(sermon 1/19/20 – Race Relations Sunday)
1 John 4:7-9, 16, 18-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
In mid-April of 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King found himself locked up in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama – arguably the most thoroughly, and brutally, segregated city in America, although there were certainly countless other contenders for that title. The 34-year old King had come to Birmingham to offer moral support and visibility for the months-long series of nonviolent protests and the boycott by blacks of segregated businesses that had devastated the Birmingham economy. He was arrested when he led a march in town, despite being denied a permit to march by the city’s notorious, brutally racist and segregationist Commissioner for Public Safety, Bull Connor.
In the midst of Dr. King’s presence in Birmingham, a number of white, moderate clergymen jointly wrote an open letter to King saying that while they shared his desire for peace and racial harmony, they couldn’t accept his methods. They hadn’t given enough time for peaceful negotiations to bear fruit through the supposedly proper channels. They called on Dr. King and the black community to just be patient, and wait for slow, steady progress to happen on its own.
Sitting in his jail cell, Dr. King wrote a response to these clergymen, what we now know as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s a profound statement that every American, and certainly every American Christian, should read and meditate on at least once a year. It’s a deep statement from the heart where the issues of civil justice and the gospel intersect.
In his letter, Dr. King addresses the clergymen’s call to wait. After pointing out the long and unsuccessful attempts the local community had already made to go through supposedly proper and legal channels, he wrote:
“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.” … We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. … 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 harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
The clergymen also complained that the black community was breaking some of the city’s laws, and that while they supported their goals, they couldn’t ever condone breaking the law. Dr. King wrote that it isn’t wrong to disobey an unjust law; that in fact, it was a person’s Christian duty to disobey an unjust law – but, he wrote,
“How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. … We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was “legal” … It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal.”
Finally, Dr. King addresses the problem in a broader way:
“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the … Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; … who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”…
In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”
Dr. King held those clergymen’s feet to the fire, pointing out to them that love for all of God’s people is not optional – it isn’t dependent upon our own comfort level, or what we’d always been taught, or even official legal sanction from the government, because as Christians, we answer to a higher authority, and the ethics and morality commanded by that authority.
Today, we can be thankful for all of the advances in racial reconciliation that have been achieved, largely through the work of Dr. King, and countless others as well. But at the same time, we have to recognize that there’s still a lot to do. Unfortunately, in current-day debates about issues of race and racial reconciliation, you’ll hear many of the exact same arguments and criticisms, fifty years later, that Dr. King battled in his letter. There is a lot left to be done. And it’s even worse now, because some of the advances made back in Dr. King’s time are being reversed as civil rights laws are being gutted, and some of those same old injustices that caused passage of those laws to begin with are already happening again. We’ve still got miles to go forward, and right now, the gears of our society have been thrown into reverse.
For us, the church, on this Race Relations Sunday, we need to recognize that Dr. King’s message didn’t originate in any partisan politics, or ideology, or abstract philosophy. Rather, every single issue that he spoke out against – racism and racial discrimination, poverty, economic injustice, the hypermilitarism that gripped our society then and that still does today – every issue, and every single argument that he made against them, came directly out of the indisputable core of Christian ethics and moral teaching. And as Christians – and right now, as I look out at you, I see primarily white faces like my own, and I’m speaking here particularly to white Christians – when we look at our world today and try to process what we see – when we see groups like Black Lives Matter protesting in the streets calling for an end to racist policing practices; and we see the New Poor People’s Campaign holding mass rallies around the country protesting institutional racism that’s at the root of so much American poverty; and even us boring, mostly white Presbyterians marching in the streets of St. Louis, and here in Louisville, and probably other cities as well, to call for the elimination of the terribly racist cash bail system; when we see people marching in so many places for racial equity and justice – we need to hear Dr. King’s words again: It isn’t always the right thing to wait. Patience isn’t always a virtue; sometimes it’s a sin. So is accepting and obeying an unjust law, because obeying an unjust law, and refusing to disobey it, makes a person complicit in that injustice. When we hear the words of the ancient prophets mirrored in the words of this modern-day one, we all need to recognize that love isn’t optional for us, either. And if we’re going to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, it isn’t enough for us to just say that we aren’t racist – which, to be frank, really isn’t true. We all have racial biases and prejudices within us, and we all take part in racist systems, even the most noble and well-meaning of us. But to the larger point, it isn’t enough for us white Christians to say that we ourselves aren’t racist; we have to be actively “anti-racist” – becoming more aware of the racist structures and systems around us and that we unavoidably take part in, and taking whatever direct steps we can to change them. We have to do that because the ghosts of Birmingham are still with us. Bull Connor never really died; in spirit, he’s still with us. But the good news for us is so is Jesus Christ. Christ emboldens and empowers us for the task of continuing the work of the kingdom of God. And yes, Christ has also told us that in doing this, there will often be consequences. We will sometimes upset and anger friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers. Sometimes, the consequences will be even more severe. We know that Dr. King, and his family, paid a terrible price at the hands of hatred and opposition to his proclaiming the same gospel message that we claim to profess. In spite of that tragedy, we remember Dr. King this weekend, and his powerful witness of Jesus Christ in our time – and for it, we can say
Thanks be to God.