I celebrate this Dr. King day by choosing to challenge and disturb you.
Seeds planted in the spring, flourish in the fall. This is true whether the crop is wheat or tares. Events do not occur in a vacuum. Nor does history begin on the day we were born. Ascending Kings and elected Presidents are both capable of benevolence and tyranny. Philosophers, poets, pastors, and politicians have contributed to the current climate. We did not wake up here this morning. The winds of adversity harnessed to accelerate change in one generation, may only return to destroy that progress in the next. For every step forward, there are two steps back.
Mark Twain wrote of how all of culture conspired to reinforce the evils of slavery, “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.” What grieves me the most is Twain’s observation, “the local pulpit taught us God approved it.” Sadly, too many pulpits and podiums are once again excusing these sad and ignorant notions that empowered the philosophies that endorsed slavery and segregation. Presidential podiums, Pastoral pulpits, and Philosophical pontifications have conspired to inspire the current crop of white nationalism that seems to be in season once again.
Consider the influential philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel writing in his The Philosophy of History, “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it –that is in its northern part –belong to the Asiatic or European World…What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.” Further consider the influential philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to adduce a single example where a Negro has demonstrated talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who have been transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have been set free, nevertheless not a single one has ever been found who has accomplished something great in art or science or shown any other praiseworthy quality, while among the whites there are always those who rise up from the lowest rabble and through extraordinary gifts earn respect in the world. So, essential is the difference between these two human kinds, and it seems to be just as great with regard to the capacities of mind as it is with respect to color…”
These philosophical musings shouldn’t be excused as simply “Well it was a different time.” They are to be condemned, as should the bad fruit the poisoned soil continues to produce. Understandings produce thinking. These philosophical understandings produced a society where enslaving others was morally acceptable. And these philosophical understandings enable the thinking that allows for calling countries inhabited by brown and black people “Sh**holes” while welcoming people from countries inhabited by majority white populations. This content is inexcusable, no matter the context.
The “least racist” person would not make such remarks, nor would they feel the need to declare themselves “The least racist person.” Racist aren’t wearing pointed hoods and white robes, like white supremacist of the past, but they are amplifying a voice buried in the soil of Western Civilization. The truth is that we are responsible for things as they are, our ancestors bought and sold humans to sustain an economic system that benefited us. This is true even if our white ancestors were not wealthy. Poor whites also served as willing pawns to a systemic inequality that bolstered their status. We have much for which we should repent.
We can’t change the past, but we may reflect upon it honestly instead of romantically. We should tell the truth about our past, and serve today to influence the present and work to change the future. As we reflect and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may a prophet of his stature rise once again to challenge the current culture. We are in desperate need of prophetic voices to challenge the current vestiges of power.
Just as Dr. King wrote of the apathetic state of the church of his day from his cell in a Birmingham, Alabama jail, we should echo his voice today. “There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example, they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”