Over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, protesters across the country sought to reclaim the radical, activist legacy of Dr. King by taking to the streets in protest of ongoing police brutality. Frustrated that his work has too often been softened and sanitized, protesters stressed that Dr. King’s original tactics, which were often direct and controversial, are desperately needed today if the United States is to effect lasting change.
“[Dr. King] has become more of a vague idea and people forget that he was a person that marched the streets,” one protester in Washington D.C., Caroline, said.
“They need to be talking about real activism and real change and not just having a day off work and saying the name.”
Another woman, Janelle, described Dr. King as “a great leader but also part of a larger movement that is still trying to combat the same injustices that he was fighting against.”
Marching with three children under the age of ten, Janelle explained their presence bluntly.
“This problem isn’t going to go away,” she said.
I am the Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary, the National Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I am the pastor of South City Church in Saint Louis. South City Church is a PCA congregation, and it is predominantly white. I am a retired full colonel PCA Army chaplain. I was born and raised in North Saint Louis city. My father now lives in Ferguson, Mo. I am a black man. If that comes as a shock, believe me I understand; it is a shock to me every morning when I wake up and go to work at Covenant Seminary in West Saint Louis County, a mostly wealthy and white suburb. It shocks me every time I walk into my church in South Saint Louis and remember that I am one of only 47 black pastors in my denomination and that I work in a mostly white conservative, evangelical church. I am constantly at the feet of Jesus asking for help in navigating the racial, cultural, and generational waters around me. It is a wonderful opportunity, but it is challenging for someone like me; I grew up believing that white people never really wanted to be in close proximity to black people unless they were the ones controlling the situation. There was also the belief that the only black people who were successful in white organizations were the ones who did not mind being tokens without real dignity in the system. There may be people who believe these things about me. I have even questioned myself as to why I have been given so many opportunities in the PCA. I sometimes don’t like the answers that come to mind.
Recently, a young pastor asked my opinion on cross-cultural ministry. He asked me how an African American got two positions as both Covenant’s Dean of Students and as pastor of South City Church. I explained, “it makes no sense, since so much of the history in our denomination makes me the wrong guy for the job! But through God’s sovereign will, here I am!” His response was, “I guess God always sends the wrong messenger.”
It is difficult to understand why people, particularly Christians, view a statement as patently obvious as “Black Lives Matter” as a subject for controversy. However, sometimes the most obvious things still need to be said.
Black lives matter because God made every one of us in God’s image. Black lives matter because the Bible tells us that we are part of a body and the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Black lives matter because God pays particular care to those crying out under the burden of injustice and oppression.
As people of faith in a neighborhood that has been rocked by protests, tear gas, and arrests, we have sought to stand in solidarity with those who are groaning under the burden of oppression. We offer some physical support — hand warmers, a cup of coffee, an extra pair of socks, but we also offer our presence. The Bible often refers to Christians as “witnesses,” and there is something important about simply standing next to our neighbors in the streets and seeing what is actually happening.
We firmly believe that Jesus needs to be down in the clouds of tear gas and he lets us, his people, participate in his reconciliation by bringing him there with our own two feet. Christians, and particularly evangelicals, need to be in the streets. Our neighbors are just outside our doors, crying out that the system is broken and that our culture doesn’t value the lives of our brothers and sisters. We, as Christians, believe in sin and brokenness and we need to live out our belief that God values all of God’s people even as our culture picks and chooses who is worth caring about.
Maybe I am the only one wondering “What can I do?” as I watch and read the news of demonstrations throughout the country. I have a lot of excuses. I can’t go to the protests tonight because my son has a concert. I don’t coordinate the church service and announcements, so I can’t control what will and won’t be said. I’m on sabbatical so I won’t be a part of the conversations that I hope will happen between colleagues at meetings. But I hope I am not the only one wondering what can be, needs to be, ought to be done.
