Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
U2 (Pride) In The Name of Love
Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King was gunned down by hate in Memphis Tennessee. For some, this means a lot and has a huge symbolic place in their life. For others, it’s just another day in April. If you peruse social media, you’ll find some praising MLK, while others deride him for his alleged sins as a human being, which seems like enough for some to write him off as a charlatan, unworthy of a special day, or for remembering at all. I think there are a lot of haters in the world, and that kind of mind is expected, but not when the attack comes from the Evangelical world. Shouldn’t we be better here?
For whatever reason, me, being a white older male, who grew up in a white community, began to admire the life of Martin Luther King from a very young age. Chock it up to my Democratic roots (I now hold no political affiliation), or growing up 45 minutes from Boston, where the Kennedy’s ruled for years, and were oddly connected to Mr. King and his cause (Some would say that Bobby Kennedy lost his life a few months after for the same cause). Who knows? I don’t know the reason that I started to care about injustices, especially as they related to African Americans? Maybe it had to do with reading “Soul On Ice” by the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver when I was 16? Whatever it was, Martin Luther King seemed to have an early, and lasting influence on my thinking.
Here we are 50 years after this murder and the unrest that 1968 was all about. For many, that was the “good ‘ole days that we need to return to;” but who was it good for? Have we progressed in 50 years? I think that answer is both yes and no. Unfortunately, hate and prejudice is a base sin of humanity, that no matter how many laws we create, the ugly beast doesn’t seem to go away.
It is interesting to me that the Gospel Coalition in connection with many ministries are putting on the MLK50 Conference in Atlanta as I write this. I was very excited to see a large, evangelical organization like The GC honoring the man and the legacy of MLK. Maybe now, the evangelical church would start seeing the obvious implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in relation to this issues we have in our own country? But when I went on social media in regard to the conference, I found many “Evangelicals” once again, scoffing at the conference, because Martin Luther King was a ‘fraud’ or he doesn’t deserve this kind of honor, because his ‘theology wasn’t orthodox’ (A claim that would die quickly under review of ALL of his writings in regard to the gospel).
Then I started to think about how in our day, 50 years later, we are still telling men and women of color that ‘though we agree with your cause, we don’t like what you are doing to pursue justice.’
Could it be that we, the evangelical white, have become the ‘moderate’ that Martin Luther King called out in his “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” in April of 1963? Have we all comfortably agreed with the cause of those still oppressed, but are not comfortable with the ‘way’ the protests are done because they simply make us feel uncomfortable, and have messed up America’s favorite pastime (Sorry MLB)? Here is an excerpt from MLK’s open letter to a world that didn’t seem to care about justice, because it didn’t affect them. Read it, and think about it:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
I think these words are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. So many of us (Liberals Included), talk of our support for those facing injustice in our country and our world, because it seems like the right thing to do, but are still too comfortable with our own lives to do anything about it. And many of us are still saying to those in peaceful protest, that I ‘understand’ your anger at some of the injustices you still face, but ‘I don’t like the way you are going about it.’ How is that any different than what white America said to King and his protest 50+ years ago?
We have come a long way, but we still have a way to go, and I pray that the gospel of Jesus Christ goes out to millions more, so that its power can heal the pain, and reduce the injustice we still see in our country.
I am excited that an Evangelical organization like the Gospel Coalition is putting on this great conference, but I hope it doesn’t just produce a slew of Amen’s because they are all hyped up with great speakers, but that the gospel sinks deep into every one of our hearts in such a way, that it transforms our thinking, and subsequently our actions and at least the Church will start living what they hear preached on Sundays instead of always being the institution that appears to be speaking the loudest against the protest of the oppressed. 50 years later and I can still dream.
by Michael Gunn