Like everyone else, I’m grateful for a 3-day weekend, thanks to Martin Luther King Day observance. It has given me the chance to take my daughter to a volleyball tournament, where she is playing teams from several nearby states. That’s great. I love it.
But there has to be more to this weekend than a day off and playing volleyball. If that’s what we’ve reduced MLK’s legacy to, then shame on us.
So, on the drive from Bend to Eugene, Oregon, we took time to listen to some of the good reverend doctor’s speeches.
I didn’t realize how dangerous it is to listen to MLK while driving. Not only are his words dangerously subversive to our culture, weeping while you drive on winding wintery roads is not a recipe for road safety.
We were silent for several minutes after listening to King’s landmark and best-known “I Have a Dream” speech, given on Aug, 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But when I could finally trust my voice to not catch when speaking, my 16-year-old daughter and I began to talk.
The conversation ranged widely from the personal to the cultural and the theological.
Although we live in the very white community of Bend, my daughter’s best friend is African-American. And when I pastored in the almost equally white town of Lebanon on the other side of the mountains, my youth pastor was the amazing Faith Nehila, also black (and almost assuredly the only black person on staff at any church in the county).
But even though we have close personal friends who are black, we recognize that we share in the responsibility for continuing racial tensions in our country. Good behavior on our part doesn’t exempt us from responsibility for our community’s sins.
In Wendell Berry’s excellent novel Andy Catlett: Early Travels, he has the elderly Andy reflecting back on a weekend spent at the homes of both his pairs of grandparents when a 9-year-old boy toward the end of World War II in 1943. Part of those reflections are about race relations.
The young Andy has real affection for one grandfather’s black hired hand, but as elderly Andy reflects back on it, he recognizes that though there was affection all around, there was also an entrenched racism expressed in both economic and employment realities — realities they perpetuated without even noticing them.
Affection is not enough. A lack of hostility is not enough. There must be a recognition of the sins of the fathers and a real effort to make the changes necessary for redemption to take place.
When someone has been pushed down, it’s not enough to stop pushing. You need to pick him up.
When a person walks away from another, it’s not enough to stop walking. If there is to be a relationship, you need to walk back.
When you’ve embezzled, it’s not enough to stop stealing. You need to give back.
This is why in the Scriptures Zacchaeus doesn’t just stop over-charging with his tax collecting, he gives back what he’s stolen (Luke 19:1-10).
This is why it was such a big deal to the early church that both Jews and non-Jews would eat together. This is why the apostles appointed seven Greek-speaking men to oversee the distribution of support to the widows in the early Christian community, when charges of racism had arisen (Acts 6:1-6).
Race relations are an issue in Paul’s reprimand of Peter in Galatians 1, in Paul’s reflections on unity and the tearing down of the wall of hostility in Ephesians 2-3, and in Paul’s theologizing throughout almost all of Romans. [More on destroying the “wall of hostility” here.]
After hundreds of years of tensions between Jews and non-Jews as seen in the Old Testament, it was essential for the early Christians to make concerted efforts to bridge the gap. And history shows us that they were so successful at this that within a generation, there were more non-Jews within the Christian community than Jews — and this after Christianity started out as an entirely Jewish movement.
It wasn’t just Paul with his missionary trips that brought about this change, it was the council in Jerusalem and the everyday witness of unnamed followers of Jesus.
As the entire Bible attests, Christianity is a movement that has reconciliation at its heart. And not the reconciliation between humans and God, but between husband and wife, between siblings, and, yes, between ethic groups.
[More on the importance of having this wider range of the biblical mission here.]
Martin Luther King’s vision wasn’t just a humanistic one, it was a theological vision, a biblical vision. Beyond the call for equal rights was a desire for brotherhood. If we are to realize his Scripture-rooted vision, we must embrace one another with affection on an equal footing, unwilling to smile down from above.
And doing so will require us to take responsibility for righting wrongs we ourselves didn’t commit, but acting with the same moral imperative we’d have if we had committed them.
Yes, all lives matter. But we do not dilute our need to emphasize that #BlackLivesMatter when they haven’t mattered enough for far too long.
We need to listen. We need to love. We need to take responsibility for change. We ourselves need to be changed. For God has made us brothers and sisters.