Martin Luther King, Jr. had a great message for us all, but specifically for people who struggled to enjoy the same rights as people of other races. Some thought the status quo did not need to be changed. But the actions and sacrifice of this black pastor changed all of that. As a black pastor, his message was primarily directed toward whites, whites in the South, whites in the federal government, etc.
It was a good thing that King addressed problems in the South, problems with white families and the way that they thought about integrating blacks into society so that they had the same rights as everybody else.
It was the right thing to do for a pastor of any race, to expect or demand better of people of other races, to expect that since a country says it respects the freedom of people of all races, it should act on it and demonstrate it. It was unique that a pastor rather than a government or secular official took on the task of reforming society in the South.
The question is whether or not a white pastor should do the same thing. Should a white pastor take on the role of talking about or helping to correct problems in black culture, and in the black family.
More often than not, white pastors do not feel obligated to take on this problem, to preach about it. They seem to feel it's their obligation to preach the exact same message to whites as to blacks, and act as though there are no problems in the black family or the black culture. They feel that it is not their role because of the color of their skin, because of their race.
Even worse, many white pastors, when they preach, treat blacks like victims. Instead of talking about problems in the black culture and family, they give the impression that blacks can't really improve their lives unless white people change first. This is an unfortunate message, one that is not reflected in the Bible. It's a much easier message to preach, however, since it's the same message that our culture is telling us: blacks can't improve their lives unless inequities among the races are corrected first.
In regard to King's memory, many people and most politicians use his memory and the things he said for the wrong reason, they essentially exploit his memory; they like the things he stood for, except that he was a Christian and the pastor of a church. Even people who are atheists, seem to want to cling to his memory, while at the same time, making it difficult for Christians and pastors to express their faith and beliefs in public.
King's actions, his public protest, was a unique moment in the history of our country, since it isn’t often that a pastor leads a society movement to try to reform society. It sure isn't today.
In looking back at that period, blacks were kept from doing many things in the South. They were kept from voting; they were kept from employment; they were kept from traveling; they were even kept in relative captivity by local police who would bring false changes against them in order to keep them in debtor’s prison, never to escape. Many of them never did escape their debtor's prison.
But the federal government had a different role then than what it does now. Then, it actually helped to bring more opportunities to black families. It wasn't until government programs in the ‘60s became a fixture in the black family, that black culture and the black family began to decline.
Even with government intervention, it was difficult for black families to progress. But they did, through hard work and discipline. They overcame many obstacles. Young women pictured in the Hidden Figures were examples of dignity in the face of suffering, of families who supported their children, of fathers who married women, and staying married, supported their children, giving them opportunities to advance.
But that was then. The struggle was different then than it is now. The black family is different then than it is now. Then, black families had a higher marriage rate and a lower out of wedlock birth rate than did whites. Now, it’s more often to hear young black mothers refer to their baby daddy of their children instead of their husbands, because most are not married to the father of their children.
In the decades since the late ‘60s, the black family started to disintegrate. Expectations for educational advancement declined. The day that students have enough discipline and stability at home to graduate both from high school and college have decreased, to the point that it’s no longer a realistic expectation for most blacks growing up in America. Look at a movie produced by Kevin Hart, "Night School." The low graduation rate has become so expected that it's become a reason to make a movie that makes fun of someone who has trouble finishing high school. Forget about college.
What happened? What happened to MLK’s dream? The dream is still there, but the dream has been distorted by people who sought to manage it for blacks, people who thought better of the dream. The opportunities are there, but the family stability is not. The discipline is not.
The desire to achieve a Christian education that allows freedom of thought has shrunk, to the point that it is thought to be racial, and blacks are indifferent to an education that to them, is thought to itself be racial or white. This is rotten thinking that would shock Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s diseased thinking that has infected thinking from the inside, poisoned the minds of a whole culture.
How did this happen? But more importantly, for the white pastor in the inner city, why is there no recognition that marriage and the integrity of the family is just as important for blacks as for whites. What is often the case in inner city white churches, in urban areas like New York City, is that the majority of non-black people in the church with children are married.
If these same people in white churches would venture out to an evangelical black church, they would find a radically different situation. Blacks are still having children out of wedlock more than they are getting married in the church. What would MLK, Jr. say about the state of the black family and the out of wedlock birth rate? It's easy to mention King's memory; it's much harder to do the same things he did, to help people, to improve a rotten culture.
