By Paul Baxley
As our congregations and our nations pause to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must recognize that this year marks the 60th anniversary of some of the most decisive moments in the Civil Rights Movement.
It was 60 years ago this spring that Dr. King began writing his now famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” addressed to eight white moderate religious leaders in Alabama. This August will mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and the delivery of Dr. King’s most repeated address “I Have a Dream.”
And it was 60 years ago that Dr. King called first on the church—particularly the white moderate church—and then on the world to embrace the dream of a world where people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
Sixty years later, we still live in a world torn apart by racial and economic injustice. These last several years have laid bare all the ways that injustice still exists and tears apart the fabric of America and our religious life. By any standard, the dream Dr. King voiced from the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963 is unrealized.
As I read the lesson from Isaiah utilized in many Christian congregations yesterday, I wondered if Dr. King would resonate deeply with Isaiah’s lament were he still alive today?
“I have labored in vain! I have spent my strength for nothing!” (Isaiah 49:4) I have heard that lament in the prayers and testimonies of black sisters and brothers in Christ.
Among the many messages Dr. King delivered to white moderate religious leaders in Birmingham was a frustration that, in calling upon their congregations to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court order desegregating schools, most ministers were telling church members to obey the law rather than affirming the bonds white and black Christians share in Christ.
Dr. King was deeply frustrated by the persistent perception that the quest for racial and economic justice were political causes rather than faith requirements. He took profound exception to the suggestion of the white moderate religious leaders in Birmingham that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were acting too quickly and dramatically. For these reasons, Dr. King expressed the belief that it was white moderates who were even more an obstacle to the cause of racial and economic justice than the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist movements.
In the days leading up to this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have had with new power the realization that if Dr. King were writing today, I could be among the named recipients to his letter. As a Cooperative Baptist pastor and leader, I could fairly be described as a white moderate (though I confess a lifelong struggle with the term “moderate,” but that’s a matter for another day!)
Many of our congregations occupy the places in our communities that the congregations in Birmingham occupied while being led by the pastors Dr. King addressed. What kind of response is required from white Christians today? It is not only Dr. King who awaits a response from eternity, but also our black sisters and brothers in our Fellowship and in our communities.
I believe that it is urgently important for Christians of every race and language to affirm that the quest for racial justice is not a political cause or a cultural trend. It is a Gospel mandate. The New Testament makes clear that Jesus crossed all boundaries of race and class in his public ministry, and he invited all to follow him on equal ground.
John 4 reminds us that Jesus commissioned a woman from Samaria to go and tell her friends and neighbors about him. Luke 10 captures Jesus’ powerful story about the Samaritan who was an instrument of healing for a Jewish man who had been beaten, robbed and left for dead. The life and ministry of Jesus gives warrant for the vision stated by Paul in Galatians that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female because “we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Acts tells us that the church was born when the Spirit fell on people from every nation who spoke many languages. Ever since our earliest days, the Gospel is not the property of any one race or nation. The Christmas angels made it clear that Jesus’ birth was “good news of great joy for all people.” Since then, ideologies like white supremacy have been heresy and white privilege has been sin.
The quest for racial justice and inclusion is not a political cause or a cultural trend, but instead a Gospel mandate. Christians do not have a choice whether we join the pursuit. We cannot choose to “opt in or opt out.” We do not join because the law requires or culture dictates. We do so because we gave our lives to Jesus in profession of faith and baptism, and we follow Jesus as Lord.
Micah’s words to the Hebrew people are true for disciples of Jesus. We are called to “do justice.” After all, Jesus told us his mission (and ours) was to bring release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.
The realization of racial justice requires a healing of our vision and a release for all who have been oppressed. It is not a calling we can put off until another time, nor
is it a dream for which people should have to wait. Christ’s call to mission is urgent and it is experienced in the here and now. Injustice is happening now, so faithfulness must come now.
When any preacher, Black or white, lifts her or his voice to call for racial justice, she or he is not “being political” in a narrow sense of that word. She or he is being faithful. Christians work for racial justice because we have sisters and brothers in Christ from every nation and of every race. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. These are faith affirmations that I believe all Christians, and particularly white Christians, are compelled to offer.
Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” requires a clear affirmation that racial justice is a Gospel mandate. But I also believe it compels each of us and each congregation of believers to search our hearts to discern how we are called to pursue racial justice and inclusion in the church and the world as part of Christ’s mission.
In our personal lives, we each have opportunities to seek justice. In personal and prayerful ways, those of us who are white can search our own lives and histories for ways we have either benefitted from white privilege or perpetuated it through action and speech, or inaction and silence. In concrete ways, those of us who are white can support black-owned businesses, historically black colleges and universities and seek to change systems and structures that deny opportunity based on race.
Beyond that, predominantly white congregations can seek genuine partnerships with black congregations for the transformation of congregations and communities. In those partnerships black leadership should be recognized and followed. In my own life as a person and pastor, and through the experiences of congregations I have served, I have seen transformation through genuinely just partnerships between black and white congregations. Partnerships that move beyond pulpit swaps and choir exchanges to community engagement alongside shared prayer and study.
The quest for racial justice in our lives, our congregations and our communities cannot simply be aspirational, and it cannot be affirmed in speech alone. The repair of the devastations of many generations requires different ways of thinking, feeling and acting.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, nearly 60 years after the writing of a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Christians and congregations have an opportunity to respond to Dr. King’s call for a Gospel witness and a transforming church. I pray you and I will have the courage to respond now.
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.