How Christians ought to respond to major debates in society is always an issue. Some current examples are same-sex marriage, abortion, the war on terrorism, and U.S. immigration policy. We form our positions based on our backgrounds and religious beliefs, but since our faith traditions differ widely, we are often all over the map just as much as people of other faiths or even agnostics or atheists.
Regardless of the sides Christians take, how we address and confront others is an important indicator of our relationship with God. It reflects how our lights are shining or not shining. When we exercise our right to protest, are we yelling at each other? Do we understand the difference between critical analysis, criticism, and judging? A judge is one who has the authority to render punishment upon someone who has broken a law. Are we holding up signs that damn to a hell those who disagree with us or whose behavior we disagree with, even though we own no hell to send them to? Isn’t this why Jesus, the ultimate judge, warned us not to judge? Are we seeking first to model ourselves after Jesus and how He would have us to address these critical issues of our time?
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the author of “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”, exemplified a direct and gracious way to communicate when we disagree with our conversation partners. (Photo Credit: ClarksvilleOnline.com)
Fifty years ago during the civil rights movement, one of the most contentious moments in America’s history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for a nonviolent protest in Birmingham. Many who were against him were fellow Christians who felt his methods were too radical—even ungodly. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King addressed his fellow brothers and sisters directly. In the rhetorical tradition of African American Jeremiads, Dr. King eloquently cried out for justice by using rational, biblically grounded arguments to defend the cause of the civil rights movement. He wrote:
“A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”
Dr. King also defended his methods and behavior. He wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham.”
Dr. King had modeled the “ladder of hope” outlined in 2 Peter 1:4-14 We must have faith in what we believe and that we can accomplish all things through Christ. We need knowledge to apply that faith, so we ought to thoroughly educate ourselves regarding all sides of the issues we are confronting before we act. This faith and knowledge should prepare us to be self-controlled and respectful toward our fellow human beings—to be nonviolent in our interaction and, if necessary, confrontation. We will have the ability to persevere in a way that honors God in our positions and everything we do. And when people who do not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior see our behavior, they should see not hate, but God’s love in us – even if disagreement remains.
And so, as we confront the issues of the day, no matter how much our individual passions are riled, perhaps we Christians, as varied as we are, should remember to consider what we should be modeling. We should model our speech after the direct, but loving conversational approach of Jesus.
Sixx King protesting black on black violence in Center City, Philadelphia. (Photo credit: Victor Florillo/The Philly Post)
A black man dresses in a Ku Klux Klan robe and stands on a corner in Center City, Philadelphia holding a sign? He must have been out of his mind. Actually, the man, Sixx King, was absolutely on point and this black man applauds him. King used a provocative symbolism to draw attention to the tragedy of young black males killing each other.
“We’re bringing awareness to the black hypocrisy, complacency and apathy in the African-American community,” King, 35, told the news media. His sign read that the KKK killed 3,446 blacks in 86 years, but black on black murders eclipses that number every six months. More than 7,000 blacks were killed in 2011, according the FBI.
Reaction to King has been predictable. Many agree, while others have expressed outrage. Someone reportedly suggested that he be jailed. This is the challenge when you provoke people to think differently about the root of the problem – institutional racism and how we respond.
I can hear you crying, “Throwing the race card, again? Take responsibility for your actions!” But here’s an anology to ponder: If you put a loaf of bread inside of a warm, dark moist place, what will happen to it? You’ll get mold. It doesn’t matter if it’s white bread or brown bread. Because they are both wheat, mold will grow.
Black men murdering each other is one of the “molds” of institutional racism. It’s not just a black problem, it’s an American problem. Carter G. Woodson wrote about this in The Mis-Education of the Negro: “If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself.”
Institutional racism has been well documented and analyzed. What’s needed is a 21st century solution. The church has the answer, but it has been hypocritical, complacent and apathic. It’s way past time that the church reawaken and lead the community.
The Bible instructs us “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Public education, the family, and the church are the institutions in America that deal most with developing the mind. Racism permeates public education, which is why it is failing black and brown children at alarming rates. Without positive family and community support or the individual inner drive to overcome institutional racism, students and their teachers succomb. The direct correlation between low academic achievement and high prison rates is not a mistake.
The church can directly influence individuals, families, and provide a counterbalance that transforms public education. The church is where slaves often learned to read. Churches set up schools for freed blacks after the Civil War. In the basement of churches is where civil rights activists trained. But with a few exceptions, the modern church, for the most part, has chosen to become irrelevant to many of our young brothers in the ‘hood. The “street mentality” (mold created by institutional racism) has filled the void.
Institutional racism, says, in part, that one group of people (particularly white males) is superior to everyone else because of skin color. It says that black people are the opposite of white, so black people are inferior, even subhuman. Native Americans, Hispanics, any non-white group is devalued. Sure, this is no longer legal and blatant, but the mindset remains pervasive throughout every institution in America, including the church. Individually, we either buy into the mindset or spend a lifetime battling to overcome it.
Across the globe, regardless of skin color, self-destructive behavior is a natural reaction to oppression. It’s as natural as mold growing on bread. Institutional racism molds how we all think. How we think triggers the decisions we make and how we act. Behavior is learned. Young black men are NOT born with a “kill each other” gene, and young white men are NOT genetically predestined for healthier and longer lives. But when you are constantly fed that your brother has no value and you digest this mindset as fact, it’s much easier to pull the trigger or turn a blind eye to his death.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who faced the real KKK, eloquently and skillfully analyzed our American problem. He spelled out solutions. Please read the letter carefully and apply it. Like brother King’s message in Philadelphias MLK’s letter challenged the church to BE the church of God. We are the institution with the power to transform minds. The time is now.
For more information on this topic, visit Another View, a weekly radio program and news roundtable in Hampton Roads, Virginia.