MLK and Racial Harmony Today

I stood in an airport restaurant watching the news in December.  The screen showed protests, demonstrations, racial tensions and violence.  I saw people burning buildings, looting business and others laying across streets in protest.  A nauseous feeling swept through my stomach.  Sadness and a sense of despair began to creep into my thoughts.

This situation that occurs again and again in our country is so sad; it’s frustrating and angers so many people. Blame is thrown around in all directions.  When we watch what is happening in the news in Ferguson, MO, New York City and other cities around the country, it’s clear that many people in our society have made little or no progress in the pursuit of racial harmony.  It’s also clear that many people don’t want to see this continue as over 35 cities have experienced demonstrations, most of them peaceful. 

The situation is frustrating, because there ARE answers, yet many people will never experience the joy and fulfillment that comes from relationships that are uncontaminated by racial distrust or unresolved anger.

February is Black History Month and on January 19th, we as a nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and vision. It appears that many Americans who value his message, vision and worldwide impact, are still perpetuating the attitudes and actions that seem to disregard the teaching and example that brought such powerful impact.

More than two generations have passed since King’s culture-rocking impact, and I wonder if he would recognize and endorse the actions that we see currently covered by the news.

    What do you think he would not recognize as fulfilling his vision?

    He was so strong about non-violence and non-violent protests.  

People forget that, first and foremost, Martin Luther King was a Pastor; He was not a politician. He was a Baptist minister of the Gospel, and a pastor of a local church. Everything he did to promote freedom, justice, and racial equality flowed out of his understanding of God’s Word.

The Scriptures teach us to…Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10 NIV

Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 2:12-14 NIV

I realize, as I write, that I run the risk of being misinterpreted or written off as another prejudiced person or maybe a white guy living in a bubble of unawareness. This is the reason many people say nothing about racial issues; the topic is so volatile that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to be clear on what you are saying and what you are not saying and still one could be misquoted and misunderstood. So, this is why some people conclude, “Why bother saying anything? It’s too risky.”   

Scrolling through social media posts, it is clear to me that many people perceive what’s currently going on in our nation, through their own pain and anger and seem unwilling to consider another’s view. Often in an emotionally charged dialogue, actual facts are not taken into consideration because it conflicts with our own feelings and views.  Sometimes we don’t want to hear about solutions to a problem when we are so emotionally invested in our view of the situation. But solving problems we face requires empathy, compassion and compromise. Until we are willing to understand each other, how can we come together and agree?

In America, we have many elected officials who are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, as well as various mixes of race. We have also elected our first African American US President. Many of the top influencers in business, entertainment, sports and community service are African American, Latino or other minorities. I attended the first inauguration of President Obama in Washington, DC and saw the joyful celebration in the streets similar to a New Years Eve celebration. The idea that ‘everything has changed now’, could be heard in conversations, seen in signs held high and witnessed in the joy on people’s faces.

Considering our progress as a nation, it’s confusing to people to hear the response of many saying, “Nothing has changed,” or “America is still a racist country,” without the perspective of how we have advanced together.  There are many problems in race relations in our country, that’s for sure.  There are good cops and bad cops, regardless of the color of their skin.  Definitely, there are individuals who have racist attitudes, ideas and actions.  However, prejudice is both in the heart of oppressors and the oppressed.  

Do we as human beings have the capacity to move forward in this area?  I believe it will require divine intervention for us to see each other with different eyes; it will require a renewed heart.

There is hope.  Millions of people live their life with great trust and respect for people of different races.  Millions of people enjoy great relationships with people of diverse cultures or skin color. 

This example in our communities is extremely significant and newsworthy.  But is it possible that our media, in an effort to put the most compelling stories on the news, feeds the fire of bias, confusion and anger?  There is no coverage of the hundreds of thousands of people of all races who live life together with trust, harmony and honor.

Comedians, address otherwise touchy subjects including the area of racial differences in their performances, and the audience laughs hysterically as the comedian pokes fun at themselves and others. This shows me, that we can have honest conversations; we can laugh at our fears and ourselves and not get so angry.

The reality is, the problem of race relations will never be resolved with proper punishments, a genius piece of legislation, stricter laws or revenge. Never. It will not make a difference. When Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, made the horrible comments he did, it was kind of hypocritical for players representatives to declare, “We have a no tolerance of racism in the NBA,” when players and owners apparently knew about Sterling for years and ignored it.  Players of all races in the NBA, express racist views in the locker rooms.  Would the NBA really suspend some of their star players if they expressed their prejudice?  I don’t know, I’m just wondering.   

This situation in America is of great concern to me.

I am a pastor of a racially diverse church in Los Angeles.  The issue of race, culture and relationships is important to me.  I live in diversity every day of my life in both my friendships and church family.  In most racially diverse cities of America, there are too few racially diverse communities, churches and organizations. MLK, Jr. once said, "It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."  Unfortunately this is still true today.

Because we place an unusual focus on racial diversity and authentic relationships in a large urban context, I believe God has given us an unusual grace in this area. At Oasis Church our survey in our 2014 survey showed the racial makeup of our church to be radically different than most congregations in America.  

Black                  22%
White                 22%
Asian                  22%
Hispanic             17%
Mixed & others  17%

We have great relationships with people of a variety of races and lead a community of people made up of tremendous ethnic diversity. These are relationships not built on “tolerance” but on trust, honesty and shared vision. We are not unaware or immune to the racial pressures and tensions all around us.  There are injustices committed and situations that show, that we as a society, have a long way to go.

