In the face of recent events in our nation, I find that my heart is deeply grieved today. In the last six months, we have witnessed one the nastiest political campaigns in our nation’s history. During this campaign we heard the worst insults imaginable. Last month, we witnessed a brutal attack by a radicalized Muslim on the LGBT community in Orlando. Earlier this week, we witnessed disturbing images of black men being shot dead by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana. And last night, we witnessed the vengeful killing of five police officers during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) rally in the streets of Dallas. Now, as I sit at my desk this Friday evening at 8pm, staring into my computer screen – I’ll say it again – my heart is deeply grieved. I am grieved over the anger. I am grieved over the violence. I am grieved over the hate. I am grieved over the escalating and inflammatory rhetoric of American special interest groups. I am grieved that the culture wars in our country are raging out of control. I am grieved that our country’s leaders continue to trot out tired platitudes and point fingers of blame. I am grieved that celebrities prattle on about equal rights as, in their moment of fame, they pour gas on the fires of hate, and then fly away to their vacation homes in the south of France. I am grieved that everyone I talk to is either terrified or furious. I am grieved that I see very little forgiveness. Very little hope. And very little love.
A few days ago, I read an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 composition, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This excerpt reminded me of Dr. King’s legacy. I grew up in inner-city Atlanta during the tumultuous 60s, so I became personally familiar with Dr. King’s work at a very young age. I was in the first “crop” of desegregated white kids who were integrated into a black public school. So, as one of five white kids at C.D. Hubert elementary school, I learned a lot about Martin Luther King. And much to my grandmother’s dismay, and despite the racial violence that I endured as a “white minority”, Dr. King gradually became one of my boyhood heroes. This was because, at twelve years of age, sitting as the only white in my all black classroom, I never saw Dr. King as an advocate for the black race. Instead, I saw him as an advocate for freedom. I saw him as an advocate for me. As I grew into an adult, I continued to study Dr. King’s thoughts and my understanding of his message matured further. I realized how deeply Dr. King’s thinking was rooted in his understanding of the Christian gospel. Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham was no exception. He wrote that letter, from the floor of a jail cell, in the early days of the civil rights movement. In the letter, Dr. King defended himself against accusations being made against him by white, Alabama clergymen. These clergymen chided Dr. King as being a trouble-making outsider – and they made allegations that his social protests fostered meaningless violence.
Dr. King gave an excellent defense of his actions, and he did so by demonstrating how his strategy of non-violent, civil disobedience was rooted in the Christian gospel. Dr. King referenced the book of Daniel and the early church. He quoted Christ, Saint Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and Paul Tillich. The gospel of grace was embedded deeply in Dr. King’s heart. In fact, it was so deeply embedded in him that, in the weeks before every protest that he led, he asked all his demonstrators to meet together with him so he could teach them the nature of Christian civil disobedience that is found in the scriptures. He then called everyone to prayer, to repent of anger, and to ask for the grace of Christ to help them endure the mistreatment that they would inevitably face. In his letter from Birmingham, Dr. King beautifully unpacked his heart for the gospel, equality, and freedom. Amazingly, he was so confident in Christ’s provision of grace that – at the end of the letter – he tacitly invited his accusers to repent and join him in the Christian fight for civil justice. He said, “One day (you) will know that when these disinherited children of God who sat down at (a whites only) lunch counter – they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Wow! Those are amazing words.
