Today my university’s Intercultural Development Office hosted a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day program over lunch and into the afternoon. I just got back from it, and wanted to write out a few reflections before I get busy again or forget. None of these are very insightful, but even regular truths can be important to remember. Here are four.
Giving a platform to black people does not require us to stoop low. Sometimes it is thought that picking speakers “because diversity” means that more qualified white people are left out. I sometimes think this. But today reminds me that there are equally-qualified black people who can speak and lead. I was thinking about this throughout the program, which intentionally had a diverse speaking lineup. I also thought about this earlier in the morning as I read an article from Thabiti Anyabwile on the TGC website. He is such a qualified speaker and writer. I ask myself, “why aren’t there any theologically conservative black pastors?” but the answer is clearly “they are out there, but we don’t usually listen to them.” Maybe another Kevin DeYoung or Matt Chandler lies in the wings, but if they are, they will rise up anyways. So, give black people the platform every once in a while. Even if it hurts our pride and feelings of supremacy, it won’t hurt the message preached.
Justice can require personal sacrifice. Today I sacrificed four and half hours of my time, and the opportunity to finish an essay that could have won me $250 in a paper competition on campus. Those sting. But getting to hear the perspective of my black peers outweighs the loss. Being there, as a white student, means something — that their voices aren’t just bouncing around an echo chamber. But man I wanted to submit that paper. I spent the past week on it, and 10:00-1:30 this morning at O’Hare while I waited for my ride, writing the paper. The clear parable, obviously, is that you should do what you can for racial justice even if it stings. Also I’d add that justice can require getting uncomfortable, like talking to people you don’t really know (e.g., every black student and every white student on campus to each other). Or it could mean not speaking up to share my opinion, when I’m the boisterous, extroverted, verbal-processing guy who always speaks up.
Love remains the motivation. The middle of the program was a reading of King’s “Paul’s Letter to the American Church.” Here is the text, it is worth reading. He mimics Paul’s tone and style but addresses the American Church in the 1950’s, not Rome in the 0050’s. Near the end he gets around to reframing the Love passage from 1 Corinthians 13 into his day. Here’s the relevant bit:
I must bring my writing to a close now. Timothy is waiting to deliver this letter, and I must take leave for another church. But just before leaving, I must say to you, as I said to the church at Corinth, that I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicurean and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summon bonum of life? I think I have an answer America. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, “God is love.” He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.
So American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language. You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech. But even if you “speak with the tongues of man and angels, and have not love, you are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding all mysteries. You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that men never dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love.
But even more Americans, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love it means nothing. You may even give your body to be burned, and die the death of a martyr. Your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as history’s supreme hero. But even so, if you have not love your blood was spilt in vain. You must come to see that it is possible for a man to be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. He may be generous in order to feed his ego and pious in order to feed his pride. Man has the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride.
So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power drunk generation that love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.
Maybe this can be added to the list of differences between King and Malcolm X. I think it also stands in sharp contrast to the way that people think about racial issues today. Today we think of protesters and activists who are frustrated with the system, who say disparaging things about “white people” generally (though often this is a misinterpretation of the point being made), who are more about getting justice by putting down the privileged classes rather than getting justice by expressing love to them. Here is a fair example of what I think King would do today. This comes from love, not resentment.
Its also worth pointing out that love for a black person as such isn’t really love of them, its a love of their skin color and upbringing. Which is not really love for them. So while this doesn’t scale on to the policy level, it does apply on a person-to-person level. It applies for me in the Trinity community. I’m really open to being friends with black students on campus (current number of black friends = zero) (and that is not unique to me or below average for white students). But I’ve got to make sure that it is because of them themselves, not some heteronomous factor like my belief in diversity.
Racial justice is not just secular. During this morning’s daily perusal through the TGC website I also read Russell Moore’s new post about Dr. King. Here is the relevant bit:
King’s understanding of human dignity was founded upon the Christian Scriptures. As the struggle for civil rights advanced on multiple fronts, he spoke courageously from this foundation. In the political realm, Dr. King pointed out how the American system was inconsistent with Jeffersonian principles of the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Americans had to choose: be an American (as defined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence), or be a white supremacist; you can’t be both.
But the civil rights movement was, at its core, also an ecclesial movement. King was, after all, “Rev. King” and many of those marching with him, singing before him, listening to him, were Christian clergy and laity. To the churches, especially the churches of the South, the civil rights pioneers sent a similar message to the one they sent to the governmental powers. You have to choose: be a Christian (as defined by the Scripture and the small “c” catholic apostolic tradition), or be a white supremacist; you can’t be both.
Segregation, like slavery, was shown to be what all human consciences already knew it to be: not just a political injustice or a social inequity (although certainly that) but also a sin against God and neighbor and a repudiation of the gospel. For conservative Christians, and especially Southern Baptists, we must be careful to remember the ways in which our cultural anthropology perverted our soteriology and ecclesiology. It is to our shame that we ignored our own doctrines to advance something as clearly demonic as racial pride.
My public school upbringing did not showcase this side of King. But he was a pastor, and drew on Biblical imagery and principles not just as rhetorical fluff or pandering to a Christian audience; it is usually the core of his arguments.
Likewise our motivation for racial justice today should not be from non-Christian principles. Why would that be necessary? We’ve got everything we need in human dignity and autonomy, the spiritual equality of all people under Adam (and in Christ), a theology of the nations, and love for neighbor.
I am going to be a pastor in a few years and will stand face-to-face before a 90+% white audience to deliver my first pastoral sermon. That will be an interesting time. As king points out in the sermon above, 11:00 on a Sunday morning is the most segregated time in American Christianity. I’m not sure what I’ll do to seek racial desegregation in that church where I will work. I have no idea. But King reminds me that it doesn’t take much of a theological stretch for a Christian to do that. Just a willing heart. The principles are already there; will I do anything with them?