“Where Do We Go from Here?”

~ 1 Samuel 3:1-10/John 1:43-51 ~

I must say right up front that this is not my title, “Where Do We Go from Here?” It is actually the title of a book published in 1967 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the last book he wrote before his assassination. The subtitle of the book is: “Chaos or Community.” King wrote this as he reflected on the successes of the civil rights movement and the passage of the voting rights act in particular. Even while addressing the ever-present and ongoing difficulties that Blacks faced in the late 60’s, this is a book about hope. For Martin it was a most relevant question: Where do we go from here?

Living in unprecedented times (just how overused is the word “unprecedented”?) and as we observe MLK Jr Day tomorrow, it is still a very good question for us to consider. I want to consider Martin’s question, one, in light of our scripture readings today. And two, how the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement is necessarily still being worked out in antiracism efforts today. Indeed, that there is a direct connection between Martin’s philosophy of the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s and what is, today, called Critical Race Theory. In doing so, may this be a message of hope in these unprecedented times as we consider the question: Where do we go from here?

Our scripture lessons for this morning are about hearing and responding to the call of God. How specific individuals in a given place and time responded to the call of God. And, calls that had serious political and social implications.

Our Old Testament lesson finds the boy Samuel working in the temple under the tutelage of Eli the priest. Samuel is asleep when he hears a voice, “Samuel! Samuel!” He runs to Eli thinking it was he who called him. “Nope,” says Eli sends him back to bed. After several calls Samuel and Eli realize that it is God calling Samuel. “So,” says Eli, “the next time God calls your name, say, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’” As such, we who attended a reasonable amount of Sunday School in our childhoods, were taught that we should always be ready to respond when God calls.

One of the main points of this story is that this kind of call was quite rare. Samuel’s call was in fact a unique and difficult calling. Samuel, the last of the judges and the first of the prophets, was to reluctantly direct the movement of Israel from a theocracy, ruled solely by God, to a monarchy, ruled by a king, just like all the other nations. For his place and time, Israel in 1070 B.C., the call of discipleship for Samuel had profound political and social ramifications.

About 1100 years later, in 1st century Galilee, we find Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. Phillip finds Nathanael, breathlessly exclaiming that he has found Jesus. Although he is quite skeptical, Nathanael follows Phillip to meet Jesus. After a minor miracle of prescience (Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under the tree), Nathanael declares his belief in Jesus.

The nature of Nathanael’s response to follow Jesus is not just about a personal relationship with Jesus that we often associate with the Gospel of John. Even in this gospel, to follow Jesus meant confronting the powers of their world in radical, power-eschewing ways. It meant an inclusion of the poor and dishonorable into a new community that would shake the world. For his time and place, 1st century Galilee, the call of discipleship for Nathanael had profound political and social implications.

I have come to realized that the work and life of Martin was in fact a courageous response to the call of discipleship. Out of the midst of his life situation, as a Christian, he felt that to follow Jesus meant confronting the injustice, poverty, and discrimination he saw in Alabama. In his time and place, the 50’s and 60’s of Alabama, the call of discipleship, of following Jesus, was a call to act against the social injustices of his day. Following Jesus meant serious political and social engagement.

If you are anything like me, your main takeaway from the civil rights movement may have been Martin’s famous words, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This, of course, was taken to mean that we should all just ignore skin color, become ‘color blind’ if you will, and, in time, the problem of racism will go disappear. And you might, as did I, come to the conclude that, even though once common in the South, true racists were far and few between now that discrimination was officially outlawed and they would, in time, come to accept the new reality. And that racism was only a personal prejudice based on skin color, the result of natural in-group/out-group dynamics common throughout history. And, now that discrimination was legally prohibited, everyone, regardless of skin color, has an equal chance to succeed in our American meritocracy.

But this was not Martin’s understanding. He did not think racism would just go away through laws and court rulings. He knew that racism was not just personal bigotry or racial animus. No; he knew it to be deeply structural, woven into the very fabric of our nation’s identity and history.

