A few years ago I had the privilege of taking a group of teenagers to Memphis, and during our trip we stopped at the National Civil Rights Museum, formerly known as the Lorraine Hotel. It was at this location on April 4, 1968 that King was assassinated. This hotel is now a museum testifying of the struggle African-American people went through to receive equal rights and justice in our country. As I walked through the corridors of this museum, I often trembled with awe at the plight of people as they were oppressed by others. But the other thing that saddened me deeply was the way Christianity in America responded to Dr. King and the other leaders of this movement throughout the years.
Now, I realize it is easy to look back on these things without understanding the context, and pass judgment on white Christians. But the reality is that the majority voice of anglo-Christianity during the period of slavery through the Civil Rights movement was either silent or on the side of oppression. In southern towns it was often churches and church leaders that became the dominant voice for the oppression of people, and went deadly silent when their own white members harassed and persecuted African Americans, or worse still lynched them. Way too many “deacons” in these churches were knights and leaders in the Klu Klux Klan.
My purpose for this blog is not to berate the things of the past. Rather, what I would like to do is give some Gospel responses to racism and oppression, things that should have shaped Christianity then and now. MLK Day is a wonderful time for us to stop and think about how we respond to people who are different from us in culture and values. And then I would like to give some ideas for how families can remember MLK day together. So first, a few Gospel centered responses MLK ought to bring for all of us.
1. Repentance – The Bible has several passages that speak to the evil of pride and the danger of showing favoritism (Galatians 3:28-29, Acts 10:34-35, 1 John 2:9-11, James 2:8-9). The more passionate I am about the topic of racial reconciliation and justice the more I see in myself that I have prideful prejudices and wicked attitudes against people who are different from myself. It is so easy to see the sin and flaws that people from other cultures have, but I often fail to see the sin of my own people. MLK Day is a good day to think about the ways I show pride while looking down on others and repent.
2. Reconciliation – Do you have relationships with people from other cultures? We all tend to have the “token black friend”, but when is the last time you purposefully reached out to someone who is different?
3. Justice – Dr. King quoted Amos 5:24 in several speeches and in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, which says, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” For believers the idea of justice is that the Gospel should give us a passion to see wrongs righted. We should care deeply for the broken, oppressed, persecuted, poor, for widows, orphans, and others who have been castigated by society. Jesus loved the broken and downtrodden passionately, so should we.
4. Training children – Way too often the prejudice and racism of one generation is passed to the next. These values and attitudes are often so deeply ingrained in us that we do not see them. We may clean up our language about people from other cultures becoming politically correct, but attitudes are still there, and kids can see them. MLK Day is a good time to sit the kids down and talk to them about attitudes toward other cultures and values to hold. Better yet, find a way to teach on another level. So I close with a few ideas of how you could teach kids on this day.
- Take the family to an exhibit that will give you a way to talk about the issues of race, reconciliation, justice, and civil rights. In St. Louis the Old Courthouse is a great place because it was the location of the Dred Scott Case. At least once in the life of your kids make the trip to Memphis.
- Talk to a grandparent or other older adult who lived through the Civil Rights movement. I’ll never forget my dad telling us the stories of playing college basketball and having the white players eat in the restaurant while the black players on the same team had to go eat in the alley.
- Rent a movie that deals with racial issues and watch it together, then ask how our love for Jesus should shape attitudes. Here is a list of some movies you might try: To Kill a Mockingbird, Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Jackie Robinson Story, Glory, The Rosa Parks Story, Remember the Titans, Glory Road.
- Watch the I Have a Dream speech on Youtube and discuss how Dr. King’s dream is shaped by the Bible. Ask your kids if his dream is coming true.