The videos are chilling – Eric Garner’s life is being choked out of him until he goes limp on the sidewalk and Tamir Rice is being gunned down, the police squad door barely opening as the officer drives by. The images of protests and protesters being tear gassed and throwing canisters back at police armed in riot gear remind me of the summer I spent in Korea, marching in protests against U.S. military presence. That was the summer I learned about wearing damp handkerchiefs near my eyes and over my nose to help with the sting of tear gas and how to wet the wick of a homemade Molotov cocktail before lighting and lobbing. A few years later in a hotel room in Indiana after a job interview, I watched protests and riots take over Los Angeles. Living with, wrestling with injustice day in and day out is a bit like a kettle of water just about to hit boiling. At some point, the water boils, the steam is released.
In cities and towns across our nation, this weekend’s coordinated actions for the #BlackLivesMatter movement center on reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical legacy. As you may recall, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and President Barack Obama — among others — invoked the nonviolence of King in their calls for peace following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approached, organizers had to field countless criticisms by white people telling them, “King wouldn’t approve of what you’re doing” and “I’ve studied his work, I know he wouldn’t react like you have.”
Based on comments like these, it stands to reason that white people in the United States may need a jolt of reality about King’s anti-capitalist agitation.
King was outspoken against capitalism’s oppressive clutch on both the national and global levels. King made it clear that racism and economics were intimately intertwined. I’m reminded of his classic quote, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
King acknowledged that the discussion of class couldn’t be divorced from the discussion of race. While both conversations make us uncomfortable, somehow we would rather remember King as a civil rights leader only, and not also as a vocal critic of capitalism who instead favored a form of Democratic Socialism.
I often hear criticisms that protesters are disturbing the peace, employing overly aggressive tactics, and generally making people too uncomfortable. The hypocrisy in these claims is that King disturbed the peace, used aggressive tactics, and made people extremely uncomfortable. Why do we call for peace when what we mean is order?
On the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (Jan. 15), just as the civil rights drama Selma was nominated for best picture in the Oscar race, one fact of American life was little changed.
Sunday morning remains, as King once observed, the most segregated hour in America. And, against a backdrop of increased racial tensions, new research shows that most Americans are OK with that.
Two in three (66 percent) Americans have never regularly attended a place of worship where they were an ethnic minority, according to new polling analysis released by LifeWay Research.
“People like the idea of diversity. They just don’t like being around different people,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based research firm.
“Maybe their sense is that church is the space where they don’t have to worry about issues like this,” he said. But that could be a problem, because, Stetzer said, “If you don’t like diversity, you’re really not going to like heaven.”
On the night I came out, my mom didn’t sleep. She stayed up all night long, crying and praying to God, begging God that what I had said wasn’t true, and if it was, for God to show her some way forward. She waited desperately for a divine word to fall upon her like manna. When it didn’t, when the morning light came and her world was still warped, she got out of bed to go searching for her Lord. She figured God would be at the Christian bookstore.
She worked the aisles for an hour, flipping through books, setting them down, moving from one section to the next. When she found nothing remotely related to this, she started to panic. A store employee passed behind her and she grabbed her arm — asked her where the books on homosexuality were.
The girl gave her a puzzled look and then said:
“Oh. I’m sorry. But we don’t carry books like that here.”
My mom’s eyes blurred with tears. She nodded.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She muttered as the girl walked away.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
On the drive back, she heard the girls’ answer twist and reshape in her mind:
Mothers like you with sons like that don’t belong here.
This past weekend, my mom and I recalled those early days as we walked down the streets of Portland, Ore. We had just finished up the final session at the annual Gay Christian Network Conference, and as we walked to our hotel to pack up our things, we felt at the strange seam stitching us from there to here: From hopeless and alone, to three years later sitting palms-raised, on the receiving end of so much hope and blessing and life from a gathering of Jesus-crazy LGBTQ outsiders. Through all the mess along the way, we managed to press on together, as a family.
