This article first appeared in the From the Editor column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 33, number 01 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Last month the U.S. observed the national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and now Black History Month is upon us. What better time for Christians to contemplate King’s legacy and message, as well as the plight of the black person in this country? We therefore are pleased to feature La Shawn Barber’s informative and balanced cover article on King, his work, and his philosophy. Those of us who lived through the turbulent 1960s can recall that King was not always someone for whom white people would have expected to have a national holiday declared in his honor. Some suspected him of being a communist and even more viewed him as a lawbreaking troublemaker. In the South, even some of those who did not dislike him on racial grounds resented him for upsetting the status quo. One hundred years earlier, white Christians in the North had been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement that ended slavery, but in the 1950s and ’60s white Christians in the South often resisted desegregation and it was more often white secularists from the North, rather than white Christians, who marched with the blacks in their struggle to realize their civil rights. Though there were notable exceptions, on the whole it was not the church’s finest hour. The civil rights movement was identified at the time with the political Left. It was largely Democrats who participated, not Republicans. In today’s terms, it would be considered “politically correct.” Without the benefit of hindsight that we now have, it was easy for Christians to be suspicious of, and to stand aloof from, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement, and the clear majority did. Yet, despite the faults one might find with King’s theology, his personal life, and even his political philosophy, the cause that he was fighting for was manifestly just and the repressive sociopolitical forces he was fighting against were manifestly evil. What he and his movement accomplished greatly benefitted not only American blacks, but other racial minorities, and it helped heal a moral cancer in the country’s soul. By not taking a clear stand on this issue, the white church ceded the moral high ground to the secular Left, and it left a smirch on evangelical Christianity. Despite their taking principled and even courageous stands on many issues before and after the civil rights movement (e.g., abortion), evangelicals’ past failure to offer a prophetic voice against civil rights abuses has continued to be a stumbling block in the way of many people considering the claims of Christ. I know this firsthand because I have tried to share Christ with many such people, and it was an obstacle that I myself had to overcome in order to accept Christ. What lessons can we draw today from this piece of not-too-distant history? One obvious lesson would be: just because the political Right is championing an issue doesn’t guarantee that it is morally right, and just because the political Left is championing an issue doesn’t ensure that it is morally wrong. Our God is transcendent, and it only makes sense that truth is transcendent and cannot be perfectly captured or embodied by any one political party or movement. Although the political Right is more closely associated with traditional values and therefore biblical influences on such issues as sexual morality, the sanctity of life, and the family, the political Left also exhibits direct or indirect biblical influences in its emphasis on social justice issues. Clearly, it seems, a majority of evangelicals identify themselves as Republicans, but there are also many evangelicals who are registered Democrats or Independents. Conversely, while secular humanists seem to have a clear preference for the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the political Right in general have their own share of irreligious people, not to mention hypocritical professors of religion. In the name of increasing political clout, moral and immoral people on both the Right and the Left have often formed unholy alliances, and righteous causes have been compromised as a result. Conscientious Christians should therefore not enter the ballot box and mindlessly put a check next to every candidate and ballot issue they’ve heard advocated on Fox News, or even those tacitly endorsed in a handout received at church the previous Sunday. We should ask ourselves: are there any issues facing Christians today that future generations might look back on as we now look back at the civil rights issues of the 1950s and ’60s? Are we ceding any moral high ground to the secular Left? How should Christians view torture as an interrogation technique? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Wars of choice? It is not my purpose here to advocate for one side of these or other debates, but rather for critical thinking and deep biblical reflection. One of the purposes of the JOURNAL is to promote such critical thinking, and so we have published, and will publish again, debates, Viewpoint opinion pieces, and probing feature articles that will assist you in thinking through contemporary issues. As we consider the lessons evangelicals can learn from the civil rights movement, the need to think critically and biblically and not merely follow the right-leaning pack is surely one of them.