Again, Dr. King brilliantly defended his position in a way that invited reconciliation and courted allies from among the white community. This was made possible because Dr. King’s movement was not primarily informed by a “black against white” mentality. No. It was a movement primarily informed by the Christian gospel. As I said earlier, Dr. King’s Birmingham letter drips with the gospel in almost every line that he writes. And because Christian forgiveness, non-violence, charity and love fueled Dr. King’s actions, he slowly expanded the civil rights movement of the 60s to include blacks and whites, democrats and republicans, Christians and Jews, and other freedom loving people from around the globe. Again, it was not a black movement. It was a freedom movement. As proof, you need to simply recall the last words of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At the beginning of his clarion call for freedom, Dr. King said, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” Then, on ten different occasions at the culmination of His speech, Dr. King cried “Let freedom ring!” He said it over and over again. “Let freedom ring! Let freedom ring!” At the end, he thundered with passionate joy – almost singing, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! I’m free at last!” When I first heard that speech in the auditorium of C.D. Hubert elementary school, chills of joy spread over me. That speech was for me. I am convinced that Dr. King’s success in that civil rights movement was a direct result of his posture of peacefully standing firm in his fight for freedom for all Americans. He believed in the miraculous grace of the gospel. He refused to lash out, in even the worst of circumstances. He forgave his enemies. And he continually invited those who loved freedom to fight at his side.
Sadly, our present civil rights movements are not imbued with Dr. King’s DNA. In particular, the Black-Lives-Matter (or BLM) movement does not seem to be fueled by a desire for equality, freedom, and reconciliation. Instead, it seems to be an unorganized, reactionary movement that is fueled by anger, revenge, and sometimes – outright hate. The demonstrations we often see are not non-violent protests that call for justice and freedom. They are more commonly chaotic riots that call for death and anarchy. Contrary to the heart of Dr. King, The BLM rhetoric does not commonly invite white involvement. Instead it tends to demonize white people and emphatically demands that they shut up and sit down. This was made most clear in the much lauded speech given by Jesse Williams at the 2016 BET awards. On that evening, Williams gave an intensely polarizing speech that worked to divide, not unify. Williams said, “We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called “whiteness” uses and abuses us, burying ‘black people’ out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, and our entertainment like oil, like black gold.” Williams’ speech was not a call for equality and justice, it was an inflammatory call for revolution against whites. After the speech, several white celebrities took to Twitter to support Williams – most notably Justin Timberlake. But these supporters were summarily condemned – simply because they were white. This kind of rhetoric will not achieve equality. It will not produce freedom. It is the angry radicalized rhetoric of James Cone, Huey P. Newton, and Malcolm X; not the loving Christian rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King. Indeed, in his Birmingham letter, Dr. King himself denounced these kinds of radicalized revolutions. King says, “(A radicalized civil rights movement) is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil’.”
Tragically, this is the prevailing nature of our current, cultural rhetoric. Not just in the BLM movement, but in almost every movement in America. Across the board, we seem to currently be made up of people “who have lost faith in America, repudiated Christianity, and concluded that (anyone opposed to us) is an incorrigible devil.” To make matters worse, we currently have no dominant leaders today in America who employ Dr. King’s brand of leadership. The leaders I hear – leaders like Jesse Williams, Alicia Garza, Cornel West, Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr., Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Rachel Maddow, and Deray McKesson – all of these supposedly cry for civil justice, yet when examined closely they all seem to more accurately call for a vengeful revolution that desires to reorder the American social power base to favor their own particular people group. Our current civil rights movements do not seek freedom. On the contrary, they all seem to seek a re-ordered brand of slavery.
On the positive side, I am seeing some voices beginning to rise. Leaders like Ben Watson, Brian Key, John Piper, Scott Sauls, Rosaria Butterfield, Eric Metaxas, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, and Crawford Loritts. Yet, these voices need to grow louder – and other voices need to join with them – if we are going to recover a meaningful, unified movement toward equality and freedom in our country.
