“You are bringing politics into the church!” That is a frequently heard comment when pastors and community leaders bring things like MLK Day commemoration services into their churches. I asked the gathered audience at the Millbrook Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Monday night if they had ever heard that before. I was honored to give the keynote address for their MLK Day 2018 service — which was filled up with leaders and members of local Christian Reformed Churches and students and faculty from Calvin College. Heads were nodding yes in response to my question all over the congregation.
The title for the evening was “Where Do We Go from Here?” — the same title of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final book — and it was a question that brought a standing-room-only crowd to Millbrook CRC on a very snowy night, perhaps in light of the political situation in which we all now find ourselves. Where in the world do we go from here?
Often, MLK birthday commemoration days and events are a little vague. How can we be better people, have a better country, or perhaps do a day of service in honor of one of the greatest moral leaders in our nation’s history? But not this year. You could feel the tension and the controversy in MLK events everywhere and in the media coverage of them.
A very sharp contrast was evident between Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision for racial equity and healing, and the contrary words and behavior of a new president after his first year in office; in fact, many see it as trying to move MLK’s vision backwards. Perhaps the most referred to words on MLK Day, apart from the inspirational words of King that were often quoted, were the president’s words from a meeting in the Oval Office just days before — words that were both profane and hateful — denigrating and disparaging people of color.
On the plane traveling to Grand Rapids, I read an article in the New York Times that came out of interviews with many black church members from across the country.
They said they saw America slipping into an earlier, uglier version of itself. And when Mr. Trump used crude words to describe Haiti and African countries in an immigration discussion, they said, he was voicing what many Americans were thinking, even if it was something they no longer felt comfortable saying: America prefers white people.
America’s original sin of racism lingers on, they and many others see. It lingers in our systems, structures, cultural narratives, and even top-level meetings in the White House. From racialized slavery to the institutionalized continuation of white preference from the current president of the United States, that sin was felt at every MLK service around the country. And it hurt.
The White House didn’t deny the hateful language at first, but later had its surrogates lie that those words were never spoken, only to be later exposed for doing so. It left the nation asking a most damning question on a day when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.: “Is the president both a racist and a liar?” Very embarrassingly, Donald Trump spent his MLK Day of service going golfing at his private Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Springs, Fla.
But as I said to the gathered Christians in Grand Rapids, known for being a very white Christian city in Michigan, the question is not about what’s in Donald Trump’s heart, but about what is in ours? The issue is not whether his faith is real but whether ours is. The heart of the problem is not the president’s swearing, but his racial preference for white people over people of color and his implementation of policies that support that preference.
Since what is at stake now is the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith, the biggest question for many of us in the Donald Trump presidency is whether the operative word in the phrase “white Christian” will be “white” or “Christian.” I asked that on Monday night, and the strong response was “Christian.” In the weeks and months ahead, that commitment will be put to the test.
In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." As I spoke to the large group of Christians on Monday, I asked whether, in this present political moment, King might say, “We will have to repent not merely for the words of the openly racist bigots threatening their violence, but the silence of the white Christians who didn’t speak up for faith and justice.”
What we need to do in a moment like this is not to bring our politics into the churches, but to bring our theology into our churches in regard to racism. And that is the deepest legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Racism is, finally, a matter of theology. As I said in America’s Original Sin:
Sin is the right word to use for racism, as we’ve been suggesting, because it’s something that seeks to undermine the very creation of human beings equally valued, loved, and cared for in the eyes of God. Our worth as men and women comes from all of us being the children of God, and all other political affirmations of our equality derive not just from governments but directly from our identity as God’s equally valued children ... It’s not easy to face the deep wounds of racism in our country and in our church. It will require self-examination and repentance. But just as Christ reconciled us to God, let us show one another the forgiveness, grace, peace, and mercy we have received. The church must be at the forefront of racial reconciliation and justice and healing in this country. It’s nothing less than our calling.
And to all those politicians who gave their traditional lip service to Dr. King this year on his birthday, I will repeat what I have said before: “We must get to a place where racism and our response to it are not identified as liberal or conservative issues. We need leaders across the political spectrum to stand up to racism, to address both explicit and implicit biases in order to keep moving our nation to ‘a more perfect union’ where freedom and opportunity exist equally for everyone.”
I am very grateful for all the services and celebrations of MLK Day 2018, sparked by churches and community organizations, and the days of healing mobilized by the Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) effort and many others. But this year, the MLK Days were transformed from days of commemoration to days of commitment.
The words of King that most came to mind for me this year, and ones we played in Grand Rapids, speak directly to what many people in the CRC church and many of us are feeling. King concludes his 1967 "Where Do We Go from Here?" speech to the SCLC with this:
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice … Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, "We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome."