Reformers and Reconciliation: Our Racial Struggle, 50 Years After MLK’s Assassination

Posted by Ravi Zacharias, on April 4, 2018
Topic: Blog

Martin Luther King was the son of a pastor named Michael King who named his son Michael King, Jr. As several historians describe it, after a trip to Germany, Michael King, Sr. changed his own name to Martin Luther King, in honor of the great reformer Martin Luther. In turn, his son’s name was changed to Martin Luther King, Jr.

How fascinating that MLK, as he is affectionately known, carried the name of one who for years felt rejected not merely by another race, but by God Himself, because he felt he could never measure up to God’s expectations of him.

Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, killed for his efforts to create a society in which all people accepted each other as equals. It was another one of those shots heard around the world. The path of a fighter for peace and justice is never smooth. It is profoundly moving to read how he struggled with giving up on his ability to succeed, or for that matter, giving up on life itself. The nature of the struggle MLK was up against brings to mind the words of a member of the British Parliament describing the battle William Wilberforce waged in England against slavery: “It was like pushing back a storm from a raging Atlantic with a mop and a bucket.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his last public address, the “Mountaintop Speech” at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968.

King’s personality, like many reformers, was very complex. A reformer’s task is always bigger than he or she is, and their opponents can crush them with taunts and despair. I see our world today with so much strife. Everywhere. Everywhere. The political scene is staggering under the weight of dissension and disrespect. I certainly don’t recall seeing it like this before, even from the time of my youth. Language and emotions are poison-tipped to send arrows into the heart of the one seen as “the enemy.” And those who suffer the most are often those that have the least with which to fight the oppression.

Racial pain is a deep pain because it goes to the soul of one’s being. No one has a choice over one’s birth. To be attacked with racial prejudice is a form of murder because you are at risk just by virtue of your very being. Such a threat brings together stories of the past, the pain of the present, and cynicism for any solution in the future. When confronted with such an unshakable reality, sadly, it can breed a prejudice all its own.

As you read this, I am in my homeland of India just a few miles away from where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. I was only two years old at the time. I often think of the life of Mahatma Gandhi and his indefatigable spirit to fight for the freedom of his people. As a young man, he practiced law in South Africa and faced much discrimination. What he saw of racism in those days drove him away from the Christian faith, because he mistakenly judged a person’s profession of a faith as being the substance of that faith. The truth is, you don’t judge a belief by its abuse. So fortunately, he later qualified the difference: “I like their Christ; I don’t like their Christians.” How ironic that the only message in the world that frames humanity in God’s image, takes sin seriously, gives us the most glorious Scripture on love ever penned, and from beginning to end is a message of reconciliation was seen as a cruel belief because of the way it was being lived out. Therein lies the tragedy of racism and the failure of Christendom to deal with it or to own up to its blunders.

But the truth is that prejudice is present in virtually every culture. India’s prejudice didn’t come just from the British. This is a visibly stratified society where often the most common reality is that the common person has no voice. The caste system has taken a monumental toll. Prejudice and slavery were not the localized problem of America. One wrong word in the Middle East about a group of people and you can land before the authorities.

I recall one day in Toronto, along with my wife, talking to my grand-aunt who was over one hundred years old. I asked her how it is that though a particular group of European missionaries led our ancestors to Jesus, as a family in India we ended up in a different denomination. She was surprised by my question. “You are the first one to ever ask me that question,” she said. I was even more surprised by her answer. “I have the answer for you. The missionaries that led our forebears to Christ welcomed them to church, but would not take communion with Indian believers. In contrast, the Anglicans did permit that. In fact, your great-grandfather, who was a lawyer, fought that discrimination in court.”

Talk about a head-shaker! The terrible reality of prejudice across the centuries that carried the denigrating or differentiating of people is a calamity like unto little else. And it carried over even into the sacred expression of Holy Communion. Evidently, for some, even God would not open his sacred rite to both races on equal footing. How irrational to preach the Cross but close the door to remembering it together. Such are the vagaries of human prejudice.

Thankfully there has been some change within this generation of young people who see the errors of the past. But in some circles, prejudices still run deep.

Here is the deepest mystery: Jesus did not say much about what we call racial prejudice or discrimination, or for that matter, even slavery. But his stories were steeped in answers. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans and saw them as a mongrel race. Jesus shocked them with the story of the Good Samaritan that showed up their hypocrisy. That phrase is now in our vocabulary. The keepers of the law despised those they saw as less moral than themselves. Again Jesus shocked them with the story of the prostitute who poured out her alabaster ointment on the Savior’s feet. Her story is told wherever the gospel is preached. The Israelites of old hated the Roman’s right to force them to carry his armaments for one mile. Jesus spoke of walking the second mile. That, too, is a phrase we use today. When Paul spoke of being called to the Gentiles, the mob wanted to kill him. But the gospel was still preached to the whole world.

