Is America Possible?

Our community group this year will be listening to various podcasts and focusing on the meditation and reflection sparked by those podcasts.  If you’d like to follow along with us, you can check out my notes here on the blog each week.

January 17

Community group in the week that sees the intersection of MLK Jr Day and the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump calls for… something.  I hardly know what.   I was struggling to find a podcast that seemed apropos for the given moment.   My first inclination was to skip Trump altogether and just focus on Martin Luther King.  We meet on Tuesday, after all, and that’s closer to Monday than to Friday.   Good logic, no?   But Jason found this interview with Vincent Harding and it seemed like a perfect fit for for this particular week.

Vincent Harding was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was a lay minister in the Mennonite Church who wrote what is said to be Dr. King’s most controversial speech (The Riverside Speech – “Beyond Vietnam“).  He was also a historian who taught at the University of Denver Iliff School of Theology for many years.  Krista Tippett interviewed him shortly before his death in 2014 for On Being and re-aired the podcast on November 10, 2016.


In the section where Tippett and Harding discussed being signposts, Harding said that we are too busy teaching young people to run from the darkness they encounter when we ought to be teaching them how to be signposts of light while in the dark places.

Harding believes that we ought not fight simply for equality.  Equality is nice.  Equality is just.   But Dr. Martin Luther King and the other Civil Rights Leaders advocated for more.  They were fighting for the vision of the beloved community, which encompasses so much more than tit-for-tat fairness.

Harding hailed Dr. King as someone who embodied the 3 Cs.   Courage, Compassion & Creativity.  We need, today, to stoke our creative capacities because we need new songs, new stories to join us together.

Harding suggests that we stop using the term “minority.”  It’s pejorative and, if we are pushing toward the beloved community, there is no “minority” in a family.

The story about the singing of kumbaya after the 3 civil rights workers went missing (and were later found murdered in Mississippi) was powerful.  I won’t hear the song the same way again.

Harding believed that the White community in the United States faces growing uncertainty about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities present in our nation today.  The White Community has moved into a realm of uncertainty that we didn’t face before.

If we want America to be possible, we (Whites) have to be willing to give up what we once thought was ours.  Is America possible? Tippett asked at the end of the interview.  Yes!  Harding answered.  Yes!  In so far as we make it possible.  

For Meditation & Reflection…

Taken from the transcript of the interview – the words of Vincent Harding:

Somehow, in a time like our own, when the capacity for imagining appears to be endangered, both by the technology of television and the Internet and by the poverty of public dreams, it seems especially crucial to introduce our students to the meaning of such a question as “Is America possible?” And it is absolutely necessary that they discover the significance of the biblical text:

“Where there is no vision the people perish.”

Indeed, it is precisely in a period of great spiritual and societal hunger like our own that we most need to open minds, hearts, and memories to those times when women and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world, and for their own lives. It is now that we may be able to convey the stunning idea that dreams, imagination, vision, and hope are actually powerful mechanisms in the creation of new realities — especially when the dreams go beyond speeches and songs to become embodied; to take on flesh, in real, hard places…

Because we need new dreams in each generation, new visions for each time, we ask ourselves and our students about the dreams that moved the fourth-grade-trained Fannie Lou Hamer to challenge an entire political party and its president and leader, Lyndon B. Johnson. We seek to know more about the visions that kept her working for the poor and the marginalized until she died. Because we believe in the power of the imagination, especially when linked to committed lives — even when the lives and dreams go astray — we look deeply into the eyes of Black Panther founder Huey Newton and understand why a longtime resident of his community, shocked by his murder in 1989, could nevertheless say, “To us, Huey Newton was a hero. The Black Panthers were a thing to identify with, along with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.” What a gathering of dreamers!


3 thoughts on “Is America Possible?

  1. Dear Friend, this is a lovely summation of my dad’s interview with Krista Tippett. I’m glad to learn about your community group and to know that you all will be listening to and discussing the On Being program that featured my father’s interview. You may be interested to learn more about both of my parents — Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding — and their efforts to gather and share the stories of elder peace and justice activists via the Veterans of Hope Project —

    Thank you for your work.

  2. Rachel, what an honor hear from you here. Our group had a really meaningful and generative discussion last night around your father’s interview and I think we could have continued the conversation for several more hours. It was particularly timely this week and I’m still pondering so much of what he said. Thank you for sharing the link to Veterans of Hope — I look forward to learning and reading more about both of your parents.

    Reading your mother’s biography, I see that the two of you wrote a book and it looks especially interesting to me. Adding Remnants to my reading list. Thanks again.

  3. For your information, the Veterans of Hope Project is partnering with the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and Riverside Church in NY in April to co-sponsor a program commemorating the 50th anniversary of MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. That’s the sermon where King speaks of the need for a radical revolution in values in the US and where he identifies the triumverate of racism, militarism and materialism as linked challenges in our national experience. You can check the VOHP website in a couple of weeks for more information about the April 4th event. If you’d like to be on our mailing list, let me know. Best regards…

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