“Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” –Amos 5:23-24
On New Year’s Eve eight years ago, I was very nearly mauled by a deer.
I totally deserved it, too. I was a brazen fifteen-year-old who did not respect the natural boundaries of these animals that had been trapped for years in a too-small wooded area between housing developments and apartment complexes.
Some friends and I were taking a walk as the sun was setting. Dusk, as I happened to know, is and always has been the favorite time of those poor trapped deer. Nearly domesticated, these white-tails are found in the same place every evening where a neighbor often leaves dried corn for them to snack on.
As we walked, we came upon a fawn standing innocently in the middle of a clearing. We ‘aw’-ed, of course, immediately in love with this baby whose big black eyes and a fluffy white tail endeared it to us. No more than a few months old, this deer had grown up with many people walking by, offering it the same admiration we had given. It was as afraid of us as we were of it – which is to say not at all.
Naturally, I was the first to approach it. I walked slowly and carefully with my hands raised, as if the universal gesture for ‘I am unarmed’ would somehow encourage this fawn to let me come near. It needed no encouraging; that was the closest I have ever come to a deer. A foot, or maybe two separated us. I was close enough to see my reflection in the depths of its trusting eyes, close enough to reach out my hand and touch it.
We had a really nice moment. I considered petting the coarse fur between the eyes that stared back at me. Despite the reputation often garnered by deer, these dark eyes were full of kind intelligence. We stared at one another for a few seconds. A sound somewhere in the distance startled us both, and soon the fawn was turning away and loping back into the woods.
I, too, turned to walk away. As I started to make my way out of the clearing, I again heard the sound of hooves, this time much louder and slower. I spun back around, expecting a few brave does hoping for corn.
Instead, several yards away stood a buck. His black eyes were blazing with displeasure. He snorted at me as angry animals often do. His hastily exhaled breath was visible in the cold, and in that moment I knew I had done something very wrong.
My friends, still a short distance away, remained still and silent. I stopped moving, stopped breathing, and waited for him to retreat. Much to my surprise and dismay, he began to run in my general direction, and I was certain I would soon be on the receiving end of his impressive horns.
As he got closer, he turned off and ran back in the direction of the woods, where the fawn and its mother were probably waiting for him. My friends and I stayed frozen in disbelief, unsure of what had just happened. Grateful for the anticlimactic ending to what could have been a dire situation, I turned away again.
My friends and I laughed it off, and continued walking. We returned home, told my family of our encounter, and celebrated the new year.
Every New Year’s Eve, I remember that moment.
I remember the shine of that fawn’s eyes. I remember the steam of hot, angry breath against the black velvet of the buck’s nose. I remember the relief of walking away unharmed, despite my blatant disregard for the deer whose home had been destroyed by the construction of my own.
Racial discrimination in America is a lot like nearly being mauled by a deer.
Sometime in the recent past, the term ‘post-racial’ was coined by smug sociologists or certain historians. Comforted by the relative racial peace of the 80s and 90s, they proudly stuck this label on a country that had not even settled from the chaos of the desegregation movement.
Sadly, this premature distinction did more damage than any social scientist could have predicted. Many white people in America were mollified, believing that The Dream had become a reality.
But what was The Dream?
Surely not gerrymandering, mass incarceration, educational apartheid. Surely not social segregation, economic discrimination, sanctioned murder in the streets.
Like the stupid child who reached out to touch the fawn, we have been drawn in to a false reality. We reached out to touch the domesticated product of our own privilege only to be taken aback in fear and surprise when horned anger ran out to meet us from the very place where our greed and negligence trapped it.
I was depressingly old when I first read the Letter from Birmingham Jail. As someone studying to be a minister, this has become one of the most important documents for my formation as a preacher, a teacher, and a leader in the church. If I am ever charged with the formation of young pastors, this letter will be the first thing in their eager hands.
King penned his famous letter in response to a request from group of pastors in Birmingham who politely asked him to leave their city altogether. From behind the bars of a cell, he wrote to men who shared his profession and implored them to see the irrevocable error of their ways.
He wrote, “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
Oh, how we the white moderate have let him down.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more important now than ever. It is absolutely vital that we as country continue to remember the work of this man of God that even now has not been brought to fruition. And it is even more vital that we continue to take him at his word, and not at the words of the sanitized King quotes that rotate through our news feed for a few days in mid-January each year.
In the words of King from his prison cell, “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Now. Now. Now.
Grace and peace,