After some of the anger and violence occurred surrounding the Trayvon Martin case, a chaplain for the LAPD called me and asked if I could bring some Christian leaders together to talk about what we could do in our community.  He said, “Let’s talk about what we can do as spiritual leaders in the community, not just in reaction to a specific situation, but what can we do on an ongoing basis that will keep us from reacting to the next racial situation in the news?  What can we actually do that can change the way our city responds to these situations?”  He continued, “Los Angeles is an influential city and if we do something that works, maybe others will be inspired to do the same.” 

We have to be honest with ourselves. What we are doing about racial harmony and mutual respect in America is not working! 

I’ve stood at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC and I saw these words written on the memorial -   

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate only love can do that.”

The racism that exists today is not because of what has happened in the past.  Racism does not only exist because of the violations of past generations. We must take responsibility for our fears and prejudices, for our unwillingness to change. It is our own generation that is teaching our children by words and actions, to perpetuate this toxic view of people and racial differences.  

It does not matter what the environment was that we were brought up in, what maters is the environment that we perpetuate!!  

Giving a guilty verdict, though it may be deserved, will not ease the pain of a lost son. Punishing violators, though it may be just, will not solve the problem.  Giving a verdict of ‘not-guilty’ to a guilty person or ‘guilty’ to a non-guilty person does not result in a more balanced scorecard. It does not heal the pain that families have gone through from every race that has ever experienced the horrible expression of racism. As many have declared before me, “An eye for an eye approach leaves the whole world blind.”  

I grieve for the families of blacks, Hispanics and Asians who have been mistreated, abused or killed and I am sad for white people who experience the same pain. I grieve for the man living in Utah, who was a young white man and was killed by an officer even though he was innocent of a crime.  This occurred the same week as the death in Ferguson, MO but was not really mentioned in the news. I’m grieving the revenge executions of NYC police and firemen. We are all affected by this problem.

In honor of Martin Luther King’s legacy and what makes him such a hero to me is his non-violent approach and comments of wisdom that capture his leadership.

   “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” 

“Either we must learn to live together as brothers, or we will certainly die together as fools.”    

There are solutions, that may sound simple, but they have world altering impact. 

1.  Take a deeper look at the Bible’s View of Humanity

God’s plan is to use the church, a community of believers, as the agent of reconciliation and an example of unity on the earth. God loves diversity so there must be something great in it for us.

There is neither Jew nor Greek (no racial difference), slave nor free (no social or economic differences), male nor female (no gender differences), for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

…from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh… for we are ambassadors for Christ.. (Verses 16 and 20 of II Corinthians 5:16-21)

It requires a genuine faith to accept our new identity. We find our true identity when we find our identity in Christ. This helps us discover according to scripture, that we are all one race and people when we realize we are in Christ together.

2.  Search Your Own Heart     

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you… Psalm 139:23-24a NLT 

Ask God to reveal to you any attitudes you have that are still wrapped in prejudice. Don’t ask,  “Am I prejudice?” but, “How prejudice am I?” Confess your prejudices as sin and through prayer, break the power of its influence in your life.

3.  Change your thoughts, change your actions = change your world

We see through the tinted lenses of our own hurts and fears.  How do we get past our past?  Heartbreak and loss transcends the color of our skin. When you lose someone you love – it hurts deeply – it does not matter whether your skin is brown, black or white.

In MLK’s “I’ve got a dream” speech he says, “One day I want our …children to live in a world where they are judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin.”  Character is revealed in our thoughts, beliefs and actions.

As we see in the scripture above, the Apostle Paul said, we as Christians are to be Ambassadors and agents of reconciliation. Our destiny concerning race relations, is not based on our past, it is based on what we do from here on.

We may feel like asking God, “Why did you allow racism in your world?”  God just might be asking you and me the same question.

What we DO know is – “Hate cannot drive out hate only love can do that.”

As a Christian, I’m challenged by a quote from Ghandi, whom King got a lot of his inspiration from, 

“If only Christians would live according to their belief in the teaching of Jesus we all would become Christians.”  
Mahatma Ghandi

When in the face of these awful situations we see in the news, I hope that all leaders, regardless of color or race, will take the opportunity when given a national platform, to lead us with prayers like this:

 “Lord, please bring healing and comfort to (Trayvon Martin’s, Michael Brown’s or whomever has been a victim’s) family. Heal the hearts of all of us who feel the pain of this loss. 

God, forgive all involved this situation of their wrongs – the transgressions of that night and those we have committed ourselves – in response to this tragedy. 

We pray for (George Zimmerman, police officers, and their families etc.) and their family and ask that you would guide them, comfort them and forgive them for any wrongs in their life.

Help us not point to others in blame but reach out to one another in compassion.  Help us to love each other and trust each other regardless of the color of our skin.

Help us to not respond with the same fear and hatred that may have caused this heartbreak and others like it in our world.  

Help us, Lord, to love like Jesus loved, forgive like Jesus forgave and reach out in compassion – even to those who may not deserve it.

Heal our land from racial hurts. Let it begin with me. Forgive me for wrongfully judging others. Show me how to be an example of love respect and honor that transcends race.

Let me be an example of the love that heals, the kind of love that others would want to follow. 

Amen.

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Philip Wagner