On the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King's Assassination, Confessing the Church's Complicity in Racial Division | Sojourners

On the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King's Assassination, Confessing the Church's Complicity in Racial Division

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Editor’s Note: Today, Sojourners president Jim Wallis delivers the following remarks at the A.C.T. to End Racism on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You can watch the rally live today here. (Jim Wallis’ remarks are scheduled for about 10:15.)

This opening segment of our gathering has been titled by the courageous people at the National Council of Churches who planned this special day, “Confess to Confront Racism: Confessing the Church's Complicity in Practicing, Promoting, and Profiting from White Privilege and Racial Division.” That begins us at the right place, especially for white churches, and I speak from that history.

Confession is telling the truth. Telling the truth to God and the world about ourselves. Jesus says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Confession leads to freedom. This day is about freedom for all of us. Without confession to the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege, people who call themselves white Christians will never be free — free from the bondage of a lie, a myth, an ideology, and an idol.

White Christians, since the founding of America have been living a lie. What does that do to your soul — to live a lie? Confession means to tell the truth — to God and to the world — so Jesus can set us free. So for Christians from white Christianity, like me and many of us here, ending racism is not about helping other people who have been the victims of our racism — it is about our salvation and our liberation. Our souls are at stake here. The amazing film that has impacted the world, Black Panther, shows what it would mean for Africans to free from the bondage of colonialism. What would a Marvel story look like that shows what it would mean for white colonialists to be set free from their sins?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered 10 days before Easter. This year, Easter came early. The 50th anniversary of his killing comes three days after Easter. So let’s put this moment in theological and liturgical context. On Good Friday, our churches preached that our sins had nailed Christ to the cross — all of our sins — past, present, and future. That means that the sins of white colonialism and white racism helped to nail Jesus to the cross on Good Friday. And only through his crucifixion and resurrection are we set free from all of our sins. If we confess them, we are reconciled to God and to each other. Hallelujah and Amen. But did white churches in America preach how our racism helped nail Jesus to the cross? Without truth telling we are still in bondage and need to be set free.

That’s why we say that white racism is our great sin, that it is America’s original sin — foundational to our country. But we have yet to fully name it as the great and founding sin that white supremacy is. A group of elder church leaders just named it in a declaration called “ Reclaiming Jesus” by saying this: “We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God … Therefore we reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership.”

I want to say today that confession means little if it is not concrete and if it is not ready to be acted upon. In other words, the naming of sin must have historic specificity. The idol of white supremacy and privilege literally replaces our worship of God and therefore literally separates white Christians from God (that’s what idols do) — by making “white” the operative word in the phrase “white Christian.” That literally makes the phrase “white Christianity” into an idolatry.

Brothers and sisters who are from that white church history — it is not politics that is at stake here but literally our own salvation and our liberation from an idolatry that defies the first chapter of Genesis about the beginning of the creation and has disfigured Christian faith since the beginning of our own nation and still does so. We need God to save us from that sin.

Let me say this as clearly as I can: Our original sin of white racism and the way it not just lingers but continues to evolve is literally throwing away imago dei — the image of God — and it happens over and over again each and every day. Let me quote a colleague, Professor Fr. Bryan Massingale from Fordham University, who says, “When I ask my white students if they have ever heard racism named or preached as a sin from their pulpits growing up in white their churches — their answer if almost always NO.” That says it all and that’s what we have to change. If we do, the changes could be enormous, with the fruits of repentance literally undergirding the substance of social change.

Acknowledgement of our great sin, our original sin, is the beginning of change, even before we get to repentance — which in all of our traditions, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic — does not simply mean to feel shameful and sorry but to turn around and go in a different direction. That is what I understand the purpose of this day is — to remember the 50th anniversary of the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this day with a commitment not to just feel sorry for racism, but with a commitment to end racism it in the United States of America, to conquer and heal the great sin.

What’s at stake as we are here today? Two things: the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith. Both are literally now at stake.

Dr. King would understand both of those things very clearly. Because while he was indeed our greatest civil rights and justice leader whose influence has gone throughout the world, the reverend doctor was, of course, also a minister of the gospel, a Baptist preacher who knew about sin and repentance.

He understood what Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address — about how important it is for leaders “to appeal to better angels of our nature” and would have been one of the first to see and call out leaders who appeal to our worst demons, which are just below the surface — the continuing demons of our original sin of racism, which is literally the political base of their success.

In his last speech before he was killed, Dr. King was going so much deeper than civil rights, but taking on what he called the giant triplets of racism, poverty, and war, which cut right to the heart of the systems in his day and still in ours. And that’s why he was so dangerous. He knew, and we must understand again that repentance is not just for our individualized personal forms of racism that still linger, but for those very structures and systems that perpetuate those giant triplets — and that is a core message of this whole day. Listen carefully.

I remember as a kid right after World War II, that some of the parents in our neighborhood told “colored jokes” and others said, We won’t make fun of the color of people’s skin in this house. But all our houses were bought with FHA loans that were eventually paid off with the help of the free education from the GI Bill that that all the veterans like my dad got when they came home. Only the white veterans that is — not the black sailors on my dad’s ship.

In another “Unity Declaration” just signed by an impressively diverse group of 80 church leaders they echoed Dr. King when they said two months ago:

“The historical sin of racism lingers on in America today, continuing and evolving in our social systems of economics and education, policing and criminal justice, housing and gentrification, voting rights and suppression, in our racial geography and, painfully, in the continuing segregation of our churches, which adds to our complicity. Racism is more than individual behavior, language, and overt hostility towards particular people. Racism is systematic and structural in America and harms people of color in very specific, measurable, and tangible ways.”

Repentance from all that will take more than being sorry. 

It’s worth remembering that Dr. King was killed 10 days before Easter. And this 50th anniversary of his murder is three days after Easter.

On the 50th anniversary of his assassination by white hate and fear, I believe the Rev. Martin Luther King would want to bring us the words and power of faith, which motivated all that he did.

He might retell us the story of his famous kitchen table conversion, where after a midnight cup of coffee and frightening death threats to his family in an ugly phone call, Martin Luther King was converted from an inherited faith to a personal and transformational faith that could change both him and the world when he heard the voice of Jesus say, “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth, and I will never leave you alone, no never leave you alone.”

Good Friday was an especially hard Friday this year for many of us. Danger, anger, and fear filled the nation and our own minds and hearts. Where is the hope we were longing for in Easter? It is, as Michael Eric Dyson said in a commentary this weekend, a “dynamic dance” that King knew well, between death and resurrection, despair and hope. It is the disappointment and danger and discouragement of Good Friday that is literally the stuff of life — but it’s the belief, victory, and fulfillment that is the hope of Easter when we remember that the arc of history does bend toward justice. As Dyson says, “Faith summoned Dr. King, an ordained Baptist minister, to the ministry.”

Now 50 years later, it is faith that must summon us too — to this ministry of confessing our original sin of white racism and committing with all our brothers and sisters to commit our lives to racial truth, equity, and healing through acts of resurrection faith!

I want us to say with Bryan Stevenson, who knows the traumatic and systemic results of racism as much as anyone, “Well, I really do believe in things I haven't seen. I actually believe that we can create communities in this country where people are less burdened by our history of racial inequality. I believe it, even though I haven't seen it, and I just think that hope has real power in how you live and how you function … The more we understand the depth of that suffering, the more we understand the power of people to cope and overcome and survive—

I can't act as if I can't do this, that we can't create something better and bigger. And, you know, when you're surrounded by a community of witnesses like that, it will inspire you to do things you might not otherwise be able to do.”

That reminds me of Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Or to paraphrase that text, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”