An American Saint and Evangelical Idolatry
An American Saint and His Disciples
Martin Luther King Jr. is the only American figure (other than a founder) who has a day set apart by the federal government for his remembrance. He is surely the closest thing America has to a saint-figure. He was saintly not only because he was a preacher and a martyr, but because he stood against a culture that was blind—often willfully blind—to the blatant injustice of segregation laws which forced second-class status upon black Americans. King’s own generation assassinated him. But the generations that followed have been converted by him. As G. K. Chesterton said,
“The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what people want, but rather what the people need… Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”
Christians in America today are more than admirers of Saint King. We are his disciples, so to speak, who have roughly organized ourselves into two rival groups. On one side is what I will call a “Dominic-King” order which understands itself to be continuing Martin Luther King Jr.’s relentless activism on behalf of the black community. On the other side are disciples of a “Francis-King” order who are not activists.
Dominic-King disciples zealously attack what they perceive to be the black community’s political and social foes. When one enemy is vanquished, these crusaders for social justice are emboldened by their success and renewed in their piety. Francis-King disciples, on the other hand, eschew politics in favor of quietly adopting King’s dream into their personal lives, having resolved never to judge people based on anything but character. They work thanklessly within their own churches to promote a welcoming atmosphere for all races. Both groups long for the day when the diversity of the church will surpass that of secular society.
Yet despite diverse and universal ecclesial support for Martin Luther King Jr., segregation continues to be a stubborn fact-of-life in Protestant Christian communities in America. White Christians are deeply troubled by this phenomenon and tend to blame themselves for it. Dominic-King Christians blame the Francis-Kings for lacking an awareness of their own sin and for not doing enough to atone for past and current racism. Francis-King Christians blame Dominic-Kings for promoting hypersensitivity and a sense of perpetual victimization which precludes forgiveness.
Both groups miss the point: it’s not about them.
American Protestants vote with their feet and black Protestants have elected, in large part, to meet with one another. Black Protestants value their own churches because those churches retain the memory of the deeply Christian struggle of the American black community against slavery and oppression. No matter how welcoming or how contrite white Christians become, it won’t change the fact that, for black Christian communities, melting into majority Christianity would be a kind of death. The vibrant praise and unashamed preaching of a recently persecuted people would be subsumed under black-box worship concerts, spiky-haired “communicators,” and craft-beer-drinking "connect" groups—who among us would not mourn such a loss?
Reverence Not Worship
In the Middle Ages, Saint Francis of Assisi’s adoration of nature was, as Chesterton might say, an “antidote” to the bias of prevailing Christian culture. Medieval scholars took seriously Plato’s assertion that the material world was merely an image of an eternal realm, and they understood Aristotle to have taught that divine things floated in an unchanging aether above the moon while material things sank to earth and were subject to decay. This Greek influence caused Christians to deemphasize the importance of the natural world. Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals and nature, exaggerated what the medieval world neglected. By doing so, he was restoring the medieval world to a more biblical perspective on nature.
The bias of modern culture regarding the natural world is very nearly opposite that of medieval culture. Rather than devaluing nature, our generation tends to venerate it. Secular Americans are doubtful that there is anything of importance outside the natural world. In this modern context, pastors would be wise to guard their flocks against the error of elevating love of nature above the love of God and fellow human beings. I do not mean that church leaders should be antagonistic toward our culture’s concern for the environment. On the contrary, they should discerningly support it—affirming what can be affirmed while resisting the utopian aims of those who, in their zealous fervor, might be willing to make human sacrifices to Gaia.
When a Christian saint enjoys broad-based public support, saint-worship is the danger. The eccentricities (or heterodoxies) which cured one generation can prove dangerous in the next. On issues of race, the bias of contemporary American culture is very nearly opposite what it was fifty years ago. Rather than devaluing minority groups, our generation lifts them up and celebrates their achievements. Secular and religious Americans alike tend toward sensitivity and self-criticism rather than callousness and an unthinking commitment to a socially unjust status quo. This is, of course, a wonderful thing. And we owe it to the work of Reverend King.
However, in this new context, pastors would be wise to guard their flocks against the error of elevating a Christian vision of racial harmony above the gospel. I do not mean that Christian leaders should be antagonistic toward social justice movements. On the contrary, they should discerningly support them—affirming what can be affirmed while resisting the utopian aims of those who, in their zealous fervor, might be willing to sacrifice truth for a sense of atonement.
Unity In Truth
The power of social movements like Black Lives Matter comes from the claim that white Americans are continuing to live out the sins of their past. Is that claim true? And, if it is true, in what way is it true? And, how do we fix it? These are difficult questions without obvious answers.
There is room for good faith disagreement among brothers and sisters in Christ as the church struggles after the truth. Prematurely dogmatizing a particular perspective risks causing further disunity within the church. This was evident at a recent conference put on by The Gospel Coalition commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I was troubled to hear keynote speaker Matt Chandler admit that he felt no regret when his Dallas church lost three hundred congregants who were alienated by his sermons on race. His message was clear: Christians who disagree with the Dominic-King perspective on race issues are deplorable, and their departure from the church is a good riddance.
Russell Moore, an ethicist at The Gospel Coalition, agrees with pastor Chandler. In his keynote speech, he quoted an Abolitionist pastor who said, “the call to unity is often a call to keep us unified in our sin.” Moore notes further that King himself was called “divisive.” Pastor Moore’s point is that Christians who are critical of the current fight for social justice on the grounds of unity are repeating the mistakes of the past. Put another way, Moore believes that his eagerness to follow today’s race-sensitive culture is evidence that he would have had the fortitude to resist yesterday’s bigoted culture. The opposite could be true. Perhaps it is the Christians who remain level-headed and discerning in the face of the culture’s indignation, rather than those who go along with it, who are the ones that are ready to take a stand for the sake of truth.
Our goal must always be to side with the truth, whether or not that truth aligns with the culture.
I believe it is time for truth-seeking evangelical pastors and theologians to come together to discuss openly and honestly the state of race issues in America. Evangelicals have been willing to unite their voices on many topics where they agree with one another in contradistinction to the culture (e.g. the Cornwall Alliance statement on environmentalism, the Nashville Statement on gay marriage, etc.). But, on issues where the church itself is divided, evangelicals seem content to take sides and preach past one another. A new approach is needed—an approach that includes voices from all perspectives.
Drafting an “Evangelical Statement on Race Issues in America” would be a daunting task, and possibly a thankless one. But the church desperately needs a dialogue between Francis-King Christians and Dominic-King ones, where neither side adopts a posture of paternalism toward the other. Honest discussion of incarceration rates, relative crime rates, and all the rest of it will be uncomfortable. And the attempt to make an unambiguous statement about the thorny race issue will open both sides of the debate to heavy criticism. But, if evangelical churches can manage to accomplish this, they can set an example for the world. In a nation plagued by tribalism and polarization, the church can demonstrate how, through the power of Christ, unity in truth can be achieved.