For some of us, Martin Luther King Jr. Day represents little more than a day off work or school, an opportunity to do whatever we desire to do. For African Americans, however, it represents significantly more. Dr. King drew the attention of a nation to the fact that black men and women neither shared the same freedom nor chose from the same menu of opportunity. He gave his life contending for an end to personal and institutional racism. This is an issue many preferred to ignore in his day, and it is still easy to overlook in our own.
Christians should refuse to ignore or overlook it for multiple reasons. Until Christ returns and makes all things new, we know from God’s Word that our battle with sin remains, prejudice included. An honest historical assessment recognizes you don’t deliberately and systemically discriminate against an entire race for centuries and eliminate all the repercussions in a few decades. Most compelling of all is the racial reconciliation Jesus died to win. Heaven will be marked by more than the absence of conscious animus toward someone based on the color of their skin. It will be characterized by unity, harmony, and equality among every tribe and tongue.
Jesus is seriously glorified whenever we contend for his will to be done on earth as it is (and will be) in heaven. For those of us in the white majority, that starts with humbly acknowledging we probably don’t understand the reality of racism in our country, past and present, nearly as well as we should. To that end, allow me to recommend a few books in honor of Dr. King. I don’t necessarily agree with every word in them. Wholesale support should never be the price of entry to marinating in a thoughtful book. The goal is to learn and be provoked, not to enter another echo chamber for our present thoughts. For each I’ll give a 1-sentence summary and a favorite quote.
Keller insightfully explains how the grace of the gospel compels us to identity with the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. He makes applications to racial issues, but spends more time on the biblical definition and practice of justice.
“Many Christians resist the idea that social systems need to be dealt with directly. They prefer the idea that ‘society is changed one heart at a time,’ and so they concentrate on only evangelism and individual social work. This is naïve.”
Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith
Two sociologists present the results of a cultural study exploring the ways evangelical religious practices can inadvertently reinforce the racialization of American society. If any part of you enjoys political science, this book is for you.
“Although [white evangelicals] can perhaps talk with empathy about a black friend’s situation, when they assess the group, they speak in ways, as we have seen, that largely justify division and inequality. They know that most of their friends and relatives – who are predominantly white – are not hate-mongering racists bent on keeping blacks down. And they know this much better than they can know the experiences of black Americans. So, when they must assess the ‘race problem,’ given their cultural tools, they conclude that it must be blacks exaggerating, or to the advantage of some to claim there is a race problem, or that the race problem is but individual problems between some individuals of different races. In short, they speak in ways that support their own racial group and the American system.”
John M. Perkins
John Perkins has a long history in the civil rights movement. Maybe it has something to do with being born into a Mississippi sharecropping family in the 1930s. Or maybe it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ he clearly treasures. Incorporating a variety of practical testimonies from pastors around the country, Perkins’ short volume is a final manifesto from an 87-year-old man who longs to see biblical unity in our land.
“As Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth states, ‘When we fail to deal with hurts God’s way, when we harbor resentment in our hearts, that bitterness – like an infection – will fester and work its way into our system, until ultimately we start viewing everything through the eyes of hurt – everything others do, everything that happens to us.’ We begin to see every other black person or every other white person through the pain inflicted by someone else who was black or white.”
In the late 80s, a black man by the name of Walter McMillian was condemned to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Bryan Stevenson’s memoir centers on the legal battle he fought as McMillian’s attorney to see Walter exonerated and exposes the depth to which racism has impacted our judicial system, especially in the south.
“I noticed people staring at something behind me, and that’s when I turned around and saw that Mrs. Williams was still standing. The courtroom got very quiet. All eyes were on her. I tried to gesture to her that she should sit, but then she leaned her head back and shouted, ‘I’m here!’ People chuckled nervously as she took her seat, but when she looked at me, I saw tears in her eyes. In that moment, I felt something peculiar, a deep sense of recognition. I smiled now, because I knew she was saying to the room, ‘I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I’m here. I’m here because I’ve got this vision of justice that compels me to be a witness. I’m here because I’m supposed to be here. I’m here because you can’t keep me away.’”