Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was minister and social activist who led the Civil Rights movement in the United States from the late 1950s until his assassination in 1968. Hailing from a family of pastors, King followed in his father’s vocation, studying at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and earning a doctorate at Boston University’s School of Theology.
King led the movement for less than 13 years, but in that short time, made a lasting impact on the racial, social, and economic inequality that divided America. He also contributed to world policy issues and was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. Dr. King is widely regarded as one of America’s preeminent advocates of non-violence and one of our foremost religious and civil leaders.
Leaning on his Christian faith, Dr. King led the movement to achieve legal equality for African-Americans in the United States. He organized grassroots campaigns, marches, and protests. He spoke at churches, town halls, and national monuments. His speeches and lectures are quoted in books and movies, and are engraved in monuments around the nation. He has been memorialized in hundreds of statues, parks, streets, and churches all around the world.
However, many forget that during his time leading the Civil Rights movement, MLK was regarded by many Americans as a troublemaker or agitator. People threatened him and his family, sent hate mail to his home, and physically beat him although he refused to engage their violence with violence.
In 1967, just a few years after winning the Nobel Peace prize, only 32 percent of Americans gave him a favorable rating, whereas 63 percent viewed him negatively. People were scared to see the country they knew grow and change, because it meant they might be uncomfortable or have to engage with the fact that there were privileges they had that others in America did not. The late 1960s were a pivotal point in American history, and crossroads for the American church, a time when those who believed in Jesus had to stand for what they knew God was calling all of his children to: do justly, walk humbly, love mercy.
50 years after MLK’s death, America is yet again at a crossroads. We are seeing people of all races, backgrounds, and abilities making the nation aware that they face discrimination and lack the same privileges as other Americans. Black and Native Americans are crying out for justice because of the disproportionate rate at which they are killed in police involved shootings, incarcerated, denied equal housing and education. Women are asking for their voices to be heard in the fight for equal pay and safe workplaces, free from sexual harassment and abuse. Those with disabilities are fighting for equal access and recognition. Dreamers are waiting with hope in their hearts, asking us to recognize their fight to stay in this country.
Stories of racial injustice flood our news feeds. Events like Charlottesville shock us, and then slowly become background noise to the day to day life we lead. Activists fill the streets, demonstrate, and protest. Many of us hear these stories and think to ourselves, “Why are people continuing to press this issue? Equal rights laws have been passed,” or “I am not racist. I love all people equally.” We don’t know how to engage racism, because to us, it only looks like people carrying torches, or shouting racial slurs. We miss the heart of the issue, which is that racism and prejudice don’t start with actions and words, they start at the heart of of preference and comfort. It isn’t just hate groups and the events on the news, racism is rooted in the ways that we have preferences or lean towards the comfort of sameness over being uncomfortable for the sake of the Gospel.
The Gospel calls us out of our own ideas of truth, into the true saving knowledge of the person and work of Jesus. It causes us to see God rightly, and to see ourselves rightly. It pulls us away from the weight of the yoke of sin and death and towards the life and freedom found only through trusting in Jesus.
There are many of us, however, who still choose to trust in our own knowledge and understanding. There are many of us who cling to the idols of comfort or control. Many who turn a deaf ear towards the words of our God when He says, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” II Chron 7:14 ESV
And when He says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Gal 5:13 ESV
So when I hear people say misleading, hurtful, or untrue information about the state of racism and discrimination in our country, my heart grows heavy.
When I see us discounting the very real and very present danger that minorities and other people groups still face in this country, my heart grows heavier still.
When I see people misuse the Gospel and scripture to justify their own ignorance, fear or sin; when I feel myself being drawn by the idol of comfort, or wandering away from saving arms of God.
When I see darkness trying to creep into places that only light should be that heaviness is multiplied.
When I see people ignore discussions on racism and social injustice or never even broach the topic because it doesn’t apply directly to them, I ask myself, “Is there more we can do? Is there more that the Gospel calls us to do?”
I am thankful for the people of all races and cultures who rally around the truth of the Gospel, who reach out to check on others, who stand arm in arm in community. Through your love, some of that heaviness is lifted.
I am thankful for signs of change, for hope rising, and for ground gained. However I am not unaware of how far we still have left to go, of how much more we have to overcome. I will not stop questioning our present reality until we see change. I will not lull myself into silence or passivity by checking out and not staying aware. I will not allow personal comfort or preference to keep me blind to the plight of the oppressed.
I will speak out, I will ask questions, I will dig deep. My heart will always be for justice, for those who are marginalized, maligned, and mistreated. The words of our Father are written on my heart, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Isa 1:17
I know that for me the answer to these issues sits fully in people’s hearts being awakened to the Gospel and reconciled to Jesus. However that will not happen without people becoming aware of the truth, His truth. That perfect love casts out all fear. That Jesus trumps racism, social injustice, bigotry, ignorance, and all manner of sin and darkness. That Christ is where our hope is found.