Christianity Today op-ed: It’s Not Enough to Preach Racial Justice. We Have to Champion Policy Change., by Esau McCaulley (Wheaton; author, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (2020)):
The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us to push past tweetable quotes and big talk to true Christlike love.
For a black boy growing up in Alabama trying to make sense of himself in a hostile world, Martin Luther King Jr. was my hero. Alongside a startingly pale Jesus, a picture of Martin hung beside photographs of my family. I knew Martin by sight. I could recognize the tenor of his voice.
The mental architecture of my young black imagination was formed by grainy videos of mass church meetings and marches and by the hymns and spirituals that threatened to shake the United States to its foundations. I knew about Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery before I could find them on a map of my state. I do not remember not remembering Martin.
By contrast, the King that I see online on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a stranger to me. This beloved figure is in part the construction of a society that never fully loved him or the cause he represented. King died an unpopular man. In 1968, the year of his death, 75 percent of Americans disapproved of his views and activities. That was up from 50 percent in 1963.
Today, his approval rating nears 90 percent. Some might suggest that with hindsight, Americans have come to appreciate King in a way that was impossible during the racist era in which he lived. But things are not that simple. If social media is any indication, a large portion of America still hasn’t wrestled with the King of 1968. ...
As the American public today reckons with enduring racism, it costs very little to be notionally against injustice in the abstract. The audacity of King and the civil rights movement is not lauded. It remains terrifying to the status quo. Many approve of King because, despite the holiday, they know little about his thought.
King was never popular, but what exactly led to his drop in popularity as the 1960s wore on? Two main reasons: He continued to be a truth teller about racism, and he focused on the economic enfranchisement of black Americans. With both, he pushed past big, easy-to-like notions of justice to advocate instead for particular change and particular policies.
Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, King maintained that America remained structurally racist. “The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro,” he said. “They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” ...
The King of 1968 also pushed white America to move beyond protesting our dehumanization to actually assisting with the construction of a black life. ... That was the King the public disdained—the one who fought for economic transformation. The King who had a 75 percent disapproval rating was the King who had the courage to speak plainly about the racism that he saw. It was the King who pushed for specific changes in public policy and corporate practice.
But it was also this King who made space for hope. His hope for the future did not arise from a failure to see or acknowledge racism and white supremacy. His last book names and explores white supremacy at length. What made King special was an unshakeable faith, rooted in his belief in God’s purposes, that racism did not have to be the final sentence in the book of the American story. He believed that “the value in pulling racism out of its obscurity and stripping it of its rationalizations lies in the confidence that it can be changed.”
As pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders who participate in America’s public square, we don’t remember King rightly by pulling a few disconnected words about justice out of context and plastering them all over social media. We remember him rightly by taking an honest assessment of ourselves as a country. This involves both lauding the progress and looking toward the future. And it involves a robust commitment to understanding the link between injustice and economic disenfranchisement.
King didn’t see his economic advocacy as a move toward partisanship. He saw it as the most Christian of activities, a manifestation of love for neighbor. His truth telling was not a mere venting of frustrations. He was doing work similar to the biblical prophets of old. He was holding up a mirror to American culture so that it could see what it had become in light of God’s vision for a just society.
When we pretend we can live above the fray and not get into the rough and tumble of people’s lived experiences, we are becoming less Christian. We are squandering our chance to be witnesses to what is possible. And we are forfeiting our God-given right to dream.
We are blessed that Martin never did.
Other op-eds by Esau McCaulley: