Black History Month creates healthy tension
Black History Month is a time for Americans to come together and celebrate the unrelenting spirit of a people who fought great odds to achieve freedom. But it is more than an annual ceremony where we go through the motions. Black History Month is a solemn reminder that the church has a long way to go as far as continuing the calling of building God’s kingdom on earth. God’s people should always make room for this month to be a time of tension. Tension between acknowledging the struggle for equality by blacks and whites alike and yet still maintaining a divine dissatisfaction with the status quo in race relations, and the bigger issues of justice and mercy in society.
Advocating for equality
I believe this tension is best expressed in how we remember Martin Luther King Jr., a popular preacher and icon of the civil rights movement. Most American Christians, black or white, have an appropriate amount of respect and gratitude for King and what he stood for during the movement. Nevertheless, King’s whole life presented a challenge to America and those who have wholeheartedly adopted its values.
“People are turning King into a rather smoothed-off respectable national hero,” said Vincent Harding, a colleague of the late preacher, describing what King’s image has become today. However, anyone who knows anything about the King of 1965 to 1968 would be hesitant to concede that he was anything of the sort. King preserved a prophetic voice all through his life, even if that meant stepping on the toes of Americans.
Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, permanently putting an end to state-sponsored segregation in this nation. However, the work of King and his colleagues did not end when this bill passed. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had set out, as King stated at the New York City’s Riverside Church in 1967, “to save the soul of America.” At its very core, that meant reforming and denoting the triple evils damaging the American spirit: “militarism, racism and economic exploitation,” which King identified in his 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here.”
Correcting injustice through love
King is famously cited for having a dream, but we must recognize that it was far more challenging than all races standing by a campfire singing kum-ba-yah. Like a good doctor, King saw past the symptoms of racism in American society and diagnosed the root causes. He took a strong stand against the Vietnam War, and in his speech “Where Do We Go From Here,” he denounced it as “unjust, evil and futile,” — while still showing respect for everyone who died in it. He reprimanded America for spending $20 billion to put a man on the moon, yet not spending enough money to put all God’s children on their own two feet. But more than remembering what he condemned, we should remember that King exhorted us all to love. Not to love weakly with gestures devoid of conviction, but to join our sentiment with power and to seek to correct injustice locally without resorting to violence. We may disagree with him if we like, but we must at least acknowledge and wrestle with his whole message.
King called us to live as our Savior did. To not only seek to take care of the beggars on Jerusalem’s road, but to reform the whole road so we no longer have what King identified as “an edifice that produces beggars,” as he suggested. I think we would all do well to look at King’s whole life, not just comfortable snippets. But more than standing in awe of him, if we have ears to hear we will understand that he tried to be a neighbor to those who were exploited in life. And, we should go and do likewise.