Article Jan 16, 2017

Where do we go from here? Racial reconciliation in 2017

Where do we go from here? That’s the question Martin Luther King, Jr. was forced to ask, and to answer, in the summer of 1967. Facing a civil rights movement in crisis and on the verge of fracturing, Dr. King found himself addressing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s annual meeting with that very question. The four years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom seemed like 40. While legislative victories had been achieved, the backlash had been fierce. Violence, hatred and anger had engulfed much of the country, and many within the movement were beginning to question the essence of King’s call to nonviolence as a form of direct action and protest.

There were those who thought that King’s leadership, vision and strategy had been displaced and rendered inadequate. Too many had died. Too many injustices remained untouched. Too much had been sacrificed in the name of peace and love. And hope was waning.

Fifty years later, at the beginning of a new year, many of us are asking the same question as Dr. King. Our country seems divided and polarized in 2017, engulfed in hostility, violence and rage. And unfortunately, our churches have not pressed against the spirit of the age, but have too often succumbed to it.                           

For those who yearn, pray and labor for racial reconciliation and justice within our churches and communities, where do we go from here?

The previous year was a painful one for many in our churches. That pain was often profoundly racialized. Too many families grieved the loss of a son, a husband, a father or brother who was gunned down. Too many children have cried themselves to sleep at night fearful for their mother or father’s safety simply because they wear a badge. We have witnessed a presidential election that too often drew out the worst in us, that deepened our divisions and animosities, even within our churches. And too many of us have been too quick to point out the speck in our brother’s eye, without recognizing the log in our own, succumbing to the drug of self-righteousness.

In the face of these circumstances, we might understand all too well what Dr. King meant when he alluded to the likelihood that “the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair.” And under that fatigue, we might be tempted to abandon the call to reconciliation and justice.

Our current moment is a kairos moment for our churches, a moment of opportunity. Will we run to our racialized corners and allow the cynics to say, “See? You should have known better. Maybe segregated churches are just an inevitable reality.” If we do, we’ll miss the opportunity. And we will, I assure you, give an account to God for our witness, our passivity and our silence.

The fierce urgency of now

In his famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and famously spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” in the pursuit of racial justice. King himself had voiced this same urgency in his own springtime epistle of the same year. Writing from a Birmingham jail cell in the spring of 1963, King explained to a group of white moderate religious leaders in the city why the civil rights movement saw the demand for public justice to be a matter of immediacy, rather than gradualism.

Prompted by the Birmingham’s white religious leaders’ public call for moderation and “patience” in the slow and gradual work of desegregation, King issued a blistering and prophetic rejoinder. He rightly denounced the hypocrisy and inconsistency in such a demand, let alone the profoundly sub-Christian ethos underlying it. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people,” he wrote, “but for the appalling silence of the good people.”[1]

While his critics seemed to assume that the “wheels of inevitability” would bring about progress, King recognized that the call to direct action was one deeply rooted in a realistic and biblical vision of the world and God’s purposes. And that made him grieve for the apathy and silence of the church in America.

That urgency has not changed. America has changed in profound ways, to be sure. But 2016 proved that the power of racialization is still clear and present, not merely in our national life, but within our churches. We are still “divided by faith.” And yet there are still voices who will claim that racial reconciliation in our churches is not a matter of urgent gospel priority, or that we can assume that it will happen on its own, as if by the forces of historical inertia.

The gospel calls us to something far greater though. The good news of reconciliation with God and with one another is a call to obedience. Because of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ, we are called to the path of discipleship. And that path is one of action.

Stick with love

By the time King delivered his SCLC address in the summer of 1967, the nation had changed. And not entirely for the better. The anger, hatred and violence that marked every corner of the country seemed to be encroaching and the very soul of the civil rights movement was at stake.

While many were disillusioned, frustrated and angry, King famously went back to the primacy of love.         

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems. And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I've seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I've seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.[2]

For many of us, the past year has not been one that had engendered optimism about the future of racial justice and reconciliation in this country, or in our churches. In recent months, I have spoken with many Christians of diverse racial and ethnic identities who have battled cynicism. In the wake of all we experienced in 2016, they have lost hope that American Christianity can be redeemed, that our witness for the gospel in this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) will ever testify to the reality of God’s commitment to justice and reconciliation. They are discouraged and skeptical that this might ever happen. And they are profoundly tired. And I think I understand, even if imperfectly, why they feel that way.

So what will be needed in the days ahead? Simple optimism is bankrupt and unable to anchor us. But there is something deeper, something more enduring than optimism: hope. When optimism collapses under the weight of reality and pain, hope presses on. And there is love. When cynicism and fatigue press in, love is a ballast; love for God, love for neighbor.

In an age marked by incivility and polarization, what if the church led the way in love? When it comes to pursuing racial reconciliation, we may not always agree on the right step to take next. We will misunderstand one another and even offend one another. And quite often, our hearts will break as we walk the path of reconciliation.

Our churches, denominations and institutions are vulnerable to the pressures of anger, hatred and bitterness in a season like this. Self-righteousness is always lurking, telling us of our moral superiority and blinding us to the scandal of grace. And when all of this swirls together, it’s hard to smell much of the “aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15).

The Apostle Paul understood this. In the midst of horrific suffering and the constant attacks of his enemies (even many critics from within the church!), he held up the priority of love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

That’s the path forward for our churches as we press on toward the vision of racial justice and reconciliation. This is the path of the risen Christ, who calls us to himself and to one another. And we will only walk the path if we “stick with love.”

Notes

  1. ^ “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986).
  2. ^ “Where Do We Go from Here?,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986).