Reflections on Martin Luther King Junior Day 2019
What is Normal?
With all of the turmoil in the news and the images on social media platforms, I find myself wanting to hide. To make matters worse, I feel a deep sense of disconnectedness due to the pandemic changes (as I’m sure many others feel with me). News and media are overwhelming, loud, hard to swallow, disturbing, confusing, and deeply, deeply sad. Social distancing is sad too. It’s clear how isolated many feel across the board, and at this point, it would be far easier to delete my social media apps, pretend like my decisions are the only ones that matter, and wait this out until everything goes back to normal.
What is normal, though? Is it the false sense of connectedness we feel through social media? Is it a pace so fast as to let us think that we can outrun the sadness and injustice because we’re “too busy”? Is it the avoidance of tensions and divisions between races? Is all this brokenness normal?
I would like to say that it’s just a sign of the times, but, unfortunately, this brokenness is normal. It has absolutely been my normal. And if I’m honest, I liked the normal. I even benefitted from the normal in a lot of ways. I was able to go from place to place, from high school to college, from neighborhood to neighborhood without a lot of fear of resources running out or my safety being threatened. I am comfortable in the normal.
I moved back to Stillwater to teach two years ago. Once the fall came around, I was living in three different circles—one at work, one with Redeemer Church, and another with my family. These circles are good, and they are all gifts in their own right. Though heavy, interconnected, and not slowing down anytime soon (or so I thought), I was comfortable. I could go from circle to circle, not having to fear or confront much of anything. I was living so fast that I truly did not see anyone or anything unless they were directly affecting me.
The perfect example of this was Martin Luther King Jr. Day two years ago.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
My degree is in history, and my favorite class in college was “African American Biographies.” In that class we read the writing of the great civil rights leaders from Frederick Douglass all the way to Malcolm X. These were stories that I heard marginally, if at all, and I was inspired to strive to teach in a way that honored all races. In my first year of teaching I planned to participate in Black History month, and the perfect way to start was to promote the showing of Black Panther at the public library on the Sunday before MLK Jr. Day. As I encouraged my students to join me, it hit me that I had not been spending much time with my younger brothers because I was spending so much time planning for class and with my friends from church. I decided to invite them to the movie too. It was the perfect solution—check my civic duty box, spend time with my brothers, and look like the “woke,” young reformer/educator superwoman I was who could do this all on her own.
When Sunday came around, I sprinted from church, to lunch with friends, and then to pick up my brothers and their friend. I felt the guilt of not being around much pile up on the way to get them, and then it slowly turned into determination for them to have a good time with me. I was not thinking of all the preparation that went into the event, all of the speakers they had lined up to discuss why Black Panther was relevant and important to African American culture, and all of the history surrounding the day. All I could see was myself.
My brothers, as young teenage boys can be, were restless at the movie and asked when when it would be over. I wanted them to love me and affirm my choice to spend time with them so badly that I decided we could skip the panel and leave after the movie was over. After all, no one would notice that we were gone. Still the best sister ever, and still checking the civic duty/“woke” teacher box. As we were leaving, all three of the boys agreed that they felt awkward leaving early. Not the response I thought they would have to my decision. Oh, well. Keep moving. I shooed them out the door as the panel was starting, and before we left, I recognized one of the organizers of the event. He was the grandfather of one of my black students. I do not know if he knew who I was, but I knew him. “Great. More guilt,” I thought. Sorry I can’t be everything for everyone.
As I justified my decision to myself in my head, my brothers agreed in the backseat that we shouldn’t have left. That is when it hit me. At an event intended to honor the lives of African American men and women who are not represented the same ways in films as people who look like me, all I cared about was keeping up the appearance that I cared about others. For the first time in all of my reading and teaching about race, I saw my own implicit biases. It hit me that the reason why my student’s grandfather organized the event was because his life was impacted by the problems of race in the United States, even in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I apologized to my brothers for not making the right choice, but the truth was I had no idea what to do. How could I make this right? How could I keep going with my Black History month plans after seeing how much I did not understand or really care about racial issues unless it directly affected me. Because the truth is that on my own, I do not care about anything unless it directly affects me. None of us do. And scripture tells us why.
Where Are We Guilty?
Genesis 3 shows God’s creation rejecting the goodness of living under the law of God, abandoning his perfect order and provision for human beings. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God in his knowledge of good and evil. Essentially, they said to a holy God, “We can do this better. All you have given us is not good, or at least not good enough. We can do this on our own.” God then subjects creation to futility (Romans 8:20) through a series of curses, and the beautiful, holy relationship between God and his created, beloved, humans broke. An offense as serious as calling a Holy God “not enough” was justly punished. Not only was the relationship between God and people broken, the relationship between Adam and Eve broke too. God cursed man’s labor and the earth itself, making it hard for men to provide. Woman’s desire was now for her husband who could never fully satisfy. God is the only one able to provide and satisfy, but now humans look to each other to do for them what God alone can do. Essentially, because of human brokenness, no one is able to care about anything save for what they love and long for in the aftermath of sin.
