Martin Luther King, Jr. and the White Church
–Martin Luther King, Jr. August 5, 1962
Almost 54 years ago Dr. King wrote “The Case Against Tokenism,” a short essay published in the New York Times magazine. Its eerie resonance with America’s continued struggle with race hits me this year more than ever.
2015 was a year of wake up calls and reality checks on matters of race. Far from being a problem of our past, racism is an open wound of our present. It is a cautionary tale for our future.
Dr. King’s words about “tokenism” convict us—by “us,” I mean this country. But, his words hold a sad and especially biting critique for the church.
King was optimistic that the church would lead the way to end racism. He believed the church could do more than other institutions to meet the most profound need of this country in healing the wound of race—the difficult work of changing hearts.
He wrote, “The law may not change the heart—but it can restrain the heartless. It will take education and religion to change bad internal attitudes.” And he applauded courageous and heroic stances by churches against segregation. Despite the “appalling fact” that church on Sunday embodied “the most segregated hour of America,” King believed that “the nation is beginning to shake the lethargy from its soul.” And he was optimistic that the church would continue to hasten that soul-changing process.
Here we sit, some five decades later, and the churches King believed would help heal our wounds embody almost the exact same racial demographic they did during the Civil Rights Movement. Far from shaking off the lethargy of segregation, in many ways mainline churches have blessed such anemic forms of beloved community. And, sadly, mainline churches are actually behind other social spaces and institutions in our country in terms of racial demographics. While mission statements and prophetic sermons around racial justice may be aplenty, vibrant church communities that are racially diverse are scarce. And the racial wounds of our nation have only become more chronic, more systemic, and more difficult to heal.
Mainline churches are suffering from our own malaise, from our own neglect of Dr. King’s call for us to use our institutions to help heal this country. White-dominant churches struggle to stay vital in American culture. As I read Dr. King’s words, I feel the tragedy of missed opportunities. I feel the heaviness of avoidance and denial in the believing communities of my faith tradition.
Dr. King’s words echo through the sanctuaries and fellowship halls of mainline Christianity:
Nor must anyone assume that the problem is almost solved and that people can therefore sit complacently by the wayside and await the coming of the inevitable. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… The most superficial look at history shows that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of individuals. Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of primitive forces and social stagnation.
Yes, time has not healed old wounds in this case. Time has been the friend of festering, the ally of diminishment, and the harbinger of more loss and an even more difficult road ahead.
King ends his essay with these words about the strength and power of the black community to call America to its best reality: “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not extinguish our existence, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We feel that we are the conscience of America—we are its troubled soul. We will continue to insist that right be done because both God’s will and the heritage of our nation speak through our echoing demands.”
Maybe Martin Luther King Day 2016 can be a turning point for a critical mass of us white Jesus followers—let’s not comfort ourselves with stories of progress and how much better everything is for people of color in America, let’s challenge ourselves to a tell the truth about our complicity in why racism still persists.
For hearts to change, the soul of the country must find sustenance in the kind of love that heals. Ok, church, that’s our cue. It’s too late for us to lead the way. But there’s still time for us to have the moral courage that healing the wounds of race requires.