Day 3 of our Lenten Journey with Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam.”
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.
By Rev. Nick Peterson (above right, with spouse NaKisha), a pastor and prophet pursuing a PhD in liturgics and ethics at Emory University in Atlanta
Fixed in the intellectual heritage of American pragmatism is the notion that every problem has a solution. From the earliest stages of our formal education we are presented with problems that can be solved if we take the time to understand them and apply the methods and rules we learned. Modern medicine and technology are all furthered by a desire to solve our problems and in so doing make our lives better.
The tension and anxiety created by problems can at times be debilitating. This is most often the case when we discern that the problems we face are not of our own doing. There are some problems that happen to us. There is a story in John’s gospel of some religious teachers coming to Jesus and asking him about a blind man. They want to know if he or his parents sinned to cause his blindness. The text in John 9 tells us that the man was born blind from birth. Based on the religious leaders’ response it seemed that the problem was less about the physicality of being born blind but the social stigma attached to the cause of his blindness. Their concern with who to blame eclipsed this man’s humanity and made him nothing more than a site for their discourse on sin. Jesus, in response to them, affirms this man as an embodiment of God’s revelation. In a very real sense that which is problematic for the human social order is an opportunity for divine manifestation.
More telling is the fact that the divine’s presence is materialized in dirt mixed with spit. This was not and is not a common medical intervention, yet it was the solution by which God manifested Her power. The last thing I would want to do is trust a stranger’s spit over my face. In fact, I would find it rather insulting and humiliating. Like the religious leaders, I would much rather figure out the specific causes of my sufferings believing that somehow understanding the cause would provide a pathway toward a solution. In this passage, understanding the cause is not a necessary condition to the man receiving sight. The necessary condition was for this man to trust God’s desire to heal.
In a world where trust is abused daily by those who sit in positions of authority, corporations who prioritize profits over people, and interventionist organizations intending to help but only causing more harm, this reminder might sound trite. I am sure that when Dr. King spoke these words many of his listeners found his remarks trite and misguided. For those of us who are keen to discern and name the institutional, systemic, and structural ills of our society it can be easy to function with the blindness that characterizes the religious leaders in this passage. Like them we prioritize the desire to know causality as the necessary condition to bring about solutions. In so doing we miss the humanity of our blind brothers and sisters and render them as objects fated to the damning consequence of their blindness. We must learn to trust in God’s desire and ability to manifest despite what we see. We must have the reflexivity and humility to know that we do not see everything as we ought to ourselves.
And for those of us who, since birth, have been blinded by privilege, we must dare to believe that sight is possible. We must be willing to trust the interventions that do not make logical sense but that are divinely ordered. We must be willing to hear the strangers out and follow where they lead us, trusting in God’s grace.
Trust is a matter of give and take on both sides, as Dr. King so eloquently stated. We may not have all the tools to understand the cause of our problems and we may not even recognize that there is a problem at times, but if we dare to trust that God desires to show up in the midst of our human condition and are willing to do the unconventional, just then we might bear witness to the miraculous.