It’s late in coming, but I don’t want to let the Martin Luther King holiday pass without a couple of suggestions for readings that cast light on the intersection of race and America’s religious history.
Let me make two brief suggestions. First, I would encourage you to read something by Martin Luther King himself. Since his assassination in 1968, King has gradually become one of those iconic figures from America’s past that almost everyone wants on their side. Republicans and Democrats, secularists and Christians, whites and blacks regularly appeal to King’s example and memory to further a host of distinct, and even contradictory political agendas. This means that there is a real temptation to read King selectively, to cherry-pick from his public pronouncements to find the King most suited to one’s taste. One of the ways to combat that is to read a LOT of King, and to make sure that your selections span his career.
Realistically, most of us don’t have the time to do that, so if you can read only one thing from King right now, why not start with his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written while King was confined in that city in the spring of 1963? It has been reprinted countless times (the copy I am referring to as I write is contained in King’s book Why We Can’t Wait) and it is also readily available online. (Try here, for example.) You can probably read it in a half hour or so.
Here are just a few of the reactions to the letter that I had as I recently re-read it:
First, I continue to marvel at how openly and substantively Christian it is. Contemporary public debate about race in America typically lacks that crucial dimension, it seems to me. Uncomfortable with the idea of absolute moral truths (if not downright contemptuous of the idea), we tend to assert our moral claims as unquestioned dogma requiring no justification. King, on the other hand, offers a sophisticated moral argument for civil disobedience grounded in appeals to both Scripture and natural law. His assertions are grounded in reasoned argument, not shrill slogans and emotional appeals.
Second, I was struck yet again by how scholarly the letter is. King buttresses his argument with a host of allusions to prominent Christian thinkers that most evangelicals have never read: for example Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich (not to mention Jesus, the apostle Paul, and the Old Testament prophet Amos).
Third, King’s letter is also overtly historical. Central to his strategy is the effort to recast the contemporary America debate over racial justice as part of a much larger, and much longer conversation that crossed both continents and centuries. He also goes out of his way to appeal to the principles of the American founding. Our national heritage is mixed, King was quick to acknowledge, combining a “hard-won heritage of freedom” with a “tradition of cruelty and injustice,” but he insisted that the former was more powerful than the latter, and that in working to build a more racially just society, Americans in the 1960s “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream.”
Finally, I am convinced that King’s letter still has much to say to American evangelicals in 2015. The letter rings with sobering reminders of the temptation to complacency and the willingness to acquiesce to injustice when we are not its victims.
Second, let me simply renew my endorsement of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. (I have written at some length about the book here.) The authors survey how Americans have imagined Jesus in racial terms over the course of U. S. history. (Was Jesus fair-skinned? dark complected?) They conclude that by the nineteenth century, Americans were increasingly envisioning the Palestinian Jew Jesus as white. Although focused specifically on attitudes about race, the book offers a convicting case study of the ways that cultural values inform–and often distort–the substance of our religious faith.