In his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, Martin asks the question: “What is racism?” Referencing a book by George Kelsey (related to Keenan?), he states:

Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry…It did not emerge as a faith. It arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself.

Martin delineated five important truths about this theory:

  1. Racism in America is not a natural human dynamic, i.e. ‘like prefer like’, but is a particular historically conditioned social structure;
  2. “color” itself has little to do with racism and only tangentially to do with its creation;
  3. racism was not the cause of African slavery and exploitation, but rather the result;
  4. racism, with its systems and ideas, was manufactured to justify African slavery and then was used to justify the continuation of the exploitation of slaves;
  5. at its most basic understanding, racism is “the myth of inferior peoples.” As Martin put it, “racism is a doctrine of the congenital inferiority and worthlessness of a people.”

Slavery, according to Martin Luther King Jr and building on the writings of those who had gone before him, such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois, was first and foremost an economic system which, in time, used the concept of inferior races as the justification for that economic system. Again, Martin writes:

It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy.

As we moved out of the 60’s and despite the assassination of Martin, there was the perception that the civil rights movement was a success, that with the new anti-discrimination laws such as the Voting Rights Act and court rulings such as Brown v. Board of Education, racism would be a thing of the past.

But such was not the case. As early as the 80’s, there was significant pushback on those civil rights gains. Local jurisdictions and states found ways to work around those laws and court rulings. Or they just ignored the law.

It was in this context that a collection of activists and scholars dug deeper into the relationship of race, economics and power. The result is what is called Critical Race Theory or CRT. Unlike the traditional civil rights approach to race issues which focused on incremental, step-by-step progress, CRT questioned the very fabric of this thing called the American enterprise, the entire warp and woof of America is a racist structure, and everyone, white and black, participates in its outworking; we are all complicit.

The Black Lives Matter movement has, as its working premise, Critical Race Theory. BLM assumes this racialized structure in which we all live. BLM started in 2013 in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and then came to national prominence in 2014 with the police deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. Then, this past summer with the police killing of George Floyd, it re-emerged as a prominent voice in our national conversation about race.

Included in that conversation was the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 Initiative goal of dismantling structural racism. Make no mistake about it, the focus on developing antiracism strategies going on by activist groups in the country and in our denomination is based on the philosophy of Critical Race Theory.

And, make no mistake about it, Critical Race Theory is hated by many in our culture, especially by many Christians. I can’t tell you how many articles and blogs I’ve read by conservative Christians who decry this philosophy, calling it Marxist, unbiblical and definitely anti-Christian. And this, precisely, because it teaches that everyone is complicit whether they realize it or not. How can the good Christian confess a sin of which they are unaware or have to rely on a sociological philosophy to understand that sin? Can’t we just read the Bible?

But make no mistake about it, Martin’s understanding of our racial dilemma came to fruition because of his discipleship, because he was a follower of Jesus. In his autobiography, Martin says:

The great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge. You don’t have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary. I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx; I got it from a man named Jesus, a Galilean saint who said he was anointed to heal the brokenhearted. He was anointed to deal with the problems of the poor. And that is where we get our inspiration.

A surreal image from our nation’s capital: razor wire atop the metal barriers erected around the perimeter of the capital grounds. Writer Parker J. Palmer noted a second image, eerily similar: razor wire atop the wall on our southern border. He writes, “when we try to wall out the world and truth itself with razor wire, we end up cutting ourselves.” Noting that tomorrow we mark MLK Jr Day, he says,

there would have been no surprises here for MLK: Black Americans have been bleeding from the razor wire of white supremacy ever since America enslaved Africans to build our economy, having established a genocidal campaign to steal this land from its Native peoples.

In this light, Parker asks, and I as well,

this time around, can we honor not only MLK’s pastoral voice but his prophetic voice? Can we celebrate and emulate his justified anger, his fierce advocacy, for the disinherited of every race, and his devout desire to save white people from the living death created by their own hardness of heart?

Where do we go from here? The question is up for grabs. The answer is up to us. Amen.

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