It was one of those days you never forget. I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news, standing on the balcony of my second floor apartment across the street from the football stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama. I feared for the future of my country and what would happen. I refer, of course, to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, at the young age of only 39 on April 4.
It was hard to believe at that precise moment. I feared rioting would be unleashed and our society impacted profoundly. Both proved to be true as the weeks unfolded. Later that year the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was shot in Los Angeles just after winning the California primary.
These two deaths, in such a short space of a few months, deeply impacted the soul of our nation. They also changed the racial and political debate in this country right down to the present. Viewing "what would have been or could have been" is the historians parlor game. I play it sometimes myself since I was a history major and still love the subject. But what is faces us as a people.
No one knows where we would be today if Martin Luther King, Jr., were still alive? He would be 79 years old. What would his legacy be? Did martyrdom make him larger than life? His accomplishments were immense for such a young man. His words are still touching lives. His persona is debated to this very moment. Few remain critics now, after forty years, but some still think evil of him. And his heirs in the Civil Rights movement are clearly not of the same stature as Dr. King. (This is part of the attraction of Barack Obama. He is exceptionally bright, a great speaker, a visionary and a true motivator!)
Shortly after King’s assassination I came to Wheaton College, in January of 1969, or about eight months later. I was amazed, quite honestly, at the lack of open housing that existed in the city of Wheaton and at the way white church leaders believed struggle for open housing was not needed, even threatening that civil unrest could harm out quiet suburban community heavily influenced as it was by evangelical Christians.
Racism was not a Southern problem, but an American one. This has changed, like so much, for the better.Open housing is now the law and the norm. But subtle attempts to undermine those laws require vigilance at all times.
Harry Allen, an African-American sociology professor at Wheaton College, came here in 1998 from Rochester, New York. He was disappointed to find no network of black professionals here as he had known in Rochester. Here there was no directory of black professionals. He says, "I thought the state of race relations was a lot healthier in Rochester." There leaders in business, education, politics and religion all came together to tackle pressing social problems. He thus founded, in the Chicago suburbs, a local African-American Leadership Roundtable. He says, "The biggest problem in the suburbs is the lack of role models." Children need to see adults model effective, equal status and there is not enough of it around us according to Professor Allen. He says his kids like it here but they enjoyed Rochester much more because people there embraced diversity more than here.
Fair Housing is the law but social structures keep prejudice alive in everyday practice. Chicago, and DuPage County where I live, is still not a healthy place for inter-racial solutions. Perhaps this reality contributed to Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s angry reactions to a white America that shocked so many of us who do never go to such a church. Though many African-American pastors are not like Jeremiah Wright, especially the younger pastors, many admire him and many of his basic themes could be heard in black pulpits in Chicago and well beyond. We have made progress but too many white people think the struggle is all over. They think that as soon as blacks get their act together socially, educationally and morally things will then be different. (Make no mistake about it, the breakdown of the African-American family is destroying their culture and neighborhoods.)
My basic problem with all of these easy solutions, or responses, is that they are just too simplistic to be truly helpful.
The fact is our churches are still divided by race and ethnicity, perhaps as much as ever in some places, yet these are the very places where we ought to have this conversation and address such problems between us. Race is a most complicated issue in America. Yet many whites do not think it is complicated at all. I am glad that it is back on the table in a public discussion, albeit from one that gets mixed up in politics in ways that are often troublesome. My appeal, as it always has been, is that it is the churches that ought to be doing more to discuss these issues and resolve these very real problems. I had hoped that someday "the most segregated hour of the week" would not be Sunday worship. I doubt this will happen soon. For now we are still having a hard time understanding why King’s legacy is so important and how we stopped the progress at a certain point and then created new forms of racism, more subtle for sure but none the less unhealthy and destructive. We are still, if I may say so, reaping the whirlwind of the nasty business that our forefathers brought on our country by refusing to really when they could have. Then those who came after them refused to address the aftermath for another hundred years.
I did not bring problem this about, at least not personally. But I see the problems and thus take some social and cultural responsibility for the solutions as a Christian living in the city of man. This means I cannot avoid talking about race or about our race problems since we are a long way from creating an economically, educationally and socially just society. Radical liberation theology is not the solution but neither is the "quiet course" of conservative denial that there is still a real problem to this day. King’s death still speaks to it, at least for me.
1. When was the last time a healthy discussion of race took place in your church where you (if you are white) listened and did not offer all the solutions?
2. When we the last time you worshiped with an African-American church and did not simply see the stereotypes of the culture but see beyond them with a deep hope for a new and better day?
3. When was the last time you helped to form something like Professor Harry Allen’s Leadership Council to address the racial issues in your own city? They are there if you look around.
4. When was the last time you personally experienced the black underclass firsthand as a white Christian?
5. Do you have real friends who are non-white and non-affluent who live in the culture that makes up churches like Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and how do you relate to them as your brothers or sisters?
6. Where do you actually see culturally diverse, multi-ethnic churches that cross social and economic barriers in meaningful ways? It is never enough to say, "We have black people in our church." There are black people in the upper class economically, for which I am thankful, but generally they too are not in touch with the lower classes or the churches among the lower class. Unless you make a concerted effort to see yourself critically you will not do it. The gospel forces me to try.
7. When did you last read a classic book, or see a classic film or consider the Martin Luther King legacy in a way that made a difference to your thinking and to how you actually live your life? Read, go to museums on race, listen to differences of opinion more carefully. Don’t be too quick to assume you understand everything because you don’t.
These kinds of questions, and many more, underscore the racial issues that still impact most of our lives every single day. Debates about affirmative action are loaded, to cite just one illustration. Instinctively I oppose it. But am I able to articulate a case for it? If not it is likely because I have never met a serious Christian who defends it and can explain why they do. I have met such in recent years and though I think affirmative action still needs to undergo some serious changes I am not entirely opposed to the basic concept itself. Here’s my point—I didn’t arrive at my conclusion by simply reading court cases and hearing political arguments on Fox News. I arrived at it by knowing real people and seeing what a difference the law made in their lives. There is a story here but most of us are too busy to listen to it. For me listening is part and parcel of being a missional Christian.