I walked the dog later than usual on Friday – it was 28 degrees, and we had no need for our usual 6:30 am stroll. We walked instead at 10 am, in full sunshine. It was still chilly, but much better than 28. Jackson and I went against our tradition, walking up the alley behind Mary’s House so we could put the emptied garbage cans over the back fence before they were stolen. Then we went up Avenue H for our usual 10 blocks, around two corners, and back down again on Avenue G.
We covered the same territory we always cover, yet I was surprised at how different it all looked. For one thing, it was bright morning sun instead of rising-sun dawn light. Everything was bright and clear. For another, we saw everything from the opposite perspective to our usual one. Some houses looked much better. Some looked worse. I could see where repairs had been done in one place, while siding was missing from the next house. The vacant lots took on a different perspective when the trees were at the far end, instead of at the near end. It was disorienting – once or twice I had to check the street signs to be sure where I was. Jackson, of course, had no problem – I don’t think noses know perspective.
It made me think while we were walking. We talk glibly about the Gospel having a different perspective, about the upside-down world of God’s Kindom and how it turns our expectations on their heads. It’s an easy thing to say. At some level we live that perspective here at Mary’s House, trying to give personalist hospitality to our guests, to speak out against war and the death penalty. Yet – how long has it been since we’ve had that sense of disorientation? How long since the world has suddenly looked unfamiliar and strange because our perspective has changed?
I think of the disciples listening to Jesus talk: our leaders should be servants? We should love THOSE people? Our ENEMIES? We should give what we have away to the poor? We should turn the other cheek? He’s got to be kidding, right? Well, no. And if we can begin to internalize that message so that it permeates our minds, then our world is suddenly upside-down. Everything looks different, and we are disoriented. Last Sunday Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and read the Isaiah scroll: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has sent me to preach good news to the poor … recovery of sight to the blind… to set the captives free… to proclaim the year of the Lord.” I can imagine that the people weren’t too upset about that, just as we aren’t upset when we hear the beatitudes or the sermon on the mount. We’ve heard it all before. But then – “Today,” we hear Jesus say, “This reading is fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s as though our pastor read the Sermon on the Mount and then said, “Go out and do this today and always.” And then sat down. Jesus’ hearers wanted to kill him. What would we want to do?
What happens in this world when people begin to live the Gospel message? Jesus, of course, was crucified. The early Christians were martyred. People who have a new perspective are uncomfortable folks to have around. Leaders who see with a new perspective are particularly endangered.
Gandhi, who wanted a unified India and was about to visit Pakistan – was endangered. His vision did not include a nuclear India, an industrialized India, an India divided between poor and rich. The leaders of the new country, however much they loved and revered him, did not want to follow his path. His perspective made them uncomfortable. It made some Nationalists so uncomfortable that he had to be silenced.
John F. Kennedy saw a new vision, a vision of peace that grew from the Cuban Missile crisis when the world almost ended. His unlikely co-conspirator, Nikita Khrushchev, shared that vision. Their new perspective made them seem to be traitors to their closest advisors. Kennedy was marked for assassination, Khruschchev abruptly lost power.
Dr. King and Malcolm X each found a new perspective. For Malcolm it was a perspective of human unity, discovered through his trip to Mecca. Malcolm was working for universal human rights, and for the ultimate unity of humankind when he was killed. After 1967 Dr. King was articulating a deeper vision, a vision that included economic justice and world peace. His new broader perspective challenged the entire country to change, calling all people to come together and demand both peace and justice in the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, which he hoped would spread internationally and bring about a global revolution. Musing about this change in Dr. King, one of King’s colleagues in the movement told Dr. Vincent Harding, “It may be a good thing that Martin died when he did. Not many of us wanted to go where he was going. I know I didn’t.”
In Birmingham we’re celebrating the 50th year since 1963, when the Children’s Marches took place, when the city was in ferment, when four young girls were killed in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In November it will be 50 years since John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas. It is over two thousand years since Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem. We still don’t want to go where they were going, and yet we can’t forget their visions.
Maybe this year, this 50th anniversary year, this year of our Lord 2013, would be a good time to let their perspectives infuse our minds so that our world looks different to us, and we need to change it.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.