With the election of Barak Obama, many people began to say that we live today in the United States is a post-racial society. After all, how could an African American be elected to the highest office in our land if we were hadn’t overcome our legacy of slavery and racial animosity?
I have to admit, in those heady days following Obama’s election in 2008 I too felt as if we had turned a huge page in our collective history, that someone we had left behind for good our troubling racial history.
But gradually, we began to hear people at all levels of society make comments that President Obama is not like us. Rumors about his faith and birthplace became a national obsession. Somehow Americans couldn’t accept the fact of a black family living in the White House.
Then there was Travon Martin. Then there was Michael Brown and Ferguson. Then there was Eric Garner in New York. Then there was Walter Scott in South Carolina. Then there was Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and the countless other stories of black men being killed by police. Then there was the shooting in Charleston of the nine people in the AME church and the subsequent national soul searching about the meaning of the confederate flag… And now we have a front runner for the one party’s nomination who openly and proudly denigrates Latino Americans.
For those of us in the liberal north white church, these events may seem far away. I think we like to pride ourselves that somehow the north is further along on the road to racial healing. But if you’re like me, you can recall over this past year instances of racism, some discreet; some overt, that remind us that right here in Newton racism is alive and well. A joke behind the closed doors of the boardroom or country club. A racist comment overheard in the locker room. Overt hostility expressed at a public meeting about “them” – whoever the “them” might be – moving into the neighborhood.
I think we are at a crucible moment about race in America. How we – as individuals and as a community of faith – choose to respond to this moment will shape the future of our community and of our nation for decades to come.
The church has a checkered history of responding at moments like this. At a similar moment in the 1960s, many churches stood on the sidelines at critical moments of the civil rights movement. There are many lessons to be learned from that experience, and we would do well to reflect on the history of that time.
This evening, I thought we’d recall the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous 1963 letter from the Birmingham Jail – a letter written while he was in prison directed at White church leaders who were quick to criticize King rather than come to side in solidarity. I’ve asked several folks to read excepts of the letter tonight:
You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express
a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.
One of the basic points in your statement is that our acts are untimely. Some have asked, “Why didn’t you give the new administration time to act?”
The only answer that I can give to this inquiry is that the new administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one before it acts… History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.
For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the
ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” … I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes
when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; …when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
LET me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership. … I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some
of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound…. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour….
I’m sure many of you have seen the bumper sticker that reads: commit senseless acts of beauty and random acts of kindness
I recently saw a variation on that I think speaks directly to the church today: “Practice random acts of resistance and senseless acts of solidarity.”
I believe the church today – and we its members – must commit itself and ourselves to resistance and solidarity if we are to meet the challenge of this hour.
Resistance to social and economic structures that not just tolerate but promote white privilege and white supremacy, and that keep in place extreme social and economic disparities.
Resistance to a consumer culture that justifies opulence for the few and rationalizes poverty for the many – all the while destroying the natural world that sustains all.
Solidarity with the marginalized, the undocumented, the disenfranchised.
Solidarity with the subversive memory of the church – a church that – in King’s words, possessed a “sacrificial spirit” — that can and will, I believe, re-animate our youth who, like in King’s time, see the church more as an irrelevant relic of ancient times.
Just as Jesus called his disciples on the shores of Lake Galilee 2000 years ago, Jesus calls us today, seated here in a chapel in Waban, to stop focusing on fishing for our own daily sustenance and follow him to become fishers of men. How will we respond? How will the church respond? May we have the courage in this day and age, to heed the call and join him and become fishers of men. Amen!