But in God’s kindness and grace he did not leave us without hope. The promise of a Savior who would reconcile all things to himself came even before the end of the curses. Genesis 3:15 says this: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This means that the coming savior would take a blow, but he would ultimately defeat sin and evil in the world, restoring humanity to right relationship with God and others. This is the promise of God, and by no other means can we achieve restoration.
As I began to wrestle with my sin seen in my sheer selfishness that spring, I buried down the story of MLK Jr. Day because I was completely ashamed. Even in all of my time spent with students through my time as a Young Life leader, as a friend, and now as a teacher, I realized how I was truly incapable of loving anyone other than myself. All I had to give were my own culture, dreams, and experiences—things that I see are now privileges I’ve been given. I believed that God existed to make me great and bless my life. I do have privileges which I now know are not rights, and I have no power to give them to others on my own. There is a lot of shame in this realization because it means that we are convicted by the sins of omission (the things we do not do that God has commanded us to do). We are also convicted of our sin of partiality on any basis because it is easier to care for those who can either do something for us, or who are simply more like us (James 2). This is a painful process, and the realization of our own depravity is dark. But walking in conviction and repentance is good because we are not without hope.
This was when I heard the true Gospel—the story of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, who was the only one who could possibly pay for the massive offense of human sin. Jesus Christ was the only one whom death could not touch because he was sinless. He was in right relationship with God, his father, and man, his creation. He loved people because he is love. There was nothing humanity did or could ever do to earn this kind of love. God is the source of all love and justice, and he desires to have a people who love him and live in right relationship with him and others to the glory of his name forevermore.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 describes what this will look like when this becomes reality: 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
This is the good news! God is redeeming a people for himself; they will be a people from all nations (meaning all ethnic groups), tribes, and tongues. They will glorify their creator, and they will love each other because they are completely loved. They will no longer need for their sin to be exposed or to be taught how to love God or their neighbor because God will do it in his people. All glory to Him forever! For those who believe in Jesus Christ and are saved, there will be no more sin, death, disease, hate, hardship, or injustice because God is good and holy. However, we all know that this is not a full reality yet. Even if there are small glimpses of hope or relief, or even vengeance, it will all change at the next flashy news story. For now, racism is real. Pandemics exist. Hardships endure. Inequalities continue. Injustices rule. However, these are not reflections of God. They are reflections of our own sin for which we will all be held accountable.
Where Do We Start?
As believers, it is not enough to just speak or post about these realities. Though words are vitally important, there is more work to be done. First of all, for those who do not know the Jesus of the Bible, I pray that you know him, that you are convicted of your sin, and put your trust in Christ alone. Without him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). To the believers, there is more work to be done. We must pray and fast, asking the Lord to show us our sin. We must ask him to give us hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone that we might repent, believe, and seek peace and pursue it will all men and women in all areas of our lives (Psalm 34:14). It is only the grace of God that can heal the brokenness. It is only God’s Word that teaches us to live in right relation with our brothers and sisters. It is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the work of His Spirit who can right all wrongs. In Christ there is no excuse to do nothing about injustice, but let us ask the Lord what each of us may do in our own circles and communities, in our own families and church bodies, in our own neighborhoods and workplaces. Not all communities are the same, but there is injustice everywhere for us to lean in to and act.
One helpful place to start is reading history (especially the histories of our local
communities). I learn so much from biographies and memoirs of black leaders in this country which help me to form an understanding of long-lasting issues. Also, the discipline of finishing a book that makes me uncomfortable is healthy. We are so used to consuming tweets and images that we struggle to sit with a book. We have to put ourselves in the place of the writer and work to empathize with the words. We also have to build a context for the language and motivations of the writer. These issues will not go away overnight, and as history tells us, we must seek to understand the long-term implications of our words, actions, laws, and even posts. Studying is such a good practice. The same way that it is good to study the Word of God, it is also good to study specific issues. I am listing a few resources I found helpful the past couple years, specifically with the topics of the true Gospel and racism in the United States. I do not claim to be an expert, but these have been good starting places for me.
Even in writing this, I feel my heart pushing back because it means giving up the comforts of silence. I would much rather post goofy songs and jokes on my social media rather than engage with the conversations of this moment. Giving up comfort means asking the Lord to convict and renew us as believers. Maybe it is acknowledging that you have been believing a false gospel, which was the way in which the Lord has revealed himself the most to me. It may also mean studying a topic you would rather not think much about. It may mean allowing someone who is not like you into your family and your home for a meal, even at the risk of discomfort. This can also extend beyond race—differences in age, or marital status, or sexual orientation can be uncomfortable too! These implications are scary. They require us to sit and dwell in the sadness of the world, and they require us to act in love, not fear or vengeance. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is worth the discomfort.
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
The Souls of Black Folks by WEB du Bois
The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson
Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
“The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic Based Suffering,” chapter from Suffering and the Sovereignty of God edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor
The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield
The American Gospel (Documentary on Netflix)
13th (Documentary on Netflix)
-By McKinsey Stokes