Our first response to the horrible and frightening violence of Paris should be grief. False religion always makes the religious grieve, but when it engages in ghastly violence against other human beings who are made in God’s image, it should break our hearts as it breaks God’s.
These hateful terrorists, masquerading as religious believers, said on video they were the “avengers” of the prophet Mohamed. As such, they murdered cartoonists in the office of a magazine they identified with blasphemy. What these killers, and those like them, don’t understand is that they are the real blasphemers now by forcing their false and murderous distortions of Islam on the world and on other children of God. Their religion is now violence itself, a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace. Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, from the Reformed Church in America, has called Paris an “identity theft” of the Muslim faith. Several Muslim leaders have said that the damage terrorists like these do to the image of the Prophet Mohammed is much greater than any cartoonist could ever do.
While the tenet of freedom of speech has been invoked throughout the media coverage of the attacks, the religious implications here run much deeper. They are about how we in the faith community should respond when we are attacked by those who disdain us, disrespect us, distort us — as many believe the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo regularly did — and even viciously attack us. The magazine has often crudely, provocatively, and even gleefully satirized all religions in very offensive ways, suggesting that the fundamentalisms in all our religious traditions completely define the meaning of faith. Charlie Hebdo is apparently driven by its own ideology of secular fundamentalism, which regularly strikes out at all people of faith.
My first real participation with the tension that exists between the LGBTQ community and the church came when I was a freshman at Penn State University in the spring of 1996. As is the case on many campuses, there was a preacher who would stand outside one of the campus buildings on the green and preach sermons to students. Because he stood outside the Willard Building, he was ‘affectionately’ referred to as the 'Willard preacher.' One spring day, there was a large National Coming Out Day Rally scheduled to happen on campus on the steps of the theater that sat just opposite the Willard Building. When I walked out of my calculus class that day, I had no idea that I would be walking right into the middle of a real live demonstration of the tensions that existed between LGBTQ people and the church. On one set of steps stood a group of students and speakers calling on people to be true to who they were, to not be ashamed of their sexual orientation, and to be open and proud about it. On another set of steps, led by the Willard preacher, a group of students stood chanting, “Sodomy Is Perversion!”
I did not fully understand all that was going on in my heart that day, but I felt like I had to make a choice. One choice I could make was to join the chanters. Now, growing up I had been taught that God did not affirm homosexuality, but I did not feel good about the chanting and jeers that were happening, and I didn’t think I could do that. WWJD, right? I didn’t think this was it. A second choice I could make would be to join the gay pride group. It may seem like an easy choice, but at that time and at that point in my life, I felt that joining this group was a way of saying no to God. I was struggling in my faith, but was I ready to take this step away? I could not see a way that these two groups could peaceably co-exist, and I felt like my faith in Christ was on the line. In the end, I sat down with some friends in the gay pride group.
Fast forward to this past Saturday morning. This time the choice was easier for me. The Westboro Baptist Church had gathered with their signs in protest outside the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., where the Gay Christian Network was holding their annual conference. As an act of solidarity, support, and protection, Christians from around the Portland area gathered to build a ‘wall of love’ so that conference attenders could enter with little interference from the hateful rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist group.
I grew up in a household run by a woman of the civil rights movement. My mother, born Sharon Lawrence in 1948, was a teenager when she joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, one year after Dr. King’s legendary march from Selma to Montgomery and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With the foundations of progress and protection laid, there was still much work to be done. My mother was based in Philadelphia, where she helped establish one of SNCC’s embattled northern offices.
A few years back, as I fished through boxes brimming with old papers and notepads, I discovered handwritten notes from James Forman to my mother. Forman offered detailed instruction to the then 18-year-old young woman who would become my mother only a few years later. Her job was much like mine is now: church outreach. The way she tells it, there were only a few churches in Philadelphia willing to offer their pulpits for movement people to speak. It was her job to secure those pulpits when giants like Forman, Stokely Carmichael, and others came to town.
