Monthly Archives: April 2013

Responding to the Response to MLK

In 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of MLK’s famous epistle from the Birmingham Jail, a coalition of Christians, called Christian Churches Together in the USA, published  “A Response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’”[1]

The “Response” covers nineteen pages in the PDF version, and shows a sincere desire to do the right thing.  Recognizing racism as an ongoing problem, the CCT members

resolve to work together to expose, confront, and transform the devastating legacy of systemic racism as it manifests itself in education, criminal justice, employment, housing, child welfare, and other practical arenas. (pp. 14-15)

The intent here is admirable, but the result is flawed, as it calls for reform in every aspect of society except Christianity itself.  The only internal reform expected there is for Christians to get busy fixing the world around them.  As a result, “systemic racism” in the Old Testament goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and unaddressed in the “Response.”

We also confess that it has taken us far too long, in the intervening years, to acknowledge pervasive racism in our midst and begin to repent and change. (p. 17)

Though some Christians acknowledge “pervasive racism” in the OT, the CCT’s “Response” falls short in this area. Instead, the Bible, OT included, is presented as the Christian definition of higher morality, justice, and righteous behavior:

We also claim the strong biblical tradition that rejects selfish individualism….. Biblical faith demands that Christians place the common good above individual privilege. (p. 14)

I’m not sure I would call racism an example of selfish individualism as it seems more a manifestation of “us versus them.” Leaving that quibble aside, though, I do wish the CCT had listed some of the key biblical passages that reject selfish individualism.

  • Are they referring to the selfish individualism of Achan, who took loot following the slaughter at Jericho, and for this crime he and his entire family were stoned to death (Josh. 7)?
  • Are they talking about how Saul was found unworthy to be King because he kept some oxen and sheep alive, so as to sacrifice them on the altar, when he’d been told quite clearly to kill everything and everyone on the field of battle (1 Sam. 15)?
  • Are they referring to Eve, who decided that knowing the difference between right and wrong was maybe a good thing (Gen. 3)?
  • Surely they aren’t talking about the selfish individualism of Phinehas, who took it upon himself to kill a mixed-race couple, thus ending a plague from God, and thereby making himself a heroic figure (Num. 25:6-11)?

Individualism of any sort other than zealotry is generally discouraged by the OT biblical tradition, so it seems redundant to single out “selfish” individualism. But this is the sort of confusion that results when Christians promote the OT as a guide to right behavior.

I agree with some of the things said in the “Response.” The part about Christians needing to “place the common good above individual privilege” seems like a crucial point, because for the common good, Christians need to stop eulogizing an OT that promotes violence, racial bigotry, and injustice. To continue advertising the OT as a moral guide is wrong. Whatever else the OT may be, it can too easily be used to justify hateful behavior, and this is something Christians need to be honest about. Not just in the odd book by Episcopal bishops[2], but in every communication with the outside world.

Notes

[1] The full text of the “Response” can be found at http://christianchurchestogether.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/CCTDr-King-Response.booklet.pdf.  There is also a helpful abridged version of the “Response” in the April 2013 edition of Sojourners magazine, available online at http://sojo.net/magazine/2013/04/we-dare-not-postpone-action.

[2] Spong, John Shelby.  The Sins of Scripture:  Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love.  San Francisco: Harper, 2005.