In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail Dr. King wrote,
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”Why We Can’t Wait, p. 97)
As I write this on MLK Day, I feel the frustration Dr. King spoke of. Over the last two or three years I have seen my white brothers and sisters, particularly Christians, gain a new-found zeal for racial justice. In one sense I’m deeply grateful and am reminded through their concern that God is still moving. Our country’s oldest sin is being uprooted and racial injustice will one day end. But today is not that day…
While part of me is grateful and celebrates seeing more white brothers and sisters care about the plight of people of color, another part of me grows ever more frustrated. By far the sting I most feel on MLK day is how my white brothers and sisters have elevated Dr. King to “god” status within our country’s pantheon of great men without fully understanding what the man stood for. My frustration is the Dr. King we put on a pedestal is a truncated version shaped in our own image.
What Dr. King is most remembered for in many evangelical circles is his “I Have a Dream” speech. People love hearing Dr. King talk about a future where people are judged by their character and not the color of their skin. We love hearing him talk about his children being able to hold hands and play with white children. What we don’t love (and often don’t even know) is the cost of what Dr. King was calling people to in order to bring about his dream. My fear is if most white racial justice advocates knew the truth they would quickly distance themselves from Dr. King’s dream. For example, Dr. King was a staunch advocate of non-violence in all its forms, which included being anti war. His desire for racial and economic justice meant he wanted to redistribute wealth to allow all people equal opportunities to flourish. This meant advocating for legislation that allowed for universal healthcare, livable wages, and an economy that put people before profit.
Non-violence as a consistent pro-life ethic
American culture and American Evangelicalism, in particular, seem to be at a crossroads. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973 pro-life conversations have focused almost exclusively on abortion. However, in the last five years it seems the conversation has expanded to include issues such as racial justice, poverty, and family structures. We’ve termed this ideology “from womb to tomb.” This is a great step forward and one that helps unpack all the facets that lead to an individuals decision to have an abortion.
However, if we are to pursue a consistent pro-life ethic American Christians must start to seriously consider our views on war and capital punishment. When we say a child in the womb has inherent value not because of their “use” but because they bear the image of God, we have to understand that logic is a two-way street. The same way an unborn child or people with disabilities are worthy of dignity, value, and life regardless of their contribution to society, so are people whose value is determined by their worst choices. Dr. King understood the need to be consistently pro-life, which is why he spoke out against the war in Vietnam as well ending capital punishment. Discussing capital punishment, Dr. King famously said:
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
Distributive justice in pursuing racial and economic justice
Martin Luther King Jr. better than most, understood the biblical concept of “distributive justice” a justice that doesn’t just see wrongdoing punished, but ensures those hurt return to a place of flourishing as contributing members of their community. So often white brothers and sisters care about racial justice and reconciliation until it physically costs them something, whether that be possessions, monetary help, or social status. Dr. King didn’t see racial and economic justice as separate issues, rather, he saw them as two sides of the same coin. Dr. King said;
“We must also realize that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”Martin Luther King Jr. on Income Inequality and Redistribution of Wealth
Dr. Ron Sider in his book Just Generosity unpacks how economic inequality has grown since the turn of the century. Sider shares, “Measured by the distribution of wealth, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the United States is greater today than at any time since 1929… In fact, the poorest 10 percent in this country are worse off economically than the poorest 10 percent in every developed country except the United Kingdom.” (p. 54) What’s worth noting is how much the pay of CEO salaries has increased since the 1980s. Again Sider explains;
“CEO salaries jumped 499 percent between 1980 and 1995, but company profits only increased 145 percent. The average factory worker saw a pay raise of only 70 percent – not even enough to keep up with the increase in inflation (85 percent). If factory workers had received pay raises comparable to those of their CEOs between 1980 and 1995, they would have earned $90,000 a year by 1995, and if the minimum wage had risen at the same rate as CEO pay has since 1990, it would not be $5.15 an hour but $23.03!”p. 55
Understanding gross economic inequality stacked on top of persistent racism that keeps African Americans and Latinos out of the 21st century economy, it should be easier for Christians to seriously consider Dr. Kings solutions. However, it’s often harder to get affluent Christians to see their neglect in pursuing distributive justice on par with adultery, fornication, and murder.
Dr. King was a flag in the ground as much as a bridge
If God’s people are to take seriously, the work of Dr. King and pick up the baton in the marathon of seeing “the arch of history bend toward justice,” we must first see the man for who he truly is. An American prophet. A prophet whose call to repent and repair the breaches of violence and injustice are being met with half hearted quick fixes and self-justifications.
“We will make progress if we accept the fact that four hundred years of sinning cannot be canceled in four minutes of atonement.”Why We Can’t Wait, p.160)
We must see MLK for who he truly was and ,considering the truth of the man and his words, examine our own hearts and count the cost of pursuing a consistent pro-life ethic. Not just as a practice on MLK day, but as a rhythm of life.