MLK Day and White People – White Christians that is…
I’ve unfortunately heard a LOT of negative reference to the celebration and even recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. today… much of this dismissive and even bigoted retort has been amongst Christians, people who call themselves people of God. Why do we celebrate this? Am I going to march? Yea, right. Etc.
Why? Why is there derision against Martin’s contribution and the importance of noting it? Why do we view this critically and cynically? Why are we anti-black people? Many now say we aren’t, yet our emotions at this topic reveal something deeper about ourselves, something we don’t want to grapple with even yet, years later, a couple of generations later.
Imagine you are a people who are predominantly the lowest caste of a society. You are the ones in the poverty cycle, where opportunities to get out, the concept that there is a place out that you can participate in, where social breakdown has developed warped values, warped world view and where you continue to see that because of your caste, you are doomed to a life. Those people develop a defiance and even pride themselves in being that caste… They begin to grapple with that identity, something to define themselves. This is a huge over generalization, but stop and think of people groups who have been castigated in other contexts: Jews, Asians and Latins. In New Orleans where I live, the new “n” word people group was the latest immigrant wave-not unlike many other places. The Italians, Irish, Vietnamese are examples. They take more pride and hold on to their cultural identities even more than when individuals not in those groups do.
Think of our African American friends. Gang, there is still privilege that we do not consider privilege. I’m not directly addressing financial opportunity to most white kids that most black kids don’t have – the best schools, the best preparation for life, the connections that open doors, etc, better medical, better legal, better business access… I’m talking about glass ceilings… My boys envision ivy league universities – it is not a wild dream, but a real desire and plan and the educational opportunities prepare them for that. Consider the typical poor black kid… he/she goes to a school with much less funding per student, with not the same proportion of top teachers (they get the good jobs in the wealthy districts), worse text books, worse facilities (labs, etc), and are subjected to harsh social constructs. NO one in their world has ever achieved success at the levels white kids have in their entire experience… it’s a pipe dream that never gets considered.
Are black people legitimate in celebrating this man and holiday? We’re not just talking about slavery which ended in 1863 or 1865 depending upon where the Union controlled land and people during the Civil War. We talking about the Jim Crow laws which “kept black people in their place” – subservient. In my life I remember “colored only” entrances, stores, movie theaters, swimming pools, bath rooms, seating in the department store diner, busses, education, employment (invisible lines that black people had these jobs and NEVER would be considered for other roles), neighborhoods… many declined as white people fled living near black people… it automatically meant drugs, violence and loud streets. I remember and have seen stereotyping in law enforcement, judgment from the courts, and dismissal by white business and government. With a lack of empathy never having experienced the prejudice and bigotry, people had no desire or ability to understand and dismissed the hurts and issues.
Hence, in the reconciliation efforts of the 1990’s by the church, and organizations like Promise Keepers, it was successful only in limited affect because white people reconciliation was “We’re sorry our forefathers did this, though we haven’t and are not guilty of this.” AND then we go on with life as usual. For African Americans, reconciliation required (which is Biblical) a change in our attitudes AND our behaviors, our systems and expectations… they actually want to engage and participate, not continue Apartheid.
I’ve lived in international contexts where I was the minority, prejudged as “you Americans” and experienced bigotry, prejudice, mistreatment and cruelty and it was soft and yet very loud and hurtful. I came to hate (for a time) them as a people. And in my emotions, wanting to just leave… God spoke to me – black people in my own land have felt this for a long time. They have no where to go home to be accepted. AND my strong emotional hurt did not include being beaten, spit on, hit, attacked, family members hung in front of me in the middle of the night, or by corrupt hateful legal systems.
Now, should we recognize it? Appreciate it as white people? Is it a black thing that we simply recognize for black people? Are we to allow them (those people, those black people) “their holiday” and abstain in silence? OR is there a gratitude, homage, respect we owe Martin and the Civil Rights Movement?
Ask yourself that question before reading on….
Martin and others, thankfully less notarized, wanted change. Some supported Martin, some supported the violent approach. Had Martin changed his approach, dishonored God, it could have and would have gone very violent to the point of race war, civil war and been the deepest and most painful scar on us not just in pragmatic terms but emotionally and psychologically. It would have destroyed America and the idea of America.
Martin was clear he humbly held a mandate from God – and that it was peaceful, honoring and that history would prove him the better man, so-to-speak.
But the greater gratitude and mature response, recognizes his contribution for all of us – that power and systems in power do not define right, Godliness, or freedom, that the status quo is not the victor… Martin fought for all of us – that all people can stand up and express themselves and people can bring about change, change for the good.
Still not your holiday? Hmm. We celebrate the 4th of July? Why was that bloody revolution (not a peaceful movement as Martin led) fought? Why was it legitimate? Where colonialists mistreated? No. Were they subjugated by a foreign power? No – they were British and saw themselves as British. They had relatives in the UK, and came from the UK. They were legal subjects of the Crown as much as those in the UK… they were in a tax squabble – that’s it. They fought a WAR – people – lots of people died over tax disagreement. History reveals they were within 2-3 years max before they had representation within parliament as clear British subjects. Yet, there was a desire for individual freedom – do what I want and not pay any taxes though we cost money. The British Army protective presence cost more than they were taxed… yet we fought a war!
On the other hand, Martin said this:
“We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory. . . .
Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies”, 17 November 1957, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama
AND we celebrate it? Yes. Now, African Americans celebrate ML King, Jr. for the peaceful change he brought to much greater, much deeper soul reality in our nation. AND yet most whites, most white Christians tisk our tongues and mock it. Yes, we do mock it – don’t minimize it or justify it. It’s disgusting.
This holiday is about all of us, not just black Americans – it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than America, yet it is centered here. It’s time that we too embrace and recognize the contribution he and so many others made, the severe sacrifices, the deep hurts and the need for real reconciliation.
New Orleans has its issues and they are serious. There are systemic issues – white and black that must be dealt with. Yet, we have something to offer America… We share some of the most precious things that so bring people together – music, food, rite of passage celebration as people of New Orleans. It brings us together. I see people caring about each other more than ever in my life time, no matter ethnicity.
And this is good.
So, to my white friends, saints to follow the Living God – I exhort you to be the example, be the lead, cut through the bigotry. May we lead reconciliation, healing, advocate for the disenfranchised, defend the powerless. May we help one @ a time, relationally lift people who’ve never had opportunity to advance in our society.
We either are auditing Christianity, following Jesus and worshiping God, mere counterfeit posers – or we truly embrace who we are called and created to be – imitators of the Living God. Jesus meant every word about the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and his inaugural homily was to read just that prophesy from Isaiah (61) proclaiming His purpose and intent.
So, I’m celebrating Martin’s designated day. I appreciate his sacrifice, his ultimate sacrifice. I appreciate his contribution and I want to live up to my part today.