MLK: Creative maladjustment means Moving Toward Conflict


This is the written article created out of the speech originally given at Bethel College on 29 January 2015. The invitation from that college in Kansas, and the later encouragement to turn this into an article for the Mennonite helped me to think and write out-loud some things I’ve been thinking about for awhile.

There are certain things in our nation and in the world [to which] I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all people of goodwill will be maladjusted.—Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., when he spoke these words about maladjustment for one of the first times.

His call was for us to be creative in our maladjustment to society.

He echoed Jesus in talking about a creative way of engaging with the violence and oppression of his day while extending a clear invitation for the human doing that harm or participating in an unjust social system to change their ways.

A creatively maladjusted person confronts us.

In their best leadership capacity, they are conscientious and flexible, their firm conviction sits steady on a foundation of love, and they draw from a well of compassion. I encourage leaders wanting to be more confrontational to cultivate nonviolence in their spiritual practice because reconciliation is the goal of any confrontation.

That does not mean a leader who has been a target of oppression has to be nice or make people with privilege feel comfortable. Others may not understand what they are talking about at first. That’s OK. Hurt feelings are not the same as structural violence.

The civil rights movement was disruptive, and we’re on the cusp of another one.

You will need to answer to your descendants when they ask, What were you doing when Michael Brown was shot by a police officer and left on the street for 4½ hours? What were you doing when the grand jury did not hand down an indictment of the responsible officer? How did you respond?

You still can respond. The invitation has gone out from Ferguson, Mo., and other places to come together and to follow the lead of those most affected by the racist and economic violence of this country. Let’s move toward this conflict.

Some European-American Mennonite traditions are conflict avoidant. Those not raised in conflict-avoidant traditions or who have lived authentically in other cultures are a gift to a conflict-avoidant community. Do not scapegoat them.

Aversion to conflict can keep power static.

Static power over time means power is not circulating and dynamic. Conflict is a natural friction and can help create positive change. If those with more power and resources in the situation are willing to open their hearts, minds and practices, there are possibilities. But if they are not willing to address conflict, then change-makers have nothing to make friction with.

We are then susceptible to the general flow of a U.S. culture that is militaristic, racist and materialistic, as King said. We are to be creatively maladjusted to that. Pay attention to how historic power imbalances play into what you want to do.

Can you feel the knots in your stomach forming as you read this or think about a conflict you’ve had? Sit with that. Do you feel some adrenaline or emotion? Examine it but don’t judge it. Take a deep breath. Breathing is one of the best tools we have to help us be present to our internal reality and the world around us.

The word for breath in the Bible is the same as the word for Spirit. Centering on your breath can help you listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and stay present when a conflict occurs.

To move away from the conflict that is necessary to change ourselves, our families and our churches or to be passive-aggressive or avoid responsibility is to be complicit with racism and classism in this country and around the world. You may not be comfortable with the current civil rights movement, but don’t turn your anger or indifference toward those who are out on the front lines trying to do something. Take a deep breath and release that anger to God and feel what is beneath your indifference to see how your own suffering connects with the world’s suffering. Take steps in your discipleship journey toward beloved community.

Even in the beloved community—a vision of a world where all beings can share in the wealth of the earth in a sustainable way—there will be conflict. There is not a set way for us to share this planet with people of various truth claims. Conflict can be a generative force. Conflict is two or more ideas and/or experiences rubbing against each other; it is the friction that helps things move forward.

Nonviolent conflict is not a bad thing.

We need to embrace it and learn to widen our ability to hold tension so that we can open space for new ideas to grow.

Reference link:

About SEN

Born on United Nations Day, I am actively involved in the process of figuring out how we can live together well on this planet, given our similar and different truth claims. Thanks for joining me on the journey!

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