White pastors in the inner cities in the U.S. have trouble dealing with central issues that cause blacks to be disadvantaged. Many start programs in urban areas to help black students with reading, math, etc. These programs are good for black students as they would be for students of all backgrounds. They congratulate themselves for the good deed they have done, and usually think they have done enough. But they haven't.
These kinds of programs are as numerous as they are ineffective at making lasting change in black urban communities. The reason that they are ineffective is that blacks do not learn how to change from within. The assistance is good; the assistance is gracious and giving. But it does not critique current lifestyles that are often destructive. The assistance does address heart and sin issues.
The problem is that white pastors refuse to critique black families in inner cities for racial reasons. They expect that white men and women will get married and stay married in churches located in inner cities. Why shouldn’t they? They know how important supporting the family is for them, for their children. They just don’t think it’s important enough for the black family for them to talk about it, because they are white and the black family is, of course, black.
Again, there is a disconnect here. There were white Christians in the South who were acting badly. That’s who King was talking about. He was addressing whites. He was critiquing society. He was saying that they weren’t acting like Christians. They were not living up to who they said they were. And they weren't.
The question for white pastors in the inner city is, what changed? How are you different than this black pastor? Why do you not critique society in a way that can help people in the same way that King did? Do you think that blacks are incapable of living celibate lives, and stay married to the same woman?
Many white pastors say that’s not their role because they don’t attend an all black church. They say that they haven’t experienced life in a black church, so they can’t talk about it. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is similar to thinking that if one does not experience the suffering of a group of people, like blacks in the South or even Jews in Poland or Germany, then one has no role in helping them out of their situation.
This does not describe the life of Jesus and how he addressed fractured lifestyles of people who were completely removed from his life experience and his culture. Jesus addressed people who were living in sin, who were living in different cultures. He did not ignore it.
In fact, the Apostles were forced to address problems in nearly every culture, with nearly every conceivable degree of sin and family gradient, from homosexuality to even the Roman culture that accepted the worship of sex and the right for men to kill their family members, including their wife and children. There are no exceptions.
There is really no room for white pastors to say that the Bible, and Jesus admonition does not cover some kind of sin in a culture in the United States because they are simply different and have chosen to live in a way that is destructive to them. If they accept Christ (and even if they don't), it is the role of other Christians to provide Biblical relief, in whatever form is necessary to help redeem a culture. There are no cultures or races that are exceptions to what the New Testament requires of Biblical communities.
Imagine if military officials in the United States decided that France and England actually wanted Nazi Germany to change their culture so that they could no longer worship as Christians and Jews and instead had to worship a dictator. This was actually the attitude of some in the United States, though it did not carry the day. There were many who were convinced that the United States should not intervene, that we should sacrifice nothing to assist countries who were in danger of permanently part of the Third Reich.
If sin has infected a culture, a people group, should we stand idly by and wave at them as they pass by? People in the South, including many Christians, were perfectly content to keep the status quo in the South, to limit the rights and privileges of a race of people because that’s just the way it was for more than 100 years.
How difficult was it to change? What did MLK have to sacrifice to insert thinking that forced people to change? Was his reward the promise of that blacks would have the freedom to have children out of wedlock at three times the rate when he was alive and have baby daddies instead of a spouse? This seems to be where MLK’s dream has landed for the white inner city pastor. This is what we as a society seem to have accepted.
It's common for white pastors in inner cities, to celebrate the life of King and other during Black History Month. But there is typically no recognition or acknowledgement of the overwhelming problems in black culture. There is no mention of the marriage rate, the abortion rate, the high school drop out rate, the corrupting force of black music on the minds of young black men and women.
Maybe white pastors, instead of just talking about King' memory one month out of the year, should talk about redeeming culture in the same way that King did. He talked about correcting a rotten and sinful white culture. When are white pastors going to do the same thing? When are they going to start talking about rotten and sinful black culture, so that the black family can really live the dream that King was talking about? Let's hope it happens sooner rather than later.
© 2019 Larry Ingram
Based in St Louis,
Larry Ingram writes about the news media, movies and culture, as well as on topics like race, privilege, Christianity, religious expression and tolerance.
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