Now, I have written all of this in the prayerful hope that our country might somehow recover the heart of Dr. King. In recovering that heart, my hope is that we will learn, like Dr. King, to place our trust in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, expressed in non-violent civil protest, in order to produce freedom, equality, and mutual respect. I am also writing in order to gently challenge all my friends and fellow Christians. I would like to ask you to consider the impact of your words. I would like to ask you to think about your posts on Facebook and Twitter and the overall power of the voice you use in social media. Words are powerful. The scripture tells us that one small word can create a raging fire. The nature of your words on social media are going to either bring people together or they are going to drive people apart. So, when you feel the need to speak – do it in a prayerful way. Speak with a humble and repentant heart. Speak with respect and honor. Speak on the side of a gospel that includes all nations. Speak on the side of Christ. As you may recall, before the battle of Jericho, Joshua asked Christ “Whose side are you on?” Christ answers, “No! Neither! But whose side are you on?” So then let us ask ourselves the question: “Whose side am I on?” Do not ask, “Is Jesus on my side?” Instead ask yourself, “Am I on His?”
Certainly, many people in America will be unable to identify with your particular experience. That is a given. But, if we make our experience – as a black person, a white person, an LGBT person, a rich person, a poor person, or an abused person – if we make that experience into an idol that earns us a special right to speak; an idol that disqualifies all other voices because they do not share our experience – then we will inadvertently create barriers instead of opening doors. I know this well. I grew up in the inner-city of Atlanta as a poor, “white trash” kid, who suffered abuse of almost every kind. For so long, I used my experience as a weapon and a badge of honor. I often qualified my sense of subtle superiority with “You just don’t know what it’s like to be me…” I didn’t realize that this posture came from a twisted sense of pride in me and it pushed people away, instead of inviting them in. I certainly am not accusing anyone of this. But I am asking you to prayerfully consider that it may be a temptation for you. There are many, many, many people in this country who want to stand together in a common fight for freedom and equality. They lament the injustices made against African-Americans. They lament the calculated murder of police officers in Dallas. They lament the senseless killing of those in the LGBT community. They lament the continuous attacks that are led by radicalized Muslims. It grieves them deeply to see the violent face of racism and class-ism. But as Christians – black and white – we must learn to lament together in the face of ALL injustice. Because brothers and sisters, if all lives do not matter, then no life matters at all.
So, let’s pray to together for the grace of Christ to keep us humble, to repent often, to be courageous, to stand against evil, to love our enemies, to be wise with our words, and to trust in God. Meanwhile I long for the day when our souls will be at rest and we will sing together at the throne of God, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We are free at last!”
Tim Melton, Associate Pastor, Surfside PCA Church (Myrtle Beach, SC)
Current Christian Voices of Freedom:
- Ben Watson: Ben is an NFL football player and Christian Activist. Ben is a fantastic leader and author of the book, “Under Our Skin.” Ben also writes an excellent blog that offers sublime pastoral, Christian wisdom – from an African American perspective – that is simply priceless. Watson’s words aren’t “black gold” as Jesse Williams would say. They are Christian gold.
- John Piper: The senior pastor of Bethlehem Bible church in Minnesota provides some excellent work on race relations, particularly in his book, “Bloodlines.” Click here to see Piper’s video documentary that introduces “Bloodlines”
- Sam Allberry: Sam is the author of “Is God Anti-gay?” He is pastor and writer based in Maidenhead, UK. He is a global speaker for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and an editor for The Gospel Coalition. Listen to Sam’s story by clicking here.
- Dr. Rosaria Butterfield: Butterfield is the author of “Openness Unhindered” are both powerful voices that provide understanding and promote Christian love and sacrifice.
- Scott Sauls: Sauls is the senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, is another powerful voice. Scott writes a very helpful blog, and he authored the book, “Jesus Outside the Lines: A way Forward for those who are Tired of Taking Sides.“
- Jemar Tisby: Jemar (B.A. Notre Dame; MDIV RTS Jackson) is the President and Co-Founder of the “Reformed African American Network“ (RAAN) where he blogs about theology, race, and culture. His writing has been featured on Urban Faith, Christianity Today, and The Gospel Coalition.
* If you are not familiar with these leaders, I would encourage you to get know them, read their books, and follow their blog posts. I feel that the pastoral wisdom, love of the gospel, and prophetic passion for freedom found in these leaders lives and words would be a great benefit to all Christian believers.