Time for churches to stand their ground, Drew theology dean tells MLK crowd in Morristown

The Rev. Javier Viera, dean of the Drew University Theological School, Jan. 21, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Rev. Javier Viera, dean of the Drew University Theological School, Jan. 21, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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People of faith must resist “compassion fatigue…and the normalization of hate” to prevent the transformation of “what was once intolerable into something tolerable,” the dean of the Drew University Theological School warned a Martin Luther King Day audience in Morristown.

“Friends, I fear that as we sleep or allow ourselves to be distracted, or to be numbed or overwhelmed by the sheer number of crises and scandals and once unthinkable, outrageous scenarios that play out by the minute in our public life, the moral landscape is shifting beneath our feet, and we remain willfully unaware,” said the Rev. Javier Viera.

The Rev. David Hollowe;; addresses the 34th annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast, Martin Luther King Day 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Rev. David Hollowe;; addresses the 34th annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast, Martin Luther King Day 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Methodist minister addressed a crowd of public officials and members of churches and service organizations who braved single-digit temperatures on Monday to come to the 34th annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast, sponsored by the Morristown Martin Luther King Observance Committee and the Morris Area Clergy Council.

Ninety years after Martin Luther King’s birth, the slain Civil Rights leader’s vision for America remains frustratingly elusive, Viera said at the Hyatt Regency Morristown.

Never in Viera’s lifetime “has the promise of freedom and the dream of equality been more at risk than it is right now,” said the theologian, who was named dean of the Madison school in 2014 and also serves as the university’s vice provost.

Video: ‘Stand your ground!’

Autocrats wear down good people by repeating reprehensible ideas until they saturate mainstream discourse, and “negotiation and compromise take place on terms and conditions that previously could not have been imagined,” said Viera, a native of Puerto Rico who holds degrees from Duke, Yale and Columbia universities.

“The compromise isn’t about a wall or no wall,” he said, referring to President Trump’s demand for a Mexico border wall that has partially shut down the government for 31 days. “Much of the wall has already been built, right? Rather than negotiation, a compromise is on how much more of the wall are we willing to tolerate?”

The MHS Steppers perform at the 34th annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast, Martin Luther King Day 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The MHS Steppers perform at the 34th annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast, Martin Luther King Day 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Although he did not name Trump or the president’s GOP allies in Congress–a “trap…that lets too many of us off the hook”–Viera took aim at a Trumpian America “where children are ripped from their mothers arms and caged simply because those mothers are seeking a safer, more promising life.”

Instead of Martin Luther King’s vision, he said, we have a country where the Justice Department and 23 states are rolling back hard-fought Civil Rights, where anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are rising, and where Latino men like Viera are labeled rapists and murderers and job thieves.

Forty-one percent of U.S. children live in poverty, or on the brink of it, he continued.  Gay equality is tenuous. Workplaces remain hazardous for women. Skyrocketing black prison populations have become a “modern expression of slavery.”

“We live in an America where schools are among the dangerous places we send our children, because we love our guns more than we love them,” Viera said.

Shannon Songbird sings, accompanied by Devone Allison, at the 34th annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast, Martin Luther King Day 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Shannon Songbird sings, accompanied by Devone Allison, at the 34th annual Morris Interfaith Breakfast, Martin Luther King Day 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

King pondered similarly vexing issues in 1963, while jailed for protesting segregation in Birmingham, Ala., Viera said. 

Citing the iconic preacher’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Viera noted how King’s greatest disappointment was with not with southern racists, but rather with well meaning white moderates–and particularly, white churches afraid to rock the boat:

“Too many have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent, behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows,” Viera quoted King as saying.

Religion can, and must do better, Viera insisted.

“We’re going to stand our ground that religion is and can be, and should be the strongest force for good and for love, and for dreaming a new world into being, rather than a force that separates,” he said.

Felicia Jamison, a founder of the Morristown Martin Luther King Observance Committee, Uan. 21, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Felicia Jamison, a founder of the Morristown Martin Luther King Observance Committee, Uan. 21, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“We’re going to stand our ground against fear and against the forces that will divide us. … stand your ground, stand your ground bravely. And when you do, when you do, we shall overcome.”

The message resonated with 85-year-old Felicia Jamison, who co-founded the Martin Luther King Observance Committee nearly a half-century ago. America has been heading in a direction that frightens her even more than events from King’s time, a direction that reminds her of Nazi Germany.

Yet somehow, Jamison is an optimist.

“We have the wherewithal and we have the legacy of Dr. King. We shall overcome,” she said. “Love is the strongest. We are a country full of love.”

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