The Love and Truth Lens of MLK
A sermon based on Isaiah 1:13-17 THE MESSAGE
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 15, 2023*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As I was preparing for my final weeks here I decided to look for a sermon that meant a lot here and re-preach it. In the process looking through my files to find one I came across the keynote address I gave on behalf of the church at the 2018 MLK community breakfast. Since it meant a lot to me and our justice work together I decided to shorten in a little and preach it on our last MLK weekend together. Here goes . . .
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King held up truth and love lens to show us the problem of racism, hold us accountable, and give us hope as he showed us the way out. Unfiltered those lenses point to one answer for racial reconciliation: all of us walking together toward equality for all. He held up truth and love lenses and asked: “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?”
The answer [he gave] still applies:
“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” 1
One of King’s greatest accomplishments is that a vast majority of Americans now claim racism is terrible and that equality is good. That was not true before his work began. Most Americans today will also claim they want justice for African Americans. But the fantasy of self-deception continues. We deceive ourselves by putting filters on the truth and love lenses creating soft, defused and false perceptions. Many White conversations on racism don’t address the complicity, complacency, hardheartedness and pure evil of racism head on. We filtered truth and love with terms that split racism up, and give its parts gentle names. We name those with exclusive access to God-given rights “privileged.” We name petulant resistance to others having that access, “fragility.” We try to depersonalize involvement in racism by hearing the labeling of racism as systemic as allowing us to distance or dismiss ourselves from involvement and taking action against an entire system.
Racism is certainly a vicious widespread virus in our culture’s systems and we must not make the mistake of thinking we only have to act nice as individuals and racism will die. But we also must not make the mistake of thinking systemic racism means racism is beyond our responsibility or too big to face or stop. Racism is a White created, controlled and continuing evil hurting all, but especially hurting non-Whites. We must be careful not to dismiss or distance ourselves from systemic racism by thinking we are not a part of the system; not a part of the problem; not a part of the solution.
Many White discussions about racism use academic terminology inappropriately as filters to the point we don’t focus on its wickedness so that White people discussing racism are haunted by their complicity and complacency with the evil of racism in America. We end up filtering racism with niceties. But not one bit of racism is nice or distant or dismissible. It is a horrible, thriving evil!
Perhaps the worst part of the filters we hold over Dr. King’s lenses is that they misdirect attention from the pressing horrors of what the lack of equal access to rights means for non-Whites. Racism means oppression – or the threat of it– in every area of life and liberty and pursuit of happiness. Racism means inequality in dealings with authorities, employment, businesses, housing, schools, medicine, economics and justice. Racism means mistreatment by Whites being uncaring or rude or violent in every imaginable location of our lives: our streets, schools, parks, businesses, air waves, workplaces, political bodies and justice systems. Racism means deep harms to many Americans. It means generations deprived of opportunities and economic legacies, and inflicted with injustices and traumas that Whites with rights have caused and allow to exist.
By labeling White benefactors of racism “privileged,” and their petulance “fragility,” and racism “systemic” we’ve created a means to deceitfully soften and defuse the reality of racism, creating excuses and confusion that can cause Whites to claim “I’m not “privileged” “I’m not fragile” and “I cannot do anything about the system.” Sadly, we still play to the “fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity” that Dr. King noted well over half a century ago.
Much of America is comfortable with the idea that there are anthropological differences based on race. Many Americans seem at ease with the notion that all members of a “race possess characteristics of the race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” That is literally the Oxford Dictionary definition of racism. That notion, racial superiority – racism– is nonsense. It is not science. It is not logical. What it is, is an awful false, hateful, cultural construct causing different access to fundamental rights based on skin colors. Think about how ridiculous that is. It makes no more sense than my curly hair giving me access to rights and denying them to straight haired people.
Rev. Dr. King held the truth and love lenses up to the notion of racism and he observed:
“The idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists . . . agree that, although there may be inferior and superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. In the final analysis the problem of race is not a political, but a moral issue.” 2
Racism is a moral issue. It’s a Christian issue. Here’s how the greatest American Christian minister to ever live, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it “Christianity repudiates racism. Numerous people in the North and South still believe that the affirmation “all men are created equal” means “All White men are created equal.” 3 We can hear Dr. King’s brilliance in those few words. He merges our secular and Christian moral compasses and shows they point in the same direction, a desire for equal access to well-being . . . for all. That is what all are created equal and endowed with rights leads to. That is what “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do to others what you want done to yourself” leads to. And that’s the moral anchor for all religions and many nations.
Christians, including Rev. King, call that anchor “Love.” Rev. King held up the love lens to show the way out of the hate and the violence of racism. He showed us the loving way of walking together toward equality, toward racial reconciliation. Love in our Bibles means the desire for the well-being of others. Rev. Dr. King always urged love as the means to achieve equality and reconciliation. With love he sought justice. Justice in the Bible means getting that which is due. What is due everyone is what love desires: well-being. To put it secularly, everyone is entitled to equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness– the necessities of being well.
For Whites’ well-being in American includes access to quality education, employment and housing, fair and un-fearful treatment by authorities and businesses, and having White children seen as children and their needs being of paramount community concern. This is not true for non-Whites and their children. Non-Whites do not have an identical access to those things. Love, and justice, and fairness, and access to well-being, are Biblical morals, but Rev. King made sure to point out secular equivalents: our Nation’s claims that all are entitled to equality to insure liberty and justice for all!
Rev. King held up the unfiltered truth lens to show us the problem and hold us accountable. And he held up the love lens to give us hope and show us the way out. Those lenses show us that the injustice and unloving-ness and immorality of racism begin with the lie that White is a higher-ranking skin color. A lie which leads to exclusive full access to rights. Consequently, being White has no detrimental effect on a White’s civil rights. But only White citizens have full access to the rights our nation promises to fully deliver to all its citizens. That is racism.
But even well-meaning White discussions gently filter that horrid truth by calling it “White privilege.” Often Whites hear that to mean elite entitlement and they know the rights they have are due to everyone, so they ironically feel non-elite and not specially entitled and bristle at the notion. And they are correct: God-given rights are not a privilege to get or have access to, they are God-given. They are not a privilege to have and to hold, they are what is due everyone.
Point the unfiltered truth and love lenses at the Declaration of Independence and we find: “these truths to be self-evident, that [all] are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Those God-given rights are not our nation’s to promise to people or privilege some to hold. They are our nation’s obligation to deliver to all its citizens– not just those with White skin.
Dr. King’s point over and over again was that morally we are obligated by faith and law and love and truth to provide equal access to those rights. But there remains a prevalent white prejudice that insures identical access to rights to Whites only. It is not White privilege, it’s White failure at moral obligations. It’s not White privilege, it’s White lack-love. It’s not White privilege, it’s White denial and deceit. It’s not White privilege, it’s an unloving moral sacrilege against our Creator’s wishes and design – and our nation’s founding promises! Truth be told, racism’s continuation in our nation is as unchristian and Unamerican, as it is unloving and unjust!
There are Whites who negatively respond in varying degrees to non-Whites seeking and having identical access to rights that Whites have. Dr. King called it “White backlash” and noted it was “for the most part … powered by petulance rather than principle.” 4. We filter this truth by softening it, calling the spectrum of White people’s negative responses “White fragility.” But it’s not about White fragility. It’s about Whites’ unloving petulant responses to our Founders’ ideals that all citizens be provided equal access to God-given rights. It’s about racism’s notion of White superiority not being stopped and being played out and maintained. Many Whites like Whites in charge, believe Whites should be in charge, put Whites in charge, and take steps to keep Whites in charge. Many politicians –and voters– ignore our moral obligations and our nation’s founding principles, giving them a backseat to god-awful, immoral and unprincipled racism.
It’s not about White fragility. It’s about Whites who are power hungry, jealous, protective, or just plain mean about sharing access to rights and so respond with varying degrees of denial, distress, disrespect, anger and violence. It’s not about fragility. It’s about selfishness. It’s about lack-love. Biblically, we’d say it is hardheartedness. The truth we must face is that White citizens are provided access to everyone’s God-given rights, but a good many of those citizens are hardhearted about even discussing, let alone making sure we provide the same equal access to everyone. That has to stop!
Reconciliation of the races begins – and racism ends – when White Americans – who perpetuate and benefit from racism. . . stop it! Stop it by becoming better informed, educating ourselves and others about racism. Stop it by acknowledging racism exists, it is awful, and we are a part of it. Stop it by acknowledging our mistakes and working to fix them. Stop it by going out of the way to get to know and befriend people who have a different skin color than our own. Stop it by listening to people of color – validating their experiences of racism– and amplifying their voices so that others listen. Stop it by standing up and opposing racism when we see it. Stop it by never honoring symbols of racism or the men who made their fame supporting it. Stop it by supporting those working to overcome racism. Stop it by grasping the idea that if “all lives matter,” then Black Lives Matter IS ipso facto a truth . . . and we need to act like it. We CAN stop racism by actively taking steps and joining the walk toward equality and racial reconciliation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. stoked love. He gave hope. He aimed us toward peace and reconciliation. He based his efforts on both our nation’s and our religions’ Sacred words – which are truth and love lenses. Rev. King had a remarkable gift for making us face truth and love. His brilliant thoughts and words; his powerful voice, his peaceful actions, his courageous life and the truth and love he showed us dynamically resonate still. Dr. King can still make us turn and face truth and love.
Any thoughtful American willing to turn and face truth and love, has to admit the morally repugnant evil of racism exists; and must grasp our obligation to make it a priority to end its existence and redress all the harms it has caused to our fellow Americans. All thoughtful Americans must join God’s rainbow color of people on the walk toward equality so that one day all will have identical access to the rights Whites presently enjoy. The purpose of that walk, to quote Rev. Dr. King, is that “this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
That is of course how the famous dream part of his “I Have a Dream” speech begins. There is a part of that amazing speech that we often overlook. It occurs not long before Dr. King begins the magnificent soaring poetic words outlining the dream. It is the part earlier that starts with Dr. King noting the loving truth that White people’s “destiny is tied up with [Black people’s] destiny . . . that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” and that “We cannot walk alone.” Then Dr. King details the loving walk we must take hand-in-hand to reach the reconciliation of the races – that beautiful dream he described. I am going to close by reading aloud that short powerful earlier part of Dr. King’s speech, his walking to reconciliation words. As we hear them keep in mind we must take this walk together. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said
“As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
May we talk the talk and walk the walk so that we shall overcome some day! AMEN.
* based on a MLK Breakfast Keynote Address I gave in 2018 at the Mount Vernon Nazarene University
1. King, Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here, p 4-5, 1967. 2. King Martin Luther, “I Have a Dream” the quotations of Martin Luther King, Jr., p 115. 3. Ibid at p 116. 4. Ibid at p 153.
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