I grew up aware of the women of the civil rights movement — my mother was one of them.
Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by the rare effort made by the film Selma to highlight the roles of women in that struggle, which by many accounts was the high-water mark of the civil rights movement.
Our tenth anniversary kicked off a season of unprecedented strife, most of which was circumstantial. My husband and I were homeschooling our three sons (all under the age of six), navigating multiple part-time jobs, and trying to manage my sudden health crisis. Both of us lacked sleep, energy, and patience. Prior to this time period, conflicts had not been an issue for us. We had them, processed them, forgave each other, and moved on. But a decade in, something shifted. And it wasn’t for the better.
In retrospect, we regressed to deeply embedded patterns from our families of origin. My northern European clan silently withdrew from one another and stoically pretended nothing was wrong. His Italian American household vocalized anger in operatic fashion. Tempers flared, voices cracked — and then someone made a joke and served dessert. That dynamic may have worked for them but when my husband applied it to our marriage, he unequivocally trumped me. Unable to match his emotional output, I resentfully deferred.
In the midst of one blowup, I made a tearful plea. When I’m angry, what if you listened rather than responded defensively? Based on his expression, this was indeed a new concept. As soon as he stopped matching my anger, the tenor, severity, and duration of our conflicts changed — this time for the better.
When he dialed down, he created a safe space for me to talk, which de-escalated my anger and validated my concerns. From his side of the equation, quieting his defensive tendencies allowed him to see that I was not imagining problems but rather responding to something real. When he was culpable — which was certainly not all the time — and offered me an apology, it calmed the raging sea and allowed us to address the actual issues rather than endlessly reacting toward one another.
This was not an easy or quick shift for us. I had to coach myself to speak up, present my side without blaming or accusing, and choose to trust him. He had to weather my tempest and face a degree of powerlessness. Fourteen years later, we’re still learning how to do this well.
I’m not a sociologist but I wonder if is this same dynamic contributing to the racial tension that we are now experiencing in the United States.
My Darling Daughter:
I’ve been meaning to write you this letter in case you need it when you’re older, but after hearing about the Dec. 28 suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, I feel an urgency to get this down.
Right now, you’re not even a year old, far too young to understand the tragedy of how Leelah, feeling socially isolated and rejected by her Christian parents, stepped in front of a passing semitrailer on an interstate in Ohio. She was just 17. As a mother, her death breaks my heart. As a Christian, it moves me to speak out.
When I was a few months pregnant with you and the perinatologist told me that the prenatal blood test “showed no signs of Y chromosomes,” I knew that you were a girl. I was thrilled.
On the sunny spring afternoon that you were born, the nurses wrapped you in a blanket and put a tiny, gender-neutral pink-and-blue-striped cap on your little head. As soon as I started speaking to you, my voice a steady coo, you settled, and I knew that you were my daughter.
But what if it turns out you aren’t?
What if you are actually my son?
“I do know the voice of God.”
That’s what David Oyelowo, the actor who beautifully portrays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the new film Selma, told me last night. It’s that voice, he said, that called him to play the role.
I was at the December preview of Selma in Washington, D.C., and then took my family to see it at an early showing on Christmas day. I sometimes respond emotionally to films, but Selma made we weep. It also made me grateful that for the first time in 50 years, a big studio had finally made a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people in the movement around him in Selma. I believe this movie, unlike most others, could actually change the nation’s conversation about race and reconciliation at a crucial time, perhaps even providentially.
On the premiere night, I met David Oyelowo, who spoke publically after the film about his faith. I don’t hear that kind of talk very much in D.C., but David was open and forthright, saying that playing the great Christian leader became part of his personal calling as a Christian.
In our conversation afterward, I asked David what he meant by those words. His answer prompted me to ask for an interview with him before the film, which debuts this weekend, came out. He and I talked last night (listen to the full interview below).