Where do we go from here? Racial reconciliation in 2017

January 16, 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.”


  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).

Matthew J. Hall

Matthew J. Hall was appointed as provost and senior vice president for academic administration of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in April 2019. Previously, Hall served as dean of Boyce College in 2016 and senior vice president of academic strategy at Southern Seminary. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24