Today, it’s easy to listen to Dr. King and nod yes. Even Christian racists list him as a hero while attacking today’s civil rights dreams. But latent fear strips faith of its moral power to love the Other. Taken together, this short montage captures something at the core of anti-racism: existential bravery.
From before Jesus and after Dr. King, prophets have called us beyond our fears.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Fear is not the natural state of civilized people.
Bertrand Russell: Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.
FDR reminded Americans that they should only fear their fears.
Marcus Aurelius: If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Watching this and knowing that Dr. King was being spied on by the FBI and was continually receiving death threats by white racists, I’m awed by his bravery in calling out the external fears of others. Should he really be saying that about America?
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes:
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great- grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
Even in Christian communities one person’s conformity is another’s rebellion. During the civil rights movement many Christians felt that desegregation was unbiblical, even liberal. Why the relativity?
Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? (Matthew 6:26).
That’s a radical statement. And let’s be frank here, birds don’t have consciousness. They don’t even know that they are alive. But Jesus goes even farther down the food chain.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! (Matthew 6:30)
Grass? This often gets interpreted as “God will take care of the poor” or “believe and your material worries will be over.” But that’s not the message here. The mention of the clothing is in the context of a culture that equated righteousness with garments, with outward show.
Here Jesus gets at the eternal truth that buttresses the great stands of history: that anyone can be saved in God’s eyes by faith. And what challenges that faith, is not doubt, but fear.
And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life? (Matthew 6:27).
The infinity of eternal life confounds earthly priorities. It seems as though the logic extends that if heaven is really going to be the ultimate experience, than what’s the big deal with fearing Others, be they undocumented, illegal, or former slaves.
Of course this doesn’t mean than nothing bad will happen on earth. Certainly terrorism and global warming compel my action and there is real fear in the homes of Baghdad and the brothels of Mumbai tonight. In light of eternity, I think that suffering is the worst thing that humans unnecessarily cause. Eliminating suffering seems to be one of the best ways to spread the hope of personal and social salvation. To suture that separation which Paul Tillich calls sin.
As the saying goes, we’re God’s feat and hands on earth. Perhaps the evangelism of the future lies in spreading the good news that in light of our eternity, we have nothing to fear. And witnessing becomes acting like it.