MLK and the peace that isn’t peace

MLK and the peace that isn’t peace January 18, 2016

Public Domain: Martin Luther King's March on Washington
Public Domain: Martin Luther King’s March on Washington

In church yesterday, our community prayer included several quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King distinguished between a “negative peace which is the absence of tension” and the “positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He said that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” White Christians today would do well to be challenged by these words. To what degree do we value a peace that isn’t peace? Do we subscribe to a justice of “law and order” in which the poor and marginalized suffer quietly without disturbing our social order? Do we subscribe to an ethic of “family values” in which there is no network of mutuality outside of our nuclear families? Is Jesus okay with our “peace” that isn’t peace?

White America has been living through half a century of backlash against the Civil Rights movement. We need to examine honestly to what degree the Civil Rights movement made the federal government into the evil, intrusive bureaucracy it is in our collective white imagination today. It all started when Eisenhower sent the national guard to desegregate Little Rock schools in 1957. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson knew that it was over for Democrats in the South when he signed the Civil Rights Act into law. I’ll bet he would be surprised to see how long the backlash has lasted.

It’s never officially been about race. Not even when the n-word was still in free use. The concern has always been about “busing” our kids across town to schools that are “unsafe” and “rowdy.” That’s why we built the suburbs: to avoid “crime,” to enjoy the “peace and quiet” of not having to walk on the same sidewalk with “thugs” who can’t keep their pants up. In every other country in the world, the poor people live on the outskirts of town while the rich people live in the center. Modern American suburbia would not make sense without the white flight that happened in response to the Civil Rights movement.

Suburbia was created by white people who just wanted to have a safe place to raise their families. It’s not an evil desire to have for one’s family on an individual level. It just creates an unjust, racist social order when school districts, grocery stores, and policing strategies are geographically shaped by white flight. No individual white family is to blame for shaping the world this way. It is the fault of the invisible hand of the market, which simply does not create utopia as readily as its evangelists want to believe.

The moral order of “family values” in the white suburban church is the self-validation of the ethos of suburbia. It is certainly worthwhile to teach our kids discipline and self-control so that they can do the work of God’s kingdom. The problem is when moral purity becomes our means of defining ourselves against the “welfare mamas” who couldn’t keep their legs closed and live in a “culture of dependency.” The white church needs to repent of the system of moral self-justification by which we have been telling ourselves covertly that morally lax black people don’t deserve our hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

Jesus’ two most prominent parables about hell didn’t have anything to do with our morality of “family values.” The more familiar one is Matthew 25 where he decides the eternal destiny of humanity based upon who welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, fed the hungry, or visited the sick. When we build a moral system that allows us to make peace with not doing these things as long as we’re not actively, deliberately harming anybody else, then we are in rebellion against Jesus’ teachings.

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day and refused to share his table with Lazarus, a poor beggar at his gate. There was nothing in Torah that explicitly commanded the rich man to share his wealth with Lazarus. He might have been a perfectly morally righteous man by all the standards of modern suburban Christianity. He might have kept his children from having premarital sex, using profanity, and drinking alcohol. He might have had the Bible memorized and articulated impeccable, orthodox doctrine with perfect percision. But he went to hell for refusing to recognize his place in the “inescapable network of mutuality” that included Lazarus the beggar. He went to hell because the standards of Biblical justice are higher than what suburban Christianity has come to call “morality” today.

The Hebrew word shalom describes the “positive peace” that Martin Luther King, Jr, was talking about. Shalom doesn’t just mean an absence of conflict. It means the “completeness” that happens when everyone belongs and thrives in a social order. If we are seeking to live according to the values of God’s kingdom, then we must embrace our responsibility for the belonging of everyone around us. Any ideology that seeks to exonerate us of this responsibility is not of Christ. Let us seek the true peace in which everyone has a place and everyone contributes.

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