I haven’t given up on the plan I had for my blog a while back but you wouldn’t know that by my lack of posting. A combination of teaching 6 courses at 3 universities, getting knocked down for a week by a virus, and adding adult Sunday School prep for the church I pastor (Vineyard North) has kept me pretty well occupied. Oh, and I was trying to finish a book by Nov. 1 too but that is getting pushed back now as well. In fact, I wrote this post out by hand weeks ago (most of my first drafts are hand written, I really only think well moving a pen across a page) and it has lived in my laptop bag ever since, growing ever more rumpled. I am typing this up in the very back seat of a Southwest flight back from Los Angeles where I gave a talk at the 2014 Vineyard Justice Network conference. Because I didn’t have quite enough to do already.
I hope that doesn’t come across as griping. I am grateful for the teaching opportunities but I am feeling stretched a bit thin, like not enough butter spread on too much toast (as Bilbo put it). While all that work has to come first, the topics I’ve planned to blog about are important too, so don’t take the slow pace or random timetable as nonchalance. In fact, the seriousness of the topic of this post has been another factor in my lack of posting. I don’t feel ready to write about this, which probably means I never will feel ready. So here goes.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King started by addressing the claim that he was an “outside agitator” as I wrote about before (click here to read that post). The next thing King explained was the four-step process they employed:
1. gather the facts
4. direct action
The first step is pretty straightforward – find out if oppression is occurring. Are people being dehumanized? Discriminated against? Treated unjustly? Made to suffer? Finding out can be complicated where those in power engage in secrecy, delay tactics, or obfuscation, but it remains a simple endeavor of gathering facts, however much tenacity it takes (and it can take a lot). Dr. King had more to say about the second and fourth steps and I’m going to blog about them later (see caveat above). For this post, I want to pause on the third step – self-purification. Doesn’t it seem odd, out of place with the other three? The others are so apparently practical and nearly self-explanatory, but the third is different, not at all obvious and not easily defined. On the one hand, I can tell you that Dr. King was referring to all the behind-the-scenes prepatory work they were doing getting people ready to absorb the violence of the police without responding in kind. The civil rights leaders conducted workshops, training sessions, and small group discussions. They role played, pre-enacting the verbal assaults and simulating the physical attacks they were going to face. This enabled marchers to steel themselves for the struggle and in some cases realize they could not march and remain nonviolent. It was as practical as any adult education endeavor.
On the other hand, it is hard to describe this as anything other than spiritual formation of the highest order. Through this process, Dr. King and his teams were changing hearts, minds, and hands. Calling it “self-purification” was an intentional acknowledgment of the deeply spiritual nature of the work going on in this step. The least obvious step but the most important. The step that guaranteed that action would occur, that the action would remain nonviolent, and thus that it would succeed (any violent response from them onto the police would have ruined everything). They say championships are won at practice. In the same way, we could say civil rights were won in the self-purification workshops.
Still, I feel like this fails to get at the heart of what self-purification is all about. Calling it ‘spiritual formation’ only trades one phrase that needs explaining for a different one that also needs explaining. I teach on Dr. King’s “Letter” every semester (I work into every class I can, certainly every ethics class) and each time I have felt uncomfortable with the thinness of my explanation of self-purification. This past summer, I attended the Duke Summer Institute for Reconciliation and self-purification came up in a session taught by Dr. Bill Turner (who is one of my mentors and served on my dissertation committee). During the Q&A, I asked him to elaborate on self-purification and did he ever. In the second part to this post, I will reflect on what Dr. Turner told us in that special moment.