A Time Such as This: MLK and the Future of the Church

Lorraine Motel

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty years later, the church in America is still grappling with the systemic aftereffects of multigenerational racism. The things I’ve seen and heard and experienced as a husband and father in a multiracial family have confirmed the clear teaching of Scripture: sin, prejudice, and blindness are deeply embedded in the systems, structures, and cultural shapes in which we all live and move.

And the biggest problem is not found in what we can see but in the fact that many of us can’t.

I recently sat in a conversation where an older Christian openly ridiculed the education level of a young black man who was shot and killed by the police in recent years. I recently participated in a seminary alumni discussion where issues of racial prejudice and injustice were sidelined as “social justice” issues with no relevance for the church. I recently talked with a homeowner who simultaneously declared her lack of socioeconomic bias while announcing her strong objection to the prospect of lower-income residents living nearby. And just yesterday I saw a prominent evangelical pastor declaring that Donald Trump is a better man than those Christians who believe that matters of race are a vital category for Christian concern.

A typical response from political or theological conservatives is to fine-comb each example above and tease out a justification for these obviously problematic comments or perspectives. Another typical response is to fine-comb the statements, views, or background of the person raising the issue, searching for some reason to discount the messenger, thereby delegitimizing the uncomfortable realities being experienced and exposed. A third common response is to throw a label at the person or the view and assume that “liberal” or “leftist or “SJW” or even “Marxist” will be enough to demonize the rest of what comes out of the objector’s mouth.

Far too often, there’s a knee-jerk impulse to respond in ways that discount the existence or the importance of racial problems.

But those who know the full story of the Christian Scriptures and the full breadth of the Christian gospel know better. Those who’ve eschewed identity politics and partisan tribalism know better. They don’t know better because they are better; they know better because God in his difficult grace has exposed them to the biting realities experienced by minorities, the insidious nature of systemic evil, and the glorious multicolored effects of the Christian gospel.

They know that Abraham was chosen so that in him all the families of the earth might be blessed. They know that Moses received a law from God that told the children of Israel to love the sojourner in their midst because they themselves had been sojourners in Egypt. And they know that the prophets of Israel preached a justice that was nothing if not social.

They know that Jesus was almost martyred before his time, because he dared announce that Israel’s rejection of the prophets resulted in God bursting through their nationalistic walls. They know that the apostle Paul was the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles. And they know that the book of Acts tells how the Spirit of Christ crossed ethnic boundaries to bring near those who were far off.

They also know the beginning and end of the story—they know how, from the very beginning, all human beings have been made in the very image and likeness of God, and they know why, at the very end, the crucified and risen Lamb is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals (Revelation 5:9).

Of course, we haven’t reached the end yet, and in our sin-laden world, we must acknowledge that injustice will never be fully resolved in any particular location or heart. But twisting this reality into a shoulder-shrugging absolvement of our individual, corporate, and public responsibilities violates everything about Proverbs 24:11–12:

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?

Far too often, those who enjoy majority status deny the very existence of the obvious disparities and divisions that exist in our country. In many evangelical communities, theology is carefully parsed and shaped to ensure that interracial unity in the church and racial equality in the culture are pushed to (or even beyond) the margins of Christian concern. In these discussions, “racism” is so narrowly defined that only card-carrying members of the KKK would fit the bill, the church’s “mission” is so insular that it bears no prophetic or shaping role in its local communities, and the m.o. is to lecture more than listen and reload more than repent.

Yet the day is coming when a middle-eastern Jewish rabbi will appear in the eastern skies and plant his feet on the Mount of Olives. The day is coming when a brown-skinned, dark-haired, cross-scarred descendant of David will come to make right not only what we couldn’t but what we wouldn’t. And on that day—even if it comes soon—American evangelicalism with all its hubris and celebrity and politicization and selective justice will be a distant memory. Because on that day the spotlight will be on the pure and righteous one toward whom the arc of history has been bending all through its long dark night.

The future of the church belongs to him, and because it belongs to him, it belongs to no one color, unless you really believe that God plans to stop moving in China, and the Middle East, and the Global South, and among minority communities throughout the United States of America. So for those who would like their American churches to just pass by on the other side of minorities and immigrants and internationals and refugees and anyone else on the margins of society, it would be wise to remember: You can’t put your foot on Aslan’s neck and expect to keep it for long.

If we want the future of the church to look like God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to remember what the community of heaven will look and sound like. It will look like a multitude that no one can number, and it will sound like an omnilingual choir with no one voice carrying the tune. Here, in perfect harmony, the full orchestra of the redeemed will finally do what we were redeemed to do.

With the lilt of a negro spiritual and the tones of an Amazonian tribe and the texture of Scottish pipes, an overwhelming sound will begin rolling across the vast plains of the new creation. We can’t know all the words that will be sung, for the songbook of redemption is vast. But there’s no doubt that among the hymns we’ll sing will be songs of slavery and freedom, because that will be our shared story. And if we want to be ready for that day, we should start doing whatever we can to cross the lines that divide us and begin practicing together even now. If every Christian did so in our communities, the gospel song rising from that holy rehearsal might sound something like this:

Free at last,
free at last,
thank God almighty,
we are free at last.