In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
— MLK in his letter from the Birmingham jail
I’ve been listening to the audio book version of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since it’s the audio version, recordings of some of his speeches and letters are included. Yesterday as I sat on the beach listening to MLK read his letter from the Birmingham jail, there were numerous places where I cried out, “Lord have mercy! Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past!” The above quote above was one of those moments.
How else can I respond but with remorse and lament? I stand with those “churchmen” on whom I bring judgement. The white church was wrong to stand on the sidelines while African American brothers and sisters relinquished their time, energy, health, children, and their very souls into their movement for freedom. How might the history be re-written had the white church stood alongside their black brothers and sisters from the day Rosa Parks was arrested? Looking back, I think most of us recognize that we should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with them… that’s where Jesus would have been.
How can I avoid making this mistake today? What are the issues rumbling through our nation for which I am tempted to stand by watching and uttering my own “pious irrelevancies”? Am I really willing to put skin in the game when it comes to standing by convictions? Do I believe, unlike the church of the 60s, that the gospel is concerned with social issues?
I am often challenged by the words of one of my African American colleagues wisely uttered last November. We spent four days as a regional team of 100+ InterVarsity staff exploring issues of power and injustice in our nation and hearing from brothers and sisters from the many ethnic groups we represent–Latino, Native, White, East Asian, SE Asian, & Black. We recognized that we all enter conversations about racial reconciliation with different lenses and perspectives. It had become clear to us that for staff of color, navigating issues of race and ethnicity is a daily experience–the water they swim in–whereas for white staff like me, we can choose to engage or disengage at will. So often I choose to disengage and enjoy my white comfort and prosperity built on a foundation of oppression and marginalization of others. That is why my colleague’s words struck me so deeply. She said (my paraphrase), “As children of God, we are family. Families stick together through thick and thin. When we see a brother or sister struggling as a victim of oppression, we don’t count the cost, we just go to their aid, we stand with them in the struggle.”
Don’t count the cost. Don’t count the cost. Don’t count the cost… this phrase has echoed in my soul since I heard it. How often I count the cost! How often I’m concerned with my welfare and choose safety rather than involvement, comfort rather than pain, withdraw rather than engagement.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV) If Jesus left the comfort, pleasure, and glory of heaven to step into our suffering, how much more must I follow his example! When the moment of engagement arises and my spirit prompts me to go and join my brothers and sisters in struggle, by God’s grace let me not count the cost, but let me run to stand with them.
Lord, only you can form this spirit in me. Have your way. Live your life through my life. Let my life be an extension of the one you began and let me finish the work for which you have sent me, until the day you return. Amen.