He had a dream
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Fifty years ago, on the 4th April 1968, he was assassinated for that dream. It was a good dream. It was a noble dream... ‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’
[Martin Luther King Jr]
In honour of his life and contribution to the Civil Rights movement and his voice within the Church, the MLK50 conference was held earlier this month. It was hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition. A multicultural, multiracial and multi-ethnic list of speakers formed the line-up invited to focus on issues and conversations around racial unity in the American Evangelical Church 50 years on. The premise being that there seems to be little change in the Church and to ask the question why?
After all, racial and ethnic unity is a Gospel issue.
Why, asked Charlie Dates, is 11am on Sunday the most segregated hour in America?
Matt Chandler addressed the question of why a divided house cannot stand.
Jackie Hill Perry poetically articulated the need for the next generation to embrace Gospel diversity and how that can be done.
Eric Mason explained why it’s worth it to fight for racial harmony even when we don’t see progress.
Jason Cook asked whether the church should give up on multi-ethnic ministry.
Beau Hughes moderated a panel discussion on how Pastors and leaders can shape their peoples’ hearts for racial unity.
Michael McAfee addressed the Bible and bigotry and how Scripture has been misused in racial issues.
Dhati Lewis asked and addressed how Christians should engage restoration in their communities.
This is but a taste of the comprehensive nature of the conference and the topics dealt with.
In listening to some of the speakers, the obvious conclusion and realisation is that this is an extremely complex and nuanced discussion and to attempt to simplify it is to be naïve. What was also obvious from the talks is that the primary conclusion is that the buck stops at the White Evangelical Church door in America.
This accusation was not subtle.
As these men and women shared the stage and shared their hearts, struggles, contexts, hurts, pasts and experiences, there was a definite distinction between being brothers and sisters in Christ and understanding brotherhood and sisterhood.
The tone varied. Some speakers were gracious. Some broke down in humble acknowledgement that they were part of a generation in which theirs was a voice of silence and they asked for forgiveness. Some were hard hitting and convicting. Many were honest and direct. A couple employed grandstanding and passionate, emotive rhetoric.
As a listener, especially a white listener, it was impossible to not feel some sense of guilt, discomfort and shame.
That is not a bad thing and perhaps it is timeous. Ignorance is never helpful. Ignorance never produces change, repentance or reconciliation.
Awareness is a good thing.
Awareness means acknowledgement and acknowledgement means action.
It means we cannot look the other way or cross the street or
switch off the TV or turn down the radio.
Awareness and acknowledgement mean we can no longer be silent. It means we speak up, we speak against and we speak for.
‘We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.’ [Martin Luther King Jr]
As the people of God, awareness and acknowledgement will not ignore discrimination and bigotry. When we become aware of prejudice and injustice we will stand and take a risk as Esther did in the Biblical narrative and as Martin Luther King Jr did in the 60s. God used Esther for such a time as that and the Jews were saved. He used John Newton and William Wilberforce in the early 18th century for the abolition of slavery in England and He used Martin Luther King Jr. for the overcoming of the Jim Crow segregation laws in the American South, ironically the Bible Belt of America.
‘He (Martin Luther King Jr) was used in the mighty hand of Providence to change the world so that the most appalling, blatant, degrading, public (and usually legal) expressions of racism have gone away.’ [John Piper]
We are called for such a time as this.
‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’
[Martin Luther King Jr]
Having said that, I am not sure that awareness, acknowledgement, apologies and action will ever be enough. Let me tell you why.
There was one talk that left me feeling as if I had unwillingly entered a boxing ring as an opponent and yet the speaker was the only one with gloves on. There was no love or grace; just pointed accusations, anger and blame. I was battered and bruised and it didn’t stop.
The crowds cheered as if this was what justice looked like. The blows were often accurate. At one level they were probably deserved, and they were delivered with practiced skill and strength.
The heart of the speaker on the stage represented the hearts of many in the audience and the hearts of many that we come across in the Church when it comes to this discussion of racism and ethnic unity.
‘Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.’
[Martin Luther King Jr]
The root of bitterness seems to have taken hold and Blame becomes the loudest voice in the room.
Blame says, ‘I am right and you are wrong.’
Blame says, ‘It is your fault, it is not mine.’
Blame says, ‘You need to change, I don’t.’
Blame says, ‘I don’t need to do anything, you need to fix everything.’
In your blame of me being white (because of what my whiteness represented historically as part of the oppressors), you are less likely to listen to me.
In my defensiveness of your blame of me, I am less likely to listen to you as the oppressed.
Checkmate. We will get nowhere.
It is not as simple as you being right and me being wrong. That has been established. It is how we go forward. We cannot only look in the rear view mirror of the past just as we cannot only focus on the road ahead.
Recognising the hurts and injustices of the past and finding a way to move forward will hugely impact how we deal with one another today. This will require patience and humility and will probably not be according to our timelines or agendas.
I recognise that your story, your history and your past are important and significant.
I need to care about the lines of hardship on your face, the sadness in
your eyes, the laugh lines around your lips, the stories of
your loss and the memories in your photo albums.
If I care, I will listen. When I listen, I will hear. When I hear, I will love. That is what Jesus calls me to do. Not what Martin Luther King calls me to do, but what Jesus calls me to do; to love my neighbour as myself.
We are all called to this sacrificial and forgiving love. Only then will we engage constructively and with empathy and understanding.
‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.’
[Martin Luther King Jr]
The phrase, ‘My ancestors were slaves,’ will always shut me up. I cannot compete with that. I have no voice and will never come out top in that conversation. That is an unfair fight based on legacy and imputed guilt.
Perhaps we should all hang up our gloves.
50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr had a dream. It was a good dream. He was murdered for that dream.
In eternity past, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit had a plan. It was a good plan. It was a plan of redemption, of reconciliation and of peace; peace with God the Father and peace with one another.
This past month we celebrated Christ’s death, 2000 years ago, where he drank the cup of bitterness and looked at his murderers and said, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Then, on the third day, He rose.
We, as the Church, peoples of all colour (black, brown and white), are bought by the price of Christ’s death. We live in the shadow of the cross in a way that will impact all our ideologies, our dreams and our missions. At the foot of the cross we are all equal. We wear the sandals of peace and the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts. We are forgiven. May we forgive one another.
‘We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.
When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.’
[Martin Luther King Jr]
We love because He first loved us. We love, not because it is deserved, but because Grace sings the Gospel tune. We forgive because we are forgiven.
We are a brotherhood and sisterhood of believers. May we overcome in the power of Christ and by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God.
'Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.' [Colossians 3:12-15]
I close with John Piper’s words from his closing speech at the MKL50 conference:
‘But my exhortation is this: Don’t try to put the blindness of the young Piper and the blindness of the young King in the balances and weigh them, hoping to find one less deadly than the other. You will not succeed. You did not come to this conference looking for help in choosing which sort of blindness you will die by.
Instead, look to yourselves. The remaining sin in every believer puts you and me in constant danger — ever liable to be blinded by the old and the new, the broad and the narrow, the left and the right, the progressive and the passé, the innovator and the traditionalist, the crusader and the coward. You have one hope to find a path that exalts Christ and does justice: namely, an infallible, Spirit-illumined Bible in the colourful community of the redeemed.’