As part of my course work for my doctorate I recently had the privilege of going on a civil rights tour. In a class dedicated to preaching and social justice our professors led us on a Civil Rights journey in which they constantly asked the questions, “how can we learn from the past in order to engage the future and what is our role as proclaimers of scripture?” Prior to the actual class we engaged many different authors and issues including: many of King’s works, W.E.B Dubois, Fred Gray and his legal work, Arkansas and the Little Rock Nine, Will Campbell and his call for a radical Christianity, and even Michelle Alexander’s contemporary work The New Jim Crow. However, what really made the class come alive was the tour. Over a six-day span we lived the civil rights in Nashville, Atlanta, Tuskegee, Montgomery, Birmingham, Little Rock, and Memphis. We stood in the same building where the lunch counter sit-ins took place in Nashville. We met Fred Gray and heard of his many legal triumphs in Alabama and at the Supreme Court. We stood in the very spot where the Selma to Montgomery march ended in 1965 and read King’s speech where he calls on the state of Alabama and the national government to give all people the right to vote. And we walked the exact steps that nine high school students walked in 1957 as Central High in Little Rock was desegregated. At each stop history came alive. It was one thing to read about the events in books and even to watch movies or documentaries about them, but an entirely different experience to walk the steps they walked and to relive the struggle for freedom. I have a new respect for the men and women and children who had the courage to stand up for what was right knowing that they were risking their lives to do so. And I have a new sadness for that period of time in our country, a country in which we claim all men are created equal and yet we still fail to extend the same rights to all people, regardless of race, or gender, or nationality, or economic status.
But what impacted me most was a recognition of what the civil rights movement was all about. The civil rights movement was not about allowing people with dark skin to sit where they want on the bus or have the right to vote, although those things were important. The civil rights movement was about extending human dignity and worth to all people. It was about understanding that we are all created in the image of God. It was about recognizing that we all need each other and if one person is mistreated, we are all mistreated. It was about recognizing that those in power should not use their power to remain in power but to serve and help others. And especially for Christians, the civil rights movement was a reminder that we are called to speak out against the powers and principalities that enslave others and witness to the Kingdom of God in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one.
Sadly, during the civil rights movement too many in the church stayed silent. Too many were content to keep the peace even if it meant others being mistreated. Too many failed to speak up about what was right and instead called on people with black skin to calm down and wait for change to happen slowly. However, as Christians we are called to usher in the Kingdom of God. We are called to live in the reality that we are so sure God’s Kingdom will come that we live now in anticipation of that Kingdom. We are called to speak in the words of Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” I don’t think Christians during the civil rights era were bad, I think they were just blinded by the current culture and failed to act as they should.
Which makes me ask the question, what am I blinded to today? How have I bought into culture in such a way that I fail to see the injustice around me and speak out against it? When am I too fearful of what others will say about me that I fail to proclaim God’s truth to the world? Even though the civil rights movement is over, racism is still rampant in our country and Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America, what is the church called to do? As a minister of the gospel what I am called to do? And racism is not the only injustice. What about gender equality, what about immigration, what about repressive tax structures? Too often either out of ignorance, or a misunderstanding of what Jesus meant about the Kingdom, or fear, we as Christians fail to speak. But now is the time. And it begins with a very simple question, what injustice is happening now that I am blinded from seeing and how should I as a follower of Christ address it?
Editors Note: This is part of a series of reflections that I have had since going on a tour of civil rights sights during February of 2013. This is partially my way of processing what I am learning and also a place to enter into dialogue about ways for us as Christians to engage the future.