Beyond the Boundaries of Speech

Can I avoid politics?

Probably not. (How can one avoid being political, if trying to follow Jesus?)

When—along with a zillion social media users and abusers—I stumbled onto Watson Mere’s 2017 artwork, “My Brother’s Keeper,” my partisan spidey-senses tingled. Its depiction of Martin Luther King Jr. hushing President Trump was blatantly political. As the website Good explained,

The American-born artist of Haitian descent living in Philadelphia created “My Brother’s Keeper” right before the Women’s March—and Martin Luther King Day—in January.

That would be 2017’s January.

With viral intensity, Mere’s image resurfaced in August of 2017 after the clashes between protestors and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. For many, it was also a perfect visual for responding to the President’s alleged—and behind “closed doors”—derogatory January 2018 comments regarding other countries. Those countries included Haiti, where Mere’s parents were born and raised.

  • A women’s march, and a cry for equality.
  • A response to protests centered around hate.
  • Anguish over possible inflammatory language.

Mere’s “My Brother’s Keeper, for current American culture and within the real and imagined perceptions of our global neighborhood, is compelling. And simple. And biased. Two powerful people from different eras, with different values. One white, one black. One is the poster child for American exceptionalism and bluster. The other is a poster child for national humility and nonviolence. And, of course, depending on your political bent and personal beliefs, you will view my conclusions about Trump or King as righteous or wrong.

Should we arm wrestle about our differences?

How about if we digitally shout at each other over our differences? Let’s engage in a blog battle or tweetstorm, and may the winner post the last best insult.

What if we ignore each other and only hang with those right-thinking folks who agree that my differences are better than your differences?

Or let’s only read things that support our set-in-cement opinions?

What have we become?

That’s a question and a theme that keeps jamming its elbow into me during these turbulent days. From No-Drama-Obama to Make-America-Great-Again Trump is a tectonic cultural, political, emotional, and spiritual shift.

Though biased, I’m enough of an amateur historian to realize that Donald Trump is not as bad as I think and Martin Luther King is not as good as I’d like to believe. Both—like everyone—possess their own messy mix of the awful and awesome. While it’s hard for me to respect our current President, I truly don’t know him. Some that admire him may claim he’s known better than most politicians because of  “speaking his mind.” And the so-called fake news journalists can’t alter his truth-telling tweets. Give me a break! 99.9999999% of what is known about Mr. Trump is influenced by clever branding, selected images, and our own personal biases. And Rev. King? Don’t we now know he was a womanizer and plagiarized some papers and sermons? He was just another flawed human with feet of clay.

How easy to focus on another’s weaknesses if you disagree with their strengths.

Nonetheless, after posting Mere’s political image, I discerned something else. Something more.

Silence.

President Trump is not unlike many of us (including me).

We tweet. We facebook. We watch our 24/7 television. We walk with heads bowed not because of prayer, but for a next text or image or video or gif on our phones. We don’t want to miss the news, so we drown in talking-head opinions. We return home and switch on music or TV or stream “something” because we crave background noise. Our cars shake with sound pumped through speakers. We stroll outside, earplugs attached, enamored with the latest pop star or podcast and never notice a bird sing.

In Mere’s creative, politically charged image, there is King’s hand pressing against Trump’s mouth and King’s finger angled over his own mouth, depicting the universal sign for,

Shhhhhhh . . .

Yes! Of course! I want my President to shut up!

But that’s my narrow-mindedness.

What about the heart of the heart of my faith?

Please, help me to shut up too. This world is chaos fed by chaos. Noise births noise. We have non-stop news, and hardly any of it is actual information. We are overwhelmed by images and inundated by words (mine included). Oh, how we need:

Shhhhhhh . . .

How can I listen to the divine voice with so much distraction? In a sermon Marcus Borg* preached in 2003, he spoke about familiar Biblical images for God’s voice,

The phenomenon of the divine voice actually has a name in Jewish tradition. The Hebrew phrase that names this divine voice is bat kol. Let me translate that for you, because it’s very interesting. Translated into English, bat kol literally means “the daughter of a sound.” What kind of metaphor is this? The voice of God, the divine voice, is the daughter of a sound.

Borg additionally notes that bat kol parallels Elijah’s “still, small voice” in I Kings 19. They are “different ways of attempting to express what perhaps lies beyond the boundaries of speech.” {Italics are mine.]

And beyond the boundaries of our daily noise, of our raucous, relentless culture.

Lent is a handful of weeks away. This year, in a delightful calendar coincidence, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are the same day. Those two celebrations haven’t shared February 14 since 1945 . . . longer than I’ve been alive! One is over-commercialized, the other oft-ignored.

And yet . . . ashes and love; discipline and devotion; giving up and giving to.

Maybe, with courage inspired by ashes and love, I’ll try to give up some noise.

And claim silence. To try, try, try to listen.

Birds are singing. Wind whispers through the trees. Beneath the silence of the silence is the daughter of a sound. How can I not be political? But can I also be attentive to the healing and hopeful divine voice?

Shhhhhhh . . .

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*This is another recent time I’ve quoted Marcus Borg. But finishing his “Days of Awe and Wonder” a little while ago was inspirational and enjoyable. So, I keep thinking about it! This particular quote is on pg. 228 in the hardback edition.

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting that I also received inspiration from this picture of Dr. King and the President. I too lament some — not all — of the President’s tweets and verbal outbursts and appreciate the gentle, loving gesture of King bushing Trump.

    And even tho both men had personal faults, I try to look past those to see the greater good that they are/were trying to accomplish. There are many who are so filled with hate towards both of these men, that they can’t even begin to understand them.

    I wish — as you point out — that more would take the time to listen to that still, small voice and let the Spirit of Christ touch their hearts and lower the volume and intolerance that so many feel towards each other. But I have no idea of how to get there… Because doing so doesn’t make good headlines.

    Thanks for the article… Your Cranky Mormon Buddy…

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