Today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. This will be the 30th time this has been observed as a federal holiday, after being signed into law by President Reagan in 1984 and first observed in 1986.
This year, the media has used MLK Day to ask questions about ongoing racism in America. This has been fueled by events involving black men and local police in the last few months. This is a painful conversation for me, but one I think we still need to have.
I have read a lot of Dr. King’s writings and speeches. He is often portrayed as a champion of the rights of black people, but I think this is reductionism. He was operating in a different era, where discrimination against black people was both prevalent and legal in some states. This has changed, and it is difficult to make a case today that any type of racism is legally sanctioned in America today.
I think that Dr. King understood that there needed to be a fundamental change in the way his fellow citizens thought about race. Attitudes toward black people might have been Exhibit A for the problem, but it was not the root issue. The essential problem was the assumption among some folks that they were superior because of their race and should therefore be privileged. The corollary was that some folks were inferior because of their race and therefore justifiably deserved scorn. Dr. King said, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” He understood the root problem.
Here is the thing that bothers me. I run into what I might call “casual racism” all the time among Evangelical Christians. King helped bring American racism into the open as an issue nearly 60 years ago. Racism in any civic or business practices has been essentially illegal in America for over 40 years. Why would anyone think it is still OK for Christians?
Let me give you an extreme example. Last year I was in Nepal on a Week of Ministry trip for the college. Professor Mike Cahill and I took our group of students to an “international” church, the largest evangelical church in Kathmandu. When we were introduced to the pastor of this church before the service (an American living in Nepal), he told me a “joke” about our President that was clearly racist. Why would he do this? Why would an evangelical living in Nepal think it was OK to tell a joke denigrating the race of the American President to another evangelical from America he barely knew? I’ll let you figure that for yourself, but it makes me want to say, “Houston, we [still] have a problem.”
Nebraska Christian College