Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Reading Dr. King: Race and Reconciliation

I often have college students do an essay on race relations and the Christian heritage in light of reading Martin Luther King, Jr. Most students express an appreciation of King’s life and work but many add, “we are glad that the issue of race relations is over. We are glad that we don’t have to work on that problem anymore.”

Ouch. Of course we have more work to do. Of course we have more to learn (and unlearn). The use of the “n” word by the chair of the board of regents at Roger Williams University is only one recent reminder that the task of racial reconciliation must be ongoing (and please forgive me if I raise my eyebrows in disbelief about his claim that this was the first time in his 80 years of life that he had uttered the word).

When reading King I want students to learn how his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement was influenced by his understanding of the Scriptures and the Christian heritage. I have them read a piece in which King speaks of learning about the social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Neibuhr. Their main assignment in this introductory course on the “Christian Heritage” is King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Some have read it in a high school literature class, but no matter, I want them to read it through the lenses of what they have learned that semester. King quotes Augustine and Aquinas in his theology of civil disobedience. Both Augustine and Aquinas had been covered earlier (as well as the 1823 classic defense of slavery by Southerner Richard Furman). King also references several biblical passages and the students have already had an introductory course on the Bible.

But I also want them to realize that learning about race relations comes when we get to know each other. There are elements of King’s story that we don’t understand because we have no clue about the manifold ways that discrimination took (and takes) place. I highlight the following passage about why King pressed for equality and was willing to commit civil disobedience:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will …. when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."…. then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

And then I tell them a personal story (something profs don’t do often): I was entering the 9th grade when “bussing” was implemented in Richmond, Virginia, to desegregate the public schools. I attended a historically African-American school; just months before it had no white students. Playing basketball in gym class, I thought I was fouled. In typical “neighborhood” fashion, I yelled, “You fouled me” after I had been hit on the arm shooting the ball. But play stopped and things got silent. I had not just said “you fouled me” but “you fouled me, boy.” I had no clue that I had said something wrong. But the African-American student who fouled me looked at me with anger in his eyes and said I was in trouble. I ran, but he caught me at the other end of the gym. We were alone. He said, “you were disrespectful to me so let me give you some advice. You need to learn that you never call a young black man a boy. Don’t ever do it again.” I learned about dignity that day. Years later when I read King’s Letter I understood what he meant.

Getting to know someone opens doors to reconciliation when the various parties are willing to learn and to fellowship. The highlight of the recent annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was seeing the leaders of American Baptists, Fellowship Baptists and Progressive National Baptists on the same stage. Why have we waited?

The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant next January gives us a chance to learn and fellowship in ways that we haven’t. If you need a primer on why reconciliation is not a past event, but must be an ongoing process, read King’s letter. You won’t even need a basketball game to open your eyes.


At July 26, 2007 at 10:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those of you who might not know but who might venture into this realm of blog comments, Doc Weaver, by administrative position, impacts the nature of undergradutate education in the Department of Religion at Baylor University tremendously.

AND, coincidental to being put in that position, proved that his interest in mainstream BAPTIST issues is true blue.

Unlike so many at Baylor today who are ready to move beyond the "Baptist" heritage of Baylor and simply lay claim to Baylor being a place of Christian education "within a Baptist tradition" Doc Weaver is a throwback to the days when Baylor was known as a Baptist institution.

Some of us around this place (Baylor) feel we have sacrificed too much of our Baptist identity on the altar of becoming a "world class" research institution, who fear attachment to Baptist life might prevent us from ever being taken seriously as a national, research institution.

It is refreshing to see one such as Doc Weaver come along who is as much, or even more so, interested in the 16th and 17th centuries of Christian history as shaping our current identity as are some of our colleagues interested in only pre-Enlightentment centuries as shaping our "Baptist Catholicity" identity.

I encourage you to look him up at the Atlanta New Covenant meeting. You'll find a refreshing throwback to a Baptist historian who still believes in Smyth and Helwys and even Grebel and Blaurach as true heroes of "believer's baptism by immersion."

"Believers baptism by immersion"--what a novel idea for mainstream Baptists, and how utterly amazing that some of our own Baylor colleagues are willing to toss it away so quickly in order to slake their thirst for some kind of "Baptist Catholicity" that looks and feels much more Catholic than it does Baptist.

If you find him, you might have to earn the right to talk "Baptist" by first tolerating a few conversational exchanges "New York Yankees" first. But then, such would also be true of Doc Weaver's immediate supervisor, Doc Bellinger, as well.

Peace on, Doc. As they's say at Old Union, "your doin' your church proud."

barely a prof

At July 29, 2007 at 12:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know, I know. Blaurach and Grebel were not immersionists. In my haste I didn't make clear my idea that the idea of "believer's baptism" and "by immersion" come from a mixed and valued history, and that Doc Weaver is a true blue believer in the richness of Baptist heritage THAT RESULTS AND VALUES BELIEVER'S BAPTISM BY IMMERSION.

Right thought; bad writing.

Thanks to the friend who read my response and pointed out my faux paux.

The main idea stands. Doc Weaver values Baptists AS BAPTISTS. I'll stop now and go into "timeout" for my punishment for not editing what I wrote and for not catching my own mis-statement.


At September 13, 2007 at 4:48 PM , Blogger foxofbama said...

Come to can help you register there.
We need all the sane voices we can garner like you and BDiddy and BKaylor to contest this Prentice Fox mess on Charles Marsh and Francis Schaeffer.
Have BDiddy email me

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At November 11, 2008 at 7:55 PM , Anonymous Val said...

Good words.

At February 5, 2010 at 2:03 PM , Blogger kbrown said...

Good post!

What is the Bible?


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