Why I March in January
to my comments about attending the events on Martin Luther King Day,
someone wrote to me on an email list:
“I wasn’t planning to respond on this, but . . . racism is not the unforgivable sin . . King didn’t even sound like he could affirm the Apostles Creed . . . Adultery/fornication automatically disqualifies you for the ministry, whether you are Jimmy Swaggart, MLK, Jesse J, Jimmy Bakker or whoever. MLK might have been a Christian, but he had no right to be called a minister, period. He disqualified hisself. Nobody else did, much less any racist white folks . . . Nor is this to deny that God can judge this nation . . . by visiting a fraud/hypocrite/opportunist of sorts like MLK upon it . . . and MLK was not a communist/socialist, right? Still everybody today knows that the only racist act in town is the white folks. That’s the real lesson of all the MLK Day festivities out there on the street if you can read between the lines of the media propaganda, much less ignore it and look for yourself.”
Below is my response.
Your thinking probably represents that of a lot of White Americans. Racism is still quite pervasive. And yes, I agree that it is very much present in the Black community, just as it is in the White. You are also correct: when the press touches on racism today, it generally focuses on that of Whites. Of course, that’s quite a change from the time when Walter Cronkite mocked Dr. King on national television.
I am a Protestant minister who holds to the infallibility of the Bible, confessing that it is the only rule for faith and life. I try to preach expository sermons that are true to the text and hit people where they live, even though I often fall very short of that ideal. Twenty years ago our congregation established a Christian school that now has close to five hundred students. We strive for academic excellence, do our best to provide scholarships for children from poorer homes, and we endeavor to teach our students a biblical world and life view, particularly in our high school, so I tend to attract a pretty conservative audience to the congregation I serve.
Younger people aren’t bothered by my joining with leaders in the African-American community trying to work for the welfare of our community, even though I am often the only White involved—as, for example, about six months ago, when about thirty of us met with our mayor asking him to appoint a particular African-American man as the next chief of police—he’s to make the announcement the end of this week, January 23, 2004, and I’m praying for him. Older folks, particularly those who have read extensively, aren’t particularly bothered by my trying to be a bridge between our two, divided communities, but many of them have been disturbed by my very visible presence at Martin Luther King Day events, especially back when I was the key-note speaker, and my remarks ended up on television and in the newspaper.
I’ve had people try to get rid of me. A couple of decades ago, I was very involved on the opposite side of the fence from the Executive Director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention—I favored children being able to lead in prayer in the public schools; he came out against this, believing there should be no public prayers in the public school system. The old gentleman, a fellow Rotarian, quietly went to work on one of my elders, the president of a bank, trying to undermine his relationship with me. I guess this was his method in dealing with Baptist preachers who got out of line or who didn’t wholeheartedly support the Cooperative Program, and he thought it would work with the Presbyterians, too. (I don’t know; it isn’t my place to know his heart, but I believe he’s with Jesus along with my elder, and everything’s been put right.) That elder knew that I was committed to the Bible and telling the truth, and he knew I loved him, so he quietly dismissed that inveigling denominational bureaucrat and reported the incident to me. That state head of the Baptists is now dead, and I’m still very much alive, immortal until God’s purpose for me is done. When I was called to preach, the Lord impressed me with Jeremiah 1:19, ‘“They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.’
I’m sure quite a few of my folks have been embarrassed by me here and there over the years—one of my elders was once humiliated and quite angry when he brought a wealthy couple to church—they owned a good-sized manufacturing company, and he wanted them to be impressed. But that morning I broke down and wept in the pulpit. (It was the only time that I remember doing that, but I was preaching on hell and simply lost control.)
I try to do my pastoral work diligently, so these same folk know that I love them. I get up and go in the middle of the night when they call. I visit them when they’re sick, in trouble or have a tragedy. I don’t say “no” to their requests unless the request would require me to sin. I’ve cut short a vacation to come back to do a funeral. I took seriously what I was told years ago: a congregation will put up with a whole lot if they know their pastor loves them.
Bottom line . . . I guess a few of them view me like an old, kind, generous uncle who’s a little bit crazy once in a while, but most of the time he’s the person they call when they’re in a fix. I buy the right to be brazenly bold by letting folks walk all over me on all the things that don’t really matter.
Probably my closest male friend was the Central Louisiana leader of the John Birch Society a few years back, and he has passed on a lot of things about Martin Luther King to me. Every year he gives me a subscription to The New American, and I enjoy reading some of its insightful articles. So what is my response to him?
For most African-Americans, the national Martin Luther King Day holiday is symbolic of the beginning of hope in overcoming several hundred years of oppression within America. It isn’t so much about a man, but about an ideal of freedom. In Central Louisiana, it takes on a thoroughly Evangelical tone. In America, government approved oppression denied Blacks the right not only to read and write, but sometimes even forbad them legally to marry each other.
