By Bob Smietana
It’s easy to love prophets when they are dead, says Baptist ethicist Russell Moore.
You can ignore their pointed words and sentimentalize their message—instead of changing your life.
“Martin Luther King is no longer controversial in American life,” Moore told a crowd of more than 3,500 in Memphis, Tennessee, at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
And that’s a problem, Moore said, because many of the ills King denounced still remain in American life.
Moore began the MLK50 conference—co-sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the Gospel Coalition—with a lament.
Many evangelicals of King’s day, he said, embraced segregation. And in doing so, they betrayed Jesus’ teaching.
“Time and time again in the white American Bible Belt,” he said, “the people of God had to choose between Jesus Christ and Jim Crow—because you cannot serve both. And tragically many often chose to serve Jim Crow and rename him Jesus Christ.”
Today, Moore said, many Christians still are more formed by the culture than by the Bible. Churches remain segregated and divided. And Christians still fail to live up to Jesus’ teaching.
That has to change, he says.
“The answer is not to rebrand but to repent,” he said.
The church will become whole someday, Moore added. And Christians in the United States have to decide whether they want to experience that reality.
“Jesus will build his church, and his church will be a sign to the principalities and powers of the reconciliation that comes through the blood of Jesus,” Moore said. “That will happen. The question is whether that will happen with us.”
Charlie Dates, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago—where King once preached in the 1960s, in defiance of then-Mayor Richard J. Daley—also called on those gathered for the conference to repent.
Dates was asked to preach on how to overcome racial divisions in the church—based on King’s reminder that Sunday morning remains the most segregated time of American life.
Too often, Dates said, Christians think that right doctrine is enough. But right doctrine has to lead to right practice, he said.
“To be a person of orthodox faith is, at the same time, to be a person of right action toward our fellow man,” Dates said. “This is not political. It’s biblical.”
He said many Bible-believing African-American Christians looked to white churches to find allies. Instead, they found opposition—or apathy.
“We have expected you to be our greatest allies in the struggle against injustice,” Dates said. “We wanted you to use your influence with your governors and your politicians to end the long night of systemic injustices. We wanted y’all to cry about the public school to prison pipeline. We wanted you to see that states like Illinois spend more money on mass incarceration than they do on education, that the prison industrial complex is a wicked big business swallowing black men and brown boys.”
And the American church—like the country—was divided by race.
“By choosing to conform to the world, Christians have segregated the church,” he said.
American Christians of the past supported segregation and slavery and unjust laws—creating a world where the scars of the past remain. Some denominations have apologized for the past, he said. And that’s good.
But it is not enough.
“We need to move from apology to strategy,” he said. And that strategy needs to undo the harm that past segregation caused.
Part of making amends for the past means learning more about American history—especially the history of racism and segregation, said Eric Mason, pastor of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Americans were smart enough to figure out how to put a man on the moon, he told the conference attenders. So they are smart enough to do some research to understand our past.
Mason said whenever he counsels people as a pastor, he asks about their family history—because that history still shapes how people live today. The same is true for a nation. America’s past racism still shapes life today, he said.
American Christians—white and black alike—have to “deal with our family history,” he said.
In dealing with that history, he added, they cannot become bitter.
Mason admitted he gets frustrated at the state of race relations in the church. At times, he’s wanted to walk away from his evangelical brothers and sisters.
But Jesus keeps calling him back, he said.
Reconciliation means public action to take on systematic racism and injustice, speakers at the conference’s opening day said. But it also has a personal side.
Small acts of kindness also matter, said Dr. Ralph Douglas West, founder and senior pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston, Texas.
“People are always looking for something huge to do. You could just start by being nice,” he said. “You can be nice to people who don’t look like you.”
West, who pastors a church of 24,000, said he still gets stopped and asked what he is doing in certain neighborhoods.
Most people, he said, don’t know what it’s like to walk in a store and have people look at you with suspicion because of the color of your skin.
“Most of you don’t know how it feels to be stopped by a police officer—just for driving black,” he said.
Kindness is often in short supply, he said.
West told the story of moving into a new neighborhood and getting a racist message. One of his new neighbors came over and told West, “Not everyone here thinks like that.”
His neighbor didn’t deny what happened, said West. He acknowledged the wrong—and then affirmed West as a person.
Let’s get back to being kind, West said.
“Why be ashamed of wanting to be decent to people?” he said.
Near the end of Tuesday’s evening meeting, Moore interviewed John Perkins, a legendary civil rights activist, evangelist, and community development expert.
Perkins told the story of fleeing racism in Jim Crow Mississippi and moving to California. His son was invited to a Bible club—and came home singing about how Jesus loved all the children of the world.
Perkins had never heard that before. That song, and the message of God’s love for all people, led Perkins to Jesus—and eventually back to minister in Mississippi.
Perkins said reconciliation is not an option for Christians—it is a necessity. Christians, he said, are here to reflect the love of God to the world.
“We have to go back and believe the gospel,” Perkins said.
The gathering Tuesday took place 50 years after King gave his final sermon in Memphis.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” King told a crowd gathered at a church that night.
But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he said. “And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.”
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
- Watch the MLK50 Conference on Racial Unity
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s Life & Ministry by the Numbers
- Pastors See Slow Progress in Church Diversity
- Church Leaders Say It’s Time to Speak About Race in America
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.