What does all this say? That racial prejudice and other prejudices are not new. Prejudice has existed from the time of the first family when grace misunderstood led to murder.

So where do we turn? I watch children and learn so much from them. Our grandson Jude was recently being taught in school about slavery. It really shook him. He is only six years old. He came back home and told his mother how hurt he was to hear what some had done to others, his eyes filled with tears. So my daughter Naomi made sure he was told of the calling of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he started to read about him and about others who have fought that scourge. Jude had a startling question. He has a friend that comes from a different part of the world, and Jude asked, “Do you think my friend might face prejudice in life?” My daughter asked him why he asked that. This is exactly what he said: “My hypothesis is that if a person wants to dislike you, they will find some reason to do that.”

A six-year-old using the word “hypothesis” gets your attention. But what is more profound is that his hypothesis was right because the human heart is wrong. Racial prejudice is not the problem. Racial prejudice is the symptom that reveals the real problem. We all think we are superior in some way to others, and we find reasons to dislike certain others. If in our hearts we spurn somebody, the mind will find myriad reasons to justify that cancer of the soul.

Of all people in the world, the Christian should lead the way in loving people of all nations because we all are ultimately created in God’s image. Our color does not define us. Our social stature doesn’t define us. Our soul defines us in that we are infused by God’s value in us, and we love because we are first loved by God, who is Spirit. Until the day dawns when we see everyone as having intrinsic soul worth, we will judge people by extrinsic appearances, yes and by color or some other distinction. How blind can we be?

There is a story in the Bible that talks of alienation and reconciliation. Jacob had betrayed his brother, Esau, when he stole the father’s blessing by pretending to be who he was not. But God pursued Jacob till Jacob pleaded for God’s blessing. “What is your name?’ asked God. Jacob knew he had been cornered. There’s the application that stings. You see, prejudice is not so much a wrong view of someone else as much as it is a wrong view of oneself. We are not who we think we are, as superior to others.

Having finally seen himself as God saw him, Jacob planned to meet with Esau, fearing the worst. When the moment of meeting came, God had already prepared Esau’s heart to forgive. Esau embraced his brother and in response Jacob said, “I see in your face the face of God because you have accepted me.”

What an incredible statement! Oh, the years of suffering and alienation that ensue when you make a discovery that should have been made earlier! The truth is that God has to work in the heart of the wrongdoer as well as in the heart of the one who has been wronged. Until then, the logic of unforgiveness will wreak havoc. That is the world in which we live. The logic of revenge.

The German reformer Martin Luther was religious but almost “hated God” because he felt he could never be accepted before Him. It dawned on him one day that faith, righteousness, and grace are gifts to be received and cannot be earned or worked for. The reformer was transformed first before he could carry the message of grace to others. Oh, that we might learn this! What a burden is lifted! Salvation is God’s gift. We cannot earn it. Forgiveness is a gift. We do not merit that pardon. Receiving it is to truly understand God’s love.

Fifty years after MLK, America is still struggling with these matters because we have forgotten what really matters in life. Dr. King said, “Unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

Think of that statement. Think again. What are we teaching in schools? That science will save us. Science is the queen of the disciplines. Or, our laws will save us. Really? Which science tells us that truth and love are the answers? That does not come from matter. That comes from the soul. We are already a nation of laws. What laws have changed your heart? The mirror can tell you that your face is dirty, but the mirror will not wash your face. The law can tell you that you are an outlaw. But the law will not help your heart love the law.

This is the time to go to the ultimate heart surgeon who will help us love with his love. It’s time to turn from hate to love. Time to turn from prejudice to an embrace. Time to admit we are proud and wrong-headed. Time to see in each other the face of God. That can only happen when we are first reconciled to God. Then we can be reconciled with one another.

Until then, the one from whom we have not sought forgiveness or that we have not forgiven will control us, and we move into the vortex of the worst kind of slavery, a prison of hate, a cloud of amnesia, or the domination of a thirst for revenge.

That’s why Jesus did not deal with the symptom. He dealt with the source. Our hearts need to receive God’s forgiveness and then we can become instruments of true reconciliation. When you find your true master, you find we are all slaves to God, because that is the ultimate freedom. Ah! What a Master we have, who gave Himself for us, who came to earth as a servant so that we might know we are destined for a kingdom. As C.S. Lewis said, “His compulsion is our liberation.”

The hymn writer says it well:

In Christ there is no east or west,

in him no south or north,

but one great fellowship of love

throughout the whole wide earth.

 

In Christ shall true hearts everywhere

their high communion find;

his service is the golden cord

close-binding humankind.

 

Join hands, disciples of the faith,

Whate’er your race may be.

All children of the living God

are surely kin to me.

 

And another hymn writer said:

Let every kindred, every tribe

On this terrestrial ball

To Him all majesty ascribe

And crown him Lord of all.