MLK Day 2011

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:35-37

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Racial inequality in America. It’s both a tale of woe and resolution to do what is right in the face of entrenched opposition. Looking back from this side of history we can take comfort in the progress; though at the time I’m sure the outcome was anything but certain.

America has always had Christian roots. In hindsight it makes one wonder just how some of these issues came up in the first place. Yet, Christendom has certainly not been immune to straying from the good way for the purposes of short-term convenience, or political power, or economic benefit.

During the slave days, a number of denominations pointed to Biblical instances of slavery and Paul’s admonition to slaves to obey their masters, as proof of God’s acceptance of the practice. Other denominations obviously objected. Eventually the preaching of the gospel and the cry of the human spirit for freedom was too much to be contained. It ultimately took a civil war and a tremendous toll on the nation, but freedom was attained.

Having lost the battle for ownership, racist elements turned toward segregation as a means of keeping former slaves and their descendants in “their place”. Once again the practice was tolerated by various Christian groups – and opposed by others. Eventually though, the preaching of the gospel and the cry of the human spirit for freedom was too much to be contained. Martin Luther King was at the head of a movement that sparked national change. Segregation no more.

Today we find ourselves in a similar predicament. The stakes are not exactly the same, but the disagreement amongst the Christians is just as intriguing. We find ourselves in a country where legally we have achieved equal standing. Yet the socio-economic inequality is dramatic, with the African American community facing serious difficulties and challenges – particularly in the major cities.

As for the Christians, on the one hand we have the professors of government-instituted social justice. They argue that equality was never achieved with the abolition of slavery and segregation, and the work is still undone (it’s not a bad argument). On the other hand, we have those who claim that equality under the law is the only equality guaranteed by the law, and therefore the government. Thus, the government has done all it can or should and the rest is up to us, the free citizenry. It’s a pickle.

For my part, I’d like to offer a few observations. First, I agree with the later on the role of government. Equal treatment under the law is the only equality that should be enforced by the government. (It’s not clear that enforcement is actually equal, but that brand of equality should be the goal as far as the government is concerned.)

Second, for my Christians friends on the left, I would argue that government intervention has not produced good results, and will not. Empiricism alone ought to be enough to move beyond the current course. The reason is simple, which I tried to draw out with a prior turn of phrase: the preaching of the gospel and the cry of the human spirit for freedom. When faced with challenges of slavery or segregation, the human spirit fought back and demanded equality. To subvert this response, one must cripple the human spirit, cripple the drive for freedom from within. I argue that this is exactly the impact of LBJ’s great society programs and the current preaching of liberation theology. The outcome has been to convince a generation that (a) you are owed something (and perhaps you are, but “by whom?” is a difficult question), (b) the deck is stacked against you (and perhaps it is – though not as much as you would imagine), and (c) nothing you do individually will make a difference (utterly and totally wrong).

Finally, I would like to note that the response of the Christian right has likely also not met the level desired. Too many on the right have taken the position that government-run social justice policies have been bad for African Americans in general, but that it is the African Americans who have consistently voted for these policies and thus voted for their own entanglement. It’s not a bad argument. But the argument is often used as justification for inaction. It is this justification that is wholly misguided.

Generations are being destroyed. The gospel message has always been appointed for people who were destroying themselves – we all were at some point. Despite the successes of LBJ and the great society at crippling a generation, the human spirit will long for freedom again. This, coupled with the gospel, is what we need to bring about true deliverance in this generation.

So, happy MLK-Day. It reminds us of a great victory in the fight for equality – may we win the next round quickly; and may freedom reign in the hearts of men.

 

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