Now, I will say this to anybody: that’s as wicked as hell. It’s damnable, and it has left America with the legacy of pandemic bastardy. As I see the influence of the worst elements of this youth-driven sub-culture conquering the dying remnants of the Christian elements of an older American culture, especially with regard to the sanctity of marriage, I am reminded that the Lord our God is a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 20:5.) Does 2 Samuel 21:1-14 have anything to say to us in America today, other than, “Thank God, I’m under the New Covenant!”? God had cursed the Israelites because of something that a leader had done a generation ago, people were now suffering the consequences and God refused to hear their prayers until things were made right. As I come to the chilling implications of 2 Samuel 21:14 (“After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.”), I understand that I am affected by what my ancestors and federal representatives did long before my time. It makes me wonder if systemic racism isn’t a curse on American society just like abortion and public sodomy.
For me, marching in our city’s annual Martin Luther King Day parade is like saluting the American flag—the flag of a nation that has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ in its Constitution, a nation whose national leaders have included a lot of notorious, godless men—adulterers and murderers, like the victorious Union cavalry that committed genocide against the Native Americans of the Western Plains. But I still love America and haven’t quit praying the words of the early twentieth century hymn:
“O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!”
Was Dr. King guilty of so much of what his critics say and even some of his friends acknowledge? Probably so. I attended Dr. King’s funeral back in 1968; it was a statement to those around me, just as my marching is today. As a White, Southern male, I acknowledge that I have been greatly influenced by what my ancestors bequeathed to me. I stand in solidarity with them, owning up, not only to their virtues, but to their failures as well. In no small way, I see my actions not unlike the prayer of Daniel:
“O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land . . . O LORD, we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you.” (Daniel 9:4-8.)
I stand in solidarity with a whole nation—perhaps the best nation that has ever been, but one nonetheless deeply flawed from its inception—I acknowledge my corporate, federal connection with this nation, not only now, but with its history, a wonderful and inspiring history of freedom under law, but also a history written with the blood of those whom it has oppressed and enslaved and from whom it has stolen.
Dr. King’s written statements represent a variety of theological positions. Sadly, it’s easy to find things that he wrote that are contrary to biblical Christianity. Like most students, he tried to impress his teachers and obtain good grades. He wrote to win over some of the theologically liberal professors he had at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University. I remember back in the sixties getting a perfect score on my zoology final because I so perfectly traced my professor’s particular theory of evolution with so many intricate details put down to prove it. Did I believe what I wrote in those three hours? No, but I lacked the intellectual firepower to take on my professor and still get a good grade, so I hid a little statement within, just as a conscience salve. Most folk don’t do that; they just vomit back what the professor has laid out. In saying that, I’m not saying that Dr. King was a thorough-going, consistent, conservative Protestant Evangelical, but he did confess Jesus Christ, notwithstanding everything else.
Was he guilty of adultery? I wasn’t there; I don’t know. But his close friend, Ralph David Abernathy, said that he was. I’ve known more than one White conservative minister who committed adultery, and they’re still in the pulpit. (I don’t know why, but folks seem to seek me out and tell me what’s going on in their lives, even at a general assembly or presbytery meeting. I guess they know that I’ll really listen to them, keep it to myself, tell them the unvarnished truth and pray for them.)
Were some of the Whites who reached out to Dr. King communists? Did they reach out to him not because they cared about the plight of Blacks, but because they sought to destabilize America during the Cold War? Probably so. Where were all those Whites who “believed the Bible” back then? They mocked Blacks and refused to allow them to attend White houses of worship—at least that was my experience in South Carolina, when my Daddy voted with the rest of the elders to refuse admittance to Blacks.
There have been three mainstream, Black approaches to overcoming the egregious, violent oppression of the American system: that of Booker T. Washington, that of Martin Luther King and that of Malcolm X. (Malcolm Little.)
Dr. Washington and Dr. George Washington Carver sought to help Black folks without confronting the sins of the American system.
Malcolm X sought to help Black folks by confronting the sins of the American system, By Any Means Necessary, including a willingness to use physical violence.
Dr. King sought to help Black folks by confronting the sins of the American system honestly but without violence. He sought self-consciously to instill the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ when he would speak to prepare people for the outpouring of rage they were soon to experience as they publicly confronted evil.
As I think about those three methods, I land squarely with Dr. King. He cited Gandhi, to be sure, but he walked in the methods of the New Testament in confronting public evil—not unlike the way the Apostle Paul did. Saint Paul forced the Philippian government officials to come to the jail and publicly acknowledge what they had done; he didn’t take up arms against them, but he did confront them: ‘But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”’ (Acts 16:37.)
Dr. King’s good impact on the American system reminds me of the elegant, eloquent, open letter of the late A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. (It is well worth reading.) Judge Higginbotham wrote to the young African-American judge, Clarence Thomas, who was about to take Thurgood Marshall’s seat on the United States Supreme Court, reminding him that he stood today on the shoulders of those who had sacrificed so much. His words remind me of Dr. King’s dream at the Lincoln Memorial back on August 28, 1963:
‘I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
‘I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
‘I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
‘I have a dream today.’
So, I’ll continue to salute the flag and to march in memory of Dr. King. I hope you’ll consider doing so yourself next year.
Cordially in Christ,