Civil Religion, part ten
“In dire need of creative extremists”
Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.
At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
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As historian David Chappell has recently argued, the story of the civil rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about a revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed to many of its citizens.
• John Fea
American Nationalism has been a perspective advanced primarily by white Protestants, though in our last study we saw how Catholics became emboldened throughout the twentieth century to promote its own vision of a Christian America.
All the while, there was an entire community of U.S. citizens who had endured slavery and an ongoing culture of injustice in our so-called “Christian” land. In post-World War II America, their voice grew until they became the most important social liberation movement in our nation’s history. And they were led by African-American ministers and members of black churches who cried out like Moses, “Set my people free!”
In his book, Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?, John Fea gives some attention to this part of America’s history and an alternative vision for what Christianity should achieve in American culture.
He focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King and the vision he set forth in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to some fellow clergymen who had been critical of his actions, with its classic statement, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
King self-consciously saw himself and other civil rights leaders in the prophetic tradition. Explaining himself to those who criticized him as a meddling outsider who had come to Birmingham with actions that were “unwise and untimely,” King replied:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
In his letter, Martin Luther King eloquently described the plight of blacks in the United States, who had been and were continuing to be denied their “constitutional and God-given rights”:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
King’s letter also showed his familiarity with the history of Christian doctrine, and he justified the civil rights movement and the concept of “civil disobedience” on a thoughtful application of biblical and historical theology.
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
He went on to reference Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as models of civil disobedience, as well as the early Christian martyrs who died before lions rather than obey the laws of the Roman Empire. He mentioned twentieth century examples such as Hitler’s Germany, where “legal” and “illegal” did not conform to God’s moral standards. He went on — in the midst of the Cold War — to speak of the Soviet suppression of Christian faith, advocating disobedience to their anti-religious laws. He criticized those who said the civil rights movement was advancing too quickly, saying, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” King argued that it is the duty of Christian people to use time constructively and that any advances are the result, not of neutral time passing, but of responsible faith in action.
Finally, Martin Luther King called upon the church to rise up, unafraid to be called “extreme” in the pursuit of justice, love, truth, and goodness.
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
That such a letter had to be written from an American jail, by an American Christian minister nearly 200 years after the founding of the United States, is quite an indictment against our historical self-identification as a “Christian nation.”
As the events of this past week show, we have not shaken ourselves free of this scourge of racial inequality and distrust between various racial communities in the U.S. One can only hope that Christian leaders and their churches will take the prophetic call for justice and freedom seriously in our day and that we will be committed to actually following Jesus, laying down our lives in love for our neighbors’ well being until there is “liberty and justice for all.”
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Civil Religion Series 2016
Reflections on Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God
- God’s Chosen Nation?
- The Nations as “Babylon”
- The Second Great Awakening and Manifest Destiny
- The Fundamentalists, Then and Now
Reflections on John Fea’s Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction