“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund [at the point of death] religion.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
In a letter written on April 17, 1959, President Richard Nixon issued an invitation to Martin Luther King Jr. to join him at a conference to talk about how religious leaders might support the president’s efforts toward making employment more just, especially in regard to the issuing of government contracts. This comes from the speech King gave at that conference, as it was published in 1960.
“Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate men with God, but to integrate men with men and each man with himself. This means, at bottom, that true religion is a two-way road. On the one hand it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund [at the point of death] religion in need of new blood.
This, therefore, becomes a grave challenge to the Church and to churchmen. To meet it, all churches must accept the obligation to create the moral climate in which fair employment practices are viewed positively and accepted willingly. We must utilize the vast resources of the churches and synagogues for the many edu- cational functions they can employ,and for which they have highly developed skills, facilities and experience. However, to possess resources is worthless without the will to be effective. The time has come when the churches are needed by their people and their nation as never before. They, uniquely, can break the deadening silence which engulfs the well-meaning white people…”
I keep hearing white people referring to images of unrest and protests in Ferguson with a kind of detached disgust in their voices. They don’t want to see it. They don’t want to hear about it.
Although the vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, that sort of protest doesn’t make good b-roll for 24 hour cable news, so the images we see are the worst instances. I get the impulse to want to look away. But, I think that impulse says more about the banality of cable news than the intentions of my friends. Cable news is disgusting.
However, I think that as Christians, we have an obligation to engage, and to bear witness. Most of what is happening as our brothers and sisters protest in Ferguson and around the country is an attempt to communicate something we need to hear.
I don’t recommend watching the cable new channels, but I recommend finding some way to engage. I recommend looking at the pictures being posted constantly by those who are there documenting the events on the ground. I hope that you will resist the impulse to completely disengage. Resist the impulse to look away, and the impulse to judge. Instead, try to find a place of compassion and then watch, listen, learn, and pray. Before you hold forth on what the problem is, and how stupid these protesters are, try to imagine being born into this world as one of the men or women you see protesting on the television. Do you think for a moment that you would be that different from your African American brothers and sisters marching on Ferguson if you were in their shoes?
To be a Christian is to bear witness to injustice. To be a Christian is to move toward those who are left out and left behind by the systems of the world–no matter the reason. To be a Christian is to stand with the marginalized, and to work for the full integration of all into the community of life and peace. Christ obligates us to such things. Any religion that encourages us to do otherwise is a dead religion.
So, friends, open up your eyes. Watch and pray. Look for the place of compassion in your heart. It’s time for us to grow up, to care deeply and to act… to sacrifice some of our affluence and privilege on behalf of those who are struggling, to stand where Jesus stood–with the poor, the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the unclean, the broken down, and the crucified.