What is MLK to the (White) Christian?

Here we are in yet another year commemorating the birth (and life) of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We all know who Dr. King is, at least the broad strokes: a leader of the Civil Rights movement, reverend and orator who advocated for social change through peaceful protest.

When you think about Dr. King, do you stop at some vague, out-of-context quote that dilutes his teachings and preachings?

Yet many people—some willfully, some simply uninformed—are unaware of much of the important detail surrounding Dr. King’s life and legacy. For example, many people, especially many White Americans, love to reflect nostalgically that Dr. King protested injustice the “right way,” yet in reality White Americans responded to Dr. King in the same ways they respond to Black Lives Matter protesters now—calling him radical and disruptive, a danger to “American” society and democracy, and accusing him of inciting violence and dividing the nation.

r/facepalm - This is how Martin Luther King Jr was depicted in 1967 to scare white Americans; in case there’s any confusion about what the strategy has always been.
This is one way Martin Luther King Jr. was depicted in 1967 to scare white Americans.

While Dr. King is remembered mainly for his fight against racial inequality for Black Americans, in totality he sought an end to what he called the “triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism” through non-violent means of resistance, championing the rights of all people of color as well as the rights of the economically disadvantaged, including poor White Americans, and he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Finally, many people erroneously reflect on Dr. King as someone who pushed for color-blind ideals—that his children be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character—however Dr. King was distinctly NOT color-blind. He argued for color-consciousness, recognizing and remedying racism in all its forms, repeatedly calling out White America to do its part to end these social ills. This was especially true in his calls to White clergy and other people of Christian faith to live out their espoused beliefs by addressing racial injustice, penned in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Make no mistake: racism, racial inequality, and racial injustice are all Kingdom issues—at least, they should be if you claim to follow Christ. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, yet it is not love to ignore or actively work against social changes that reduce and eliminate inequality and injustice. Unfortunately, however, there remain substantial divides among Christians with regards to considering social problems like racism and discrimination to be issues of faith, and these divides play out along racial lines. A recent study on practicing Christians shows that only about 2 in 5 White Christians believe the U.S. has a race problem (as compared to 4 in 5 Black Christians), and only about 35% of White Christians report being motivated to address racial injustice, as compared to 70% of Black Christians. This coincides with general trends of a principle-policy gap among White Americans, wherein White Americans broadly express near universal support for the principles of equality, yet support for the implementation of these principles—e.g., endorsing action at the local or federal level, like voting rights legislation intended to make voting access more equitable—is significantly lower.

So then, in 2022 as you reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. King; what is he to you, Christian sister and brother? Among many other things (flawed human, included), Dr. King was in many ways the embodiment of Christian faith and principles, an example of Christ-like behavior. When you think about Dr. King, do you stop at some vague, out-of-context quote that dilutes his teachings and preachings? Or do you feel compelled to act as he called us to do, and Christ calls us to do? If you espouse to be a Christian, I offer that it must be the latter: talk about racism and injustice in your church, seek out opportunities to be allies in the fight for justice alongside those who don’t look like you, support policies that eliminate racial inequalities and provide equal access and experiences to Americans of color and poor Americans alike (or withdraw support from politicians and leaders who do not clearly stand for these things). We are called to be the light of the world, and light drives out all darkness—through love, in Christ.

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