The most powerful book I read this summer was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an editor at The Atlantic. The book is a series of reflections written to his 15-year-old son on what it means to be black in America in 2015.
Currently number two on the New York Times best seller list, some have called his book a bitter indictment of American culture. I regard it as a description. Coates writes passionately and poetically about the American dream, which, as he sees it, provides opportunity and privilege to people who have the fortune to be white – at the expense of people who are black. In order for the dream to work, Coates argues, collateral damage is a given. He warns his son, “Here is what I would like for you to know: in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
As Jesus’ hearers often remarked, this is a hard saying; who can believe it? Many won’t, or will refute or deny it, or will try and reseal the silo of illusion which is the American dream.
I am grateful for Coates’ reflections, because I think they are true – and need to be dealt with. Yet, as Coates admits, he looks back on the days of the civil rights movement and does not understand how so many people who, in the midst of incredible hardship, “look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe.”
Coates helps us to see the fractures and fallacies in the American dream. What he can’t see – or feel, is the abundant Dream expressed by ancient and modern prophets, and embodied in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. It is the Dream of faith – borne by community. Martin Luther King was brought up on this Dream, and he prayed and preached it until he was cut down by someone who couldn’t abide any challenge to a dream that protects some at the expense of others. Too many have suffered a similar fate.
We are inheritors of the biblical Dream. We have a responsibility to carry that Dream into the world. God sent Jesus to incarnate the Dream, and we, as his followers are to be bearers of it – doing whatever we can to bring the Dream into moments, if not movements, of justice and blessing.
On Tuesday of this week, representatives from several congregations came to hear how they can participate in Gun Violence Sabbath, December 13, to remember those in their community or county who have been cut down by gun violence through “Memorials to the Lost.” Tomorrow, September 11, many of us will gather at train stations, bus stops, coffee shops and churches to offer prayers and blessings as we commemorate that tragic day.
These forays into the world bear witness to God’s Dream. These forays open our souls even more to the wideness of God’s mercy, and can perhaps provide an opening for the millions of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates to discover a hope that is beyond what their hearts and minds can currently grasp. A hope that is offered to “all God’s children”, not just some. A hope that believes in spite of the evidence, and then watches the evidence change.
It is an extraordinary Dream. Let us dare to pray and practice incarnating the Dream.