices. A so-called apolitical religion is merely one whose politics its adherents have made to seem natural or sacred.

Hopefully evangelicals beyond the Christian Right can see the rise of the “nones” as a good thing. Insofar as people are discarding religion in response to the Christian Right, they are demonstrating more openness to the claims of Jesus, not less. The challenge for Christians moving forward is to practice politics rooted in love for the other and the good of the community. Whether we like it or not, that’s not Christian common sense; it’s a political agenda.

Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

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King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

In Social Movements, Shame Is A Powerful Weapon

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The March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

How does social change happen? In idealized stories of earlier reform movements—abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement—we like to tell ourselves that in certain critical moments the public can experience a moral awakening. In the civil rights era, police brutality mediated through the new technology of television supposedly shocked the conscience of the nation and led to reform. Is this really true?

The question matters because the answer shapes the strategies we believe contemporary social movements ought to pursue. Does a movement win when it has persuaded a majority of people of the righteousness of its cause? Do appeals to a shared moral sense drive change? Or do more aggressive tactics work better? Should a movement try very hard not to offend opponents? Or should it heighten the contrast between two sides?

Without discounting the grain of truth in narratives of moral awakening, I think we need to be more clear-eyed about how change often occurs. It is true that becoming a society that no longer countenanced slavery was a massive moral shift. But that shift in imagination was measured in generations, not months or years. It is true that the civil rights movement moved the moral conscience, but in the short term it looked less like an awakening and more like a grudging acceptance of change.

As much as we’d like to believe in moral awakenings, Americans didn’t suddenly repent of the horror of racism when they saw John Lewis getting his head bashed in. Instead, politicians, celebrities, employers and pastors began to tell people that it was no longer socially acceptable to be racist. Wanting to be considered good people, and wanting to see themselves as good people, white Americans decided racism was bad. The Trump era shows how paper-thin that judgment remains even half a century after the height of the civil rights movement.

But that doesn’t mean the movement’s gains weren’t significant. Moving the boundaries of social acceptability and implementing concrete policy changes are huge victories. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has receded from the headlines, it has shifted boundaries and is driving policy changes in local police departments and DA offices. Such shifts don’t just follow moral change; they often precede it.

We may now be seeing the standards of social acceptability moving on the related issue of guns. To win, social movements need to have more than a compelling moral case. They need to be able and willing to raise the costs of inaction. (This doesn’t mean resorting to violence. There’s good political science evidence showing that violence in the civil rights era was counterproductive.) You raise costs by making politicians fear for their jobs, businesses for their profits, and people for their reputations.

We’re seeing movement on all three of those fronts. Republican politicians in suburban districts are making noises about the need for action. The Trump Administration at least wants to appear to be doing something. Many major businesses are not even trying to straddle the issue anymore and are instead taking actions that align them squarely on the side of the gun control activists. And the NRA is becoming more unpopular as its spokespeople and supporters reveal themselves as heartless extremists. A new poll out this morning shows that more Americans strongly disapprove of the NRA than strongly approve.

That strong disapproval number is important. In my ideal world, activists could simply present their righteous cause, lay out the evidence, and lovingly appeal to the moral intuition we all share. In the real world, while we should try to do all those things, we must also rely on the power of shame. The gun control activists will win, in part, by making people feel that it is disreputable and shameful to be associated with the NRA. They will win by making people feel that this is something that “good people” simply don’t do.

Activists can win by shifting the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. Sometimes one generation’s embarrassment can become the seeds of a future generation’s convictions. Yet recognizing the power of shame does not mean we must be cynics about the power of love. People on the opposing side need to have a way to back down without feeling like they’re losing everything. This need not be zero sum. Without love, activists can become nothing more than would-be oppressors, lacking only the power to crush their opposition. With love, activists can gladly welcome every convert, however late to the game they may be. We cannot afford to be complacent about our own condition. We are flawed people seeking positive change. The problem of evil is the problem of me. I do not have the vision, the wisdom, the love, to see clearly all that can or should be done. That’s always important to remember.