“Racial Tensions” or an affront to the Gospel?: White Christians against Martin Luther King Jr.

Rachel Held Evans has a post on white forgetfulness (She says Christian but she means white Christian) when it comes to our honoring of Martin Luther King Jr.

As we come to the close of this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I won’t focus on the above mentioned forgetfulness but seek to do what Rachel Held Evans suggests but didn’t do, read and examine both King and his opponents, in the letter of the 7 white and one Jewish clergymen and Kings response the  Letter from Birmingham jail.

First I think we should name who these clergy were and their affiliations and not just say 8 clergy.

C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D. Bishop of Alabama. Joseph A. Durick, D.D. Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman , Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama, Bishop Paul Hardin Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church,George M. Murray, D.D., LL.DBishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States, Earl Stallings Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

They represent the mainline denominations Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. They aren’t local clergy but members of the hierarchies. These are men of authority and power within their denominations not simply rank and file clergy. Seven of these are White Christian clergy and one is a rabbi.  The presence of a rabbi is erased in claiming this letter is simply from eight clergy.  The rabbi’s presence perhaps, makes this letter not only more complex but more troubling.

The letter is brief and holds itself forth as representing reason and good order.   The situation is a “problem” that can be solved through the law, the courts, and reasoned discussion. A faith most whites still hold to strenuously to this day. They speak of racial tensions, and don’t speak directly to the injustices that are the underlying cause of those “racial tensions”. They also speak about outside agitators.  What is striking is how unobjectionable (if one forgets the real conditions of blacks at this time) and contemporary this letter sounds.  The letter makes no attempt at specificity, makes no mention of the actual reality of segregation.  The letter remains on the level of abstraction and generality and never mentioning by name the matter at hand, segregation.  Rather it is just “racial tension” and the need to solve the “racial problem.”  They object to tactics, that don’t fit with their expectations of peace, and law and order.  Even today white folks would rather talk about problems and how to resolve them and are concerned mainly about peace and tension and not real suffering or injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s  reply Letter from Birmingham Jail is lengthy because, in contrast, he deals in specifics and concrete details and the reality of the oppression suffered.  When accused of being an outsider, he not only shows his connections to Birmingham, but shows those who claim to be insiders are really the outsiders, (willfully) ignorant of the actual conditions of those they call to patience.  While the eight clergy speak of law and order and the courts, urging slow incremental change that doesn’t disturb Whites and the status quo,  King speaks as a minister of the Gospel and out of the larger Christian tradition. King aligns himself with Paul. He quotes Aquinas, and shows his identification with Christ.  King doesn’t lash out and lambaste these prominent clergymen who are representatives of their Mainline White denominations, but he demonstrates, by their lack of care and concern for the conditions under which Blacks  suffer, their hypocrisy and abandonment of the Gospel.  He shows them to be moderate defenders of the status quo and not members of Christ. In the end as a preacher of the Gospel Martin Luther King, Jr. calls to repentance.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I’m struck by the contemporaneity of the exchange. White Christian denominations and Christians have accepted the success of the civil Rights movement and King’s tactics because they succeeded and are facts, as much as because of any deep belief in their rectitude and Gospel truth.  This is mere acceptance of what has happened and little more, we have yet to embrace the transformation King was after.   We show our acquiescence by doing, as I’m doing here, nodding to this day and the honor we now believe is due to Martin Luther King Jr, as a personage of the past. What we haven’t done, what the denominations haven’t done, is repent.  We elided over the various ways in which in the very least White Christians have stood by as injustices were perpetrated and are perpetrated on Black people and at worst were perpetrated by we White Christians.  We want to embrace King as though we were right all along; as if it was some foreign power that kept us from siding with the suffering of our Black siblings in Christ, and seeing Black people as our fellow human beings.  When there was always only us White folk and no one else.  We weren’t forced or coerced but chose purely and simply a path contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in blatant contradiction to the reality of the Body of Christ.

For Whites, Christian and non-Christian, our celebration of this day will be empty and hypocritical until we admit that King doesn’t belong among our pantheon of heroes.  King isn’t  honored because he is like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and all our other White heroes, but because he is a minister of the Gospel and the truest and greatest American theologian (I must thank James Cone for this insight into King) and not a builder of America.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to our truest and most just selves as Americans, it is because he was a minister of the Gospel and a prophet of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit. If we honor him in our pantheon of heroes it can only be because he exceeds them and isn’t really one of them.  He is the only one of our heroes to call us prophetically to repentance.  A call to which White Americans and Christians have yet to fully and truly respond.

In the Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. is prophetic, in all meanings of the word and set forth a warning and prediction that came true and continues to be true :

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

We wonder why we are reduced to a shadow of what we once thought ourselves to be. We find ourselves in such a situation as described by King, because we have yet come face to face with what we did, and that we were never who we thought ourselves to be.  If there was true repentance we would cling less to the greatness of White America and its past, and would look to a future in which we as Whites no longer dominate or set the standards by which others must use to gain access to the goods of the world.  Here is the beginning of repentance and our transformation when we accept that those who have most consistently and truly been bearers of the Gospel and who show us Christ are truly those who have been oppressed by us since the founding of this Nation. All else is mere co-option of King and the Civil Rights movement in order to maintain the status quo and continue business as usual, expanded to include those who once served its ends without benefit or reward.

I hesitate to even post this, for I can claim no exemption.  Yet, I speak knowing I’m just beginning, that this is only a beginning.  We must somehow begin without attempting to justify our Whiteness, and make it clean by our own works.

Things have come a long way and there is yet a long way to go.

We can’t get there by seeking preserve Whiteness and the current order.