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Rev. Dyson Imagines How St. Paul Would Admonish The U.S. For Racism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On the final Sunday of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. took up an invitation. On that Sunday, in 1968, he stepped into the pulpit of the National Cathedral here in Washington and delivered a sermon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: So however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings on the violent explosions are, I can still sing, "We Shall Overcome." We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

INSKEEP: Days later, King was killed. Today is a national holiday in King's memory. Yesterday, the National Cathedral invited another pastor into that same pulpit. Michael Eric Dyson, author and professor who is now at Vanderbilt University, did something that Martin Luther King once did. He imagined a letter that St. Paul might write to Americans if St. Paul still lived. Dyson imagines St. Paul questioning American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States was given some special mission by God.

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MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: American exceptionalism is really white supremacy on the sly. The man who founded your nation relished talk of God while holding Black flesh in chains. Many of those who say that God takes special pride in your nation seek to bless the blasphemy of white supremacy. The American church has sinned by portraying truth as white, facts as white, reality as white, beauty as white, normal as white, moral as white, righteousness as white, theology as white, Christ as white, God as white. And America as white.

INSKEEP: Now as you hear there, in addition to critiquing racism, Dyson's sermon questioned his fellow Christians who supported President Trump. Michael Eric Dyson is on the line now. Welcome back to the program, sir.

DYSON: Thank you, sir, for having me.

INSKEEP: Why do you think that one of the apostles would tell Americans there's nothing particularly special about our country?

DYSON: Well, because, you know, so many other countries have felt the same way. And when we read the Bible, when we read the Old and New Testaments, we're constantly reminded that God is reminding each nation, the nation of peoples, the peoples of the world, wherever you are, that God has you both in consideration for blessing as well as judgment and that one should be held to account. I quote in the sermon Peter, who says that, look, I've come to understand that God plays no favorites with any nation but that God is concerned about all of those who are interested in the things of the spirit, interested in things that are of faith and of religious order, regardless of what city you come from, what state you come from, what country you come from. So I think American exceptionalism, which argues, after Tocqueville, that there's something peculiar and unique about America - therefore the blessing of God rests upon it, therefore it has a duty and mission in the world - is quite misled.

INSKEEP: Is this much exceptional about America that the country has an ideal, however imperfectly we've executed it, of equality and of self-government, which was a relatively rare idea at the time of the revolution?

DYSON: No question. But I think that as we saw in the assault upon the Capitol, the ideals of ancient democracy, ancient Greece, and its understanding of democracy hover low over the American horizon. The strength of commitment to democracy is not uniquely American. The attempt to make it real can be argued to be the best of, or at least one of the better registers of democracy. But again, it doesn't make it unique to the degree that it is exempt from moral critique or in one way especially blessed by God. And I think those combinations are especially interesting.

INSKEEP: There are a lot of Christians in this country who supported President Trump. White evangelicals is the way we would describe the voter group. And some have acknowledged that they regard President Trump as a bad person, as an immoral person or someone who has done terrible things, and yet they've argued that perhaps it's necessary and that it's part of God's larger plan and that God means for the president to be there. You respond to that in this sermon. You say God doesn't choose the president, that voters do. Why make that distinction?

DYSON: Well, because otherwise you begin to believe that your particular choice is the heavenly one, the divine assignment, and anything done to critique that, anything done, you know, contrary to that particular choice seems to be against God, Godself. The same white evangelicals who, despite his apparent moral failures, held close to Donald Trump, are the same white evangelicals who found Barack Obama especially offensive. And in that case, when you say God put Trump in office, did God take a break when, you know, Obama got in? Or for those who claim that Obama was divinely appointed, was God on lunch break when Donald Trump came into being? It seems to be an essential or theological contradiction to suggest that God has a particular person in mind as opposed to a particular principle. If God is interested in justice and God is interested in freedom, then you make the choice about who best reflects that. And we try to work out from there what the goals and principles are - not to suggest that no matter who that is, God has blessed that person.

INSKEEP: Do you think we've made progress through the agonies of the past year that some of the violent acts of the past year have at least brought us some clarity as to what the issues are?

DYSON: I think so. I think, you know, in my book "Long Time Coming," I speak about the necessity of grappling with and reckoning with the horrors and the racial realities that we confront. On the other hand, there's been enormous progress on the other hand - on one hand - and on the other hand, we've seen what happened at the Capitol and we saw the kind of insurrection that occurred there and whether or not clearly articulated the racial premise could not be missed. Beyond that, the police treatment of the rioters and insurrectionists at the Capitol was glaringly different, was strikingly in contrast to what happened with African American people in protest of Black Lives Matter.

INSKEEP: Michael Eric Dyson, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

DYSON: Thank you for having me, my friend.

INSKEEP: Michael Eric Dyson delivered the Sunday sermon at Washington's National Cathedral yesterday. He is also the author of "Long Time Coming: Reckoning With Race In America."

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "MILES TO GO (SUNSET ROAD)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.