Last week saw two major days almost intersect with each other, the Inauguration and Martin Luther King Day, coincidentally in the sense that neither event was planned to relate to the other. Nevertheless, Martin Luther King Day could easily be the more important of the days and has much to say in regard to the Presidency and the conduct of public business in America.
Unfortunately, Martin Luther King Day has been essentially stolen from the man who it celebrates and, indeed, from all of us. It has become almost a mirror opposite of his teachings. A foreign observer of the contemporary celebration of the day could be forgiven for thinking it was “Black Americans Day.” The parades and public observances are attended primarily by African-Americans. Blacks celebrate the occasion and the rest of the citizens get a day off.
Many of us remember when it was Dr. King himself marching in the parades. Some of us joined with him. Kiddies, those of you who weren’t around then, I can tell you the parades then were not the current cheerful, if sparsely attended, gatherings of today. They were tense, sometimes dangerous, and they had a purpose. What this great man and those around him achieved, precipitated real change. It challenged America to confront the ugly reality of its racism and live up to the rhetoric of its proclaimed dreams. Real change happened, not as much as it should have but far more than it ever had before.
The day was set aside to remember the man and keep alive his teachings. African-Americans have good reason to commemorate it. The Civil Rights movement ended public segregation, made possible new levels of job opportunities, inter-racial dating and marriage, enhanced educational opportunities, the chance for a black person to be President, a whole host of things that many today simply take for granted, but which were hard won achievements. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God”(Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April, 1963). And it can be added, such progress can be lost if a new generation is not vigilant in protecting it.
But to stop there is to miss the point. Dr. King wanted to transcend race, not enhance it. His values and teachings are for all of us. They are not uniquely Black values, but they are specifically Christian values. If anyone should regard Martin Luther King Day as worthy of celebrating, it should be Christians. He saw the brotherhood of man in the image of God as the reason why race should not divide us. His motivation was not political correctness but Christian love. “When you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of everything. The person that hates you most has some good in him” (Sermon, Baxter Ave. Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, 1957).
That motivation based on God’s love was about more than race. Dr. King attacked poverty without regard to race, the war in Vietnam and the ills of a society which still regarded itself as a Christian nation, but lacked the Christian substance. Both his method (non-violence) and motivation (God’s love) come directly from Jesus Christ. That is why to rob the rest of Americans of a meaningful celebration of the day, beyond the African-American community, is a great moral crime.
How does all this impact that other event last week? That day reflected, unfortunately the racial divide which Dr. King gave his life to erase. Start with that about 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. About 80% of black and Latino Evangelicals chose Mrs. Clinton. Clearly, American Christians react to the message of Jesus through different filters, driven by ethnicity, not Christianity. Even when motivated by Faith, there is a disquieting paradox. Many who voted primarily because they are disturbed by violence against the unborn are yet supportive of the 26,171 bombs the U.S. military dropped on the already born in 2016. Many who abhor the tragedy of combat have little interest in the fate of the unborn. This same divide among active Christians slashes across economic, social benefit, educational, justice and health issues. It cannot be explained away by pigeonholing into camps labeled “liberal” or “conservative” theology.
In response, we need to restore Martin Luther King Day as a day to celebrate and promote his values, Christian values. Black lives thus matter, reflecting the image of God. I remember Rosa Parks’ comment that she drew her courage to act boldly from a high school teacher’s observation to her: “You are a child of God. You can do great things.” But this can never be exclusive. To God, all lives matter, of all races, foreign and domestic, born and unborn. The earth is the Lord’s and within it he has created each and every one of us. If you want to perpetuate racism, emphasize one race only. If you want to listen to Dr. King, emphasize that we are all, like Rosa Parks, children of God.
Dr. King’s Lord, Jesus Christ, also transcends race. The latter makes clear that his sacrifice and salvation are for all people, not limited to the Jewish nation. As his church developed, St. Paul clarifies the usual human divisions of race, ethnicity, gender and economic status are all transcended (Galatians 3:28). That we still struggle with these categories, not only as Americans but as Christian Americans, witnesses only to how far we remain from being a Christian nation, and even from being Christians in the nation, determined to witness to the transcending nature of Christ among us.
Therefore, Martin Luther King Day needs to be a day of repentance, knowing how far our nation is from the unifying dream of Dr. King, based on the universal image of God we have all been given, and the love of Jesus Christ, which we have all been offered. Then, let us enthusiastically celebrate the Day for what it is, the commemoration of an American Christian prophet of God’s love. “The strong person is the one who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil” (Sermon at Dexter Ave. Baptist).
The hope for this poor nation is solely in putting those two days from last week together, an inauguration of the common dream. All of us, as Christians, need to be as bold as Dr. King in proclaiming that dream, which is God’s dream, too.