It happened fifty years ago. April 4, 1968.
Half a century has passed.
As a fifty-two year old, I was alive when it happened, but I do not remember the event. My mother told me that she held me protectively in her arms as she listened to the horrifying news reports.
At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
We cannot hide ourselves from the violence of what transpired that evening. The single bullet, fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle, entered through Dr. King’s lower right cheek, about an inch to the right of his mouth. The bullet cut a sickeningly destructive path, fracturing Dr. King’s jaw and then traveling downward, severing his jugular and breaking several vertebrae before finally coming to rest in the right part of his back.
Dr. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, where medical professionals opened his chest and did all they could to revive his heart. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.
He was thirty-nine.
The day before his assassination, Dr. King made his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Toward the end of the speech, Dr. King offered these important words, as prophetic as they are poignant:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Last night, during a visit to a Jazz club in New Orleans, I experienced a group of racially diverse musicians entertaining an equally diverse crowd.
The front man and the bass player were black. The pianist was Asian American. The drummer was white. The appreciative crowd included a variety of races and ethnicities, all of whom were experiencing what felt like a sacramental engagement with a music that seemed otherworldly in its virtuosity. At some point during the music, I thought about what remains one of the most racially segregated experiences in American culture—the Sunday morning worship hour. Tears formed in my eyes as I began to connect the dots. An assassination fifty years ago. A church that still fails to incarnate the beloved community that Jesus envisions. A jazz club in New Orleans, offering a musical communion that the church has yet to celebrate fully.
Not very long ago, I recently heard a pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. I asked him for permission to share that viewpoint in this blog post and assured him that I would not use his name so that his privacy would be protected. He gave to me his permission.
Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, shared in a conversation among clergy colleagues:
I don’t know why we keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism. But when we keep making racism a point of focus (like we are in our annual conference and other places in the church), all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting a hugely negative thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.
Days after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist church member, who also permitted me to share her comment:
People have told me that they don’t want a colored pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too. I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.
Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of race in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to cause a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our history, our prejudice, and our dehumanizing presuppositions.
When contemplating this issue, my concern has to do with the simplistic way in which many of us define racism. I suppose that the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of racism—“any form of discrimination based on race”—can be utilized as a bare minimum. But the kind of racism operative in the church is often far more elaborate and insidious than one-on-one discrimination. It is an institutional racism, often perpetuated by the structures and processes that many within the denomination are reluctant to change or even acknowledge. These structures and processes are often undergirded by an ethos of what might be called “white privilege” which, in its essence, is a desire to preserve the status quo because of the way in which the status quo guards and protects the privileges of the race in power.
Some have suggested that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct, created to further an agenda. My experience has led me to believe that this perspective is dreadfully misguided.
When I was first a United Methodist District Superintendent, I introduced a pastor of color to a Staff-Parish Relations Committee as part of a new pastoral appointment. The conversation covered many important topics that night. The topic that received the most time, however (over half an hour, in fact), was how the congregation was going to respond to a person of color in the pulpit.
As I drove home that night, the essence of white privilege became painfully clear to me. As a white male pastor in Western Pennsylvania, I will never have to experience my race or gender being discussed as part of a pastoral in-take. I will never have to hear people consider the possibility that my race might inspire some people to leave the church. Granted, they might eventually leave the church for some other reason—my preaching style, or my temperament, or my interpersonal skills. But I will never have to overcome initial prejudices that are based upon my racial identity. I have the privilege of not having to deal with such prejudices, and this privilege is decidedly white.
When one begins to take seriously a racism undergirded by institutional inequities and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric like this:
“Hey, those black folks are just as racist as I am!”
“Black people need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. After all, I never owned any slaves. It’s time to get over the past.”
The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complex and institutional dynamics of racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often causes one to ignore completely the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.
I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. But this much is certain: The current emphasis on dismantling racism in the United Methodist Church is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully patient with the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few ethnic minority clergy in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.”
These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.
Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to guard against the desire to oversimplify these tensions. I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, I am grateful that the bullet that ended his too-short life could not kill his urgent and still-unfolding dream. I hold that dream deeply in my soul, all the while praying for the courage to become one of the instruments through which a dream might be more vibrantly realized. As Dr. King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Unsettle me, Lord Jesus, that I might never be inclined to accommodate a hurtful and unjust silence.