By Tommy Airey
It is significant that the federal holiday that honors Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated in January. On his birthday. Not in April when he was murdered. It is also significant that this year, Easter Sunday is penciled in for April 4, the anniversary of King’s assassination. Spirit is seconding the motions, putting our resurrection theology to the test. So that we might bear witness to Dr. King’s ongoing life and breath in America. King, like Jesus, was killed by empire—and, like Jesus, King is still with us. Not as a symbol or token, but in spirit and truth. Like Jesus, he lives forever to intercede for us.
Last month, I was texting with Rev. Dr. Timothy Adkins-Jones about resurrection. He got me contemplating how the death of Jesus does an awful lot of theological digging for me, especially in the wake of so much senseless dying. However, resurrection has the power to break the seal of empire with subversive energy. The empty tomb opens up a kind of wonder. I’m not referring to a resurrection that just moves on by holding our loved ones in our hearts because they are in heaven. I am awakening to a brand of resurrection where the dead transition to a new realm in our midst, where we can renew our relationship, where we listen for an ancestral cadence calling us beyond the grave to re-connect with them in a redemptive dance on earth as it is in heaven.
The word cadence comes from a Latin word that means “to fall.” At the ascension of Jesus, the cadence of two men in white robes interrogate us too: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? The rhythm of resurrection descends, towards the earth, where we can pursue an intimate relationship with Jesus and King and others who came before us. When I fall into their cadence, it has the power to transform me into someone who can summon the spiritual strength to finish their work with them—what the New Testament calls completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
The cadence comes through in Dr. Eddie Glaude’s recent release Begin Again, a book that makes a compelling case for why James Baldwin matters for this moment in history. Glaude describes his project as “thinking with Jimmy.” He studies Baldwin’s entire body of work while taking inventory of America’s addiction to supremacy stories. While he was writing the book, he burst into a brilliant, passionate viral rage on MSNBC, blasting the destructive myths that white Americans maintain. Reflecting on it later, Glaude called it “classic Jimmy.” He caught Baldwin’s cadence. This is gutsy work. Glaude says that the more he thinks with Jimmy, the more he looks up from his laptop to discover that he’s sipping on yet another glass of whiskey. To numb the painful practice of assessing his wounds and all we are all up against in the American empire.
Glaude’s practice grants me permission to pursue a personal relationship with King and Jesus, something that still sounds too fundamentalist, too anti-intellectual, too naïve. When I study the ancient texts and King’s speeches, I am not mining for timeless truths or seeking assurances of how to be on the right side of history. I am wounded healing with Jesus and Martin. I am getting free by falling into their cadence. I am summoning spiritual energy so I can embody something that subverts what Martin called “the giant triplets of evil:” racism, materialism and militarism. Like the writer of Hebrews says, the divine words of Jesus and King are sharper than a double-edged sword, splitting my soul and spirit, joints and marrow, digging up deeper reflections from my heart.
Everyone has their own Lazarus story. I am learning to unravel the linens of whiteness, hetero-patriarchy and capitalism, all wrapped up in codependency. My burial plot was paid for by counterfeit currencies minted in suburbia, what King called the most dangerous development in America. Suburbia segregates: head from heart, spirituality from politics, white from everyone else. Suburbia taught me to avoid my feelings by distancing and denial; to perform and produce for acquaintances, instead of stay present and connected to my kindreds; to numb the pain instead of dig to its roots; and to repress every emotion other than anger and competitiveness. Suburbia assimilates through shame and a false sense of safety, secluding its stockholders from the suffering their investments inflict on Black, Brown and Indigenous people. The cadence of King and Jesus break the seal of empire and commission me to break rank and come out of the suburban tomb, to be unbound and be transformed by the beloved community.
Three weeks before he was assassinated, Dr. King flew out to my native Orange County. His words are still ruthlessly relevant. When I listened to the recording of his speech during a trail run on the river this week, I could not shake the feeling that he was still here. Still breathing. Still speaking. My soul and my steps got caught up in his cadence. King is somber, but he displays what he calls “a bottomless vitality.” Black joy, Black gesture, Blackness resisting despair. A spiritual force that has defied four-hundred-years of counterfeit supremacy stories. King is bearing witness: shacks in the South and slums in the North. He talks about members of Congress, barely cloaking their racism, who “refuse to reward the rioters.”
In the shadow of Disneyland, Dr. King calls for the haves and have nots to come together and be united by their righteous rage, which must be channeled into a creative and constructive force. He claims that the only hope for America is rooted in a remnant people willing to repent. He calls it “a coalition of conscience.” King leans into a room full of eager white liberals probably too content with their colorblindness. He gives his realistic assessment. There are not enough white people willing to cherish democratic principles over privilege. Real democracy requires white people to descend. To fall into a new form of humanity. To learn a different cadence.
Resurrection reveals that everything in the present is continuously shaped by the past and by our ancestors. “The great force of history,” Baldwin wrote just weeks after Dr. King was killed, “comes from the fact that we carry it within us.” The context that killed King and Jesus—empire—does not only matter. It is still our context. When King and Jesus lament their generations, they are lamenting ours. So we catch the cadence from the kids who sit socially distanced in the suburban marketplace and issue their prophetic judgment:
We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.
Let it go. Let it out. Emote with resurrection energy! Like a dance, a dirge, a grieving, groaning socially unacceptable grind of bottomless vitality that has been colonized out of us by empire. Let us tap into what Audre Lorde called “the erotic,” our deepest non-rational knowledge, moving on emotion. Let us unlearn the confined calculus and control of empire—of whiteness and patriarchy, of racism, materialism and militarism—by getting (re)calibrated by the cadence of King and the Black diaspora, of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, of my Celtic ancestors and village people everywhere, intimately attuned to the wonder and awe that we are not alone. The ancestors are on the move—but we will never find them by looking up into heaven.
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and ex-Evangelical pastor. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).