Every January and February, we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the triumphs of African Americans throughout American history. This year, I felt a heightened combination of deep sadness and renewed hope.
I felt a grieving for the history of the United States and the present-day realities of our country, communities and churches for what could be—a harmony of real humility and radical love that does not abuse power but stands for unwavering justice.
Significance of January and February
These months bring together people of all ages, races, faiths and denominations. Themes of justice, unity and dignity reign from East to West.
We all know these months are more than honor and celebration. They are a reminder of our country’s history, one that devalued lives of certain individuals. These months are a testament to the uncompromising work and hope of individuals who did not stand for these abuses of power.
These months are a wake-up call to the realities of our society, realities that continue to polarize our communities and identities. They are a charge to churches and Christians to live as Christ in the midst of our cultural, political, economic, racial and religious divisiveness.
These months also beg questions for churches: What now? What are we doing between now and next year’s MLK Jr. Day or Black History Month celebrations to challenge societal understandings and actions towards racial justice?
King’s challenge to us
Dr. King asked a similar question in his 1967 address “Where Do We Go From Here?”
He highlighted the successes of the Southern Christian Leadership Committee, while charging pastors to advocate for more justice. He proclaimed: “With all the struggle and all the achievements, we must face the fact, however, that the Negro still lives in the basement of the Great Society. He is still at the bottom, despite the few who have penetrated to slightly higher levels.”
We cannot deny this reality still rings true. The current political state of our country is evidence of this. This reality demands churches wake up and stand up. It demands that we no longer ignore the racial divides in our cities, in everyday conversations with others, in the representation of our leadership or in the pews of our churches.
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So, what was Dr. King’s response to his own question, “Where do we go from here?”
King’s prescription for moving forward
First, King stated: “We must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amid a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.”
As the body of Christ, we should be on the front lines of asserting the dignity and worth of persons from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, because every individual is created in the image of God. Any act of denial towards this truth is a denial of God’s creative nature and deep love for all his children.
Some of us will never know what the African American experience is; so, we must stop pretending we do. Recognizing our privilege—on a personal and a communal level—is a critical step in standing for justice. This privilege is across racial, economic, religious, educational and other lines.
While we may not fully know one another’s experiences, this does not give us a pass in cultivating a posture of empathy towards our brothers and sisters of all backgrounds. By recognizing our privilege, we can make the conscious choice to go deeper in our awareness of how others perceive us versus how those who are different than us are perceived.
Second, King noted: “Now another basic challenge is to discover how to organize our strength. … Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly.”
The idea of power for churches comes with tension. We are quick to recognize the power of leadership, elder boards or governing bodies, but we are slow to admit to the societal power the American church carries.
Our churches hold a great deal of power in the eyes of society, whether we like to admit it or not. This power can be life-giving or life-taking depending on how it is leveraged for justice.
We are in a crucial turning point in history when churches either will stand up to oppression, racism and bigotry or they will continue to remain silent in their efforts and actions. To whom and to what are we placing our power and giving power?
In taking steps to become aware of privilege, we need to take time to unpack the history of “power” in our churches and communities. We need to begin to see the ways in which our power is being utilized for good or silenced for harm.
Last, King proclaimed: “I want to say to you … as we talk about ‘Where do we go from here?’ that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. … What I’m saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!”
Fast forward 53 years. Our society, the posture of the American Church and the hearts of Christ followers still need restructuring. Our country may never change fully, but as those called to represent Christ, this does not mean we get to sit by idly.
“Make America great again” will not awaken our country to biases towards the other. Rather, it will be the radical love, humility and justice of America being born again—of bringing all people, all churches and all denominations together in the fight for justice that will spark revolution and reconciliation in our churches.
Hope for the future
May this begin to ring true. May we wake up to the power in our hands, for it is not a power of human ability but the power of God’s ability.
As the body of Christ, we represent this power of love, justice, reconciliation and hope, whether we claim it or not. Are we going to be the image of love and justice, or are we going to be the image of abuse and silence?
May we live out this powerful declaration from Dr. King: “Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.”
Julianna Marraccino is a dual Master of Divinity and Master of Social Work graduate student at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary and Garland School of Social Work and a social work intern at the Center for Church and Community Impact (C3I). The views expressed are those solely of the author.