Can the Civil Rights Movement Serve as a Model of Evangelical Political Engagement?

king grave

An excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

If you picked up this book and have made it this far, you will not be surprised that I think about evangelical political engagement from the perspective of a historian.  While we always need to be careful about taking lessons from the “foreign country” of the past and applying them to contemporary issues, we certainly should not ignore our natural inclination to find a usable past.  What kind of historical examples can we find of Christians living faithfully–and engaging politically–from positions located outside the corridors of power and privilege?

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.  Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement.  We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis , and Nashville.  Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement.  In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates.  In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original  Freedom Singers.  In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  In Birmingham, we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.  That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.  In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton , one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics.  Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.  As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the grounds that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House.  Hope, humility, and a responsible use of American history defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement.

HOPE

 Those who participated in the civil rights movement had much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs–to name a few.  They feared for their lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day.  For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved.  The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this.  When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized  and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.  King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions.  I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anything.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

It was a message of hope.  Because of his faith, God had given him–and the men and women of the movement he led–all the strength they would need to continue the struggle.  King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward.  Was he talking ab out his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?  No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  An assassins bullet took King’s life the next day…but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power–not just his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good?  Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch  once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicker will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it. ”  I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip.  It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates.  Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.  Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity , but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand these purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come.  The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far.   Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities.  I saw this kind of hope  in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.  I heard this kind of hop e in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me’ Round” from the front of the sanctuary  of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.  As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge  in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the fact of terror on Bloody Sunday.  Such audacity requires hope.

Humility

It is nonsensical  to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power.  Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight.  But when movement leaders entered the “court,” they were usually there to speak truth to the king, not to flatter him.  Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods.  Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the greatest social movement in American history.  These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them.   And they offer us a beautiful illustration of what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence”:

A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us–community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these constituted….It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation–family, neighbors, co-workers, and community–where we find authenticity as a body of believers.  It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy….

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to use the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown AME church.  This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches began.  For Bland, who was raised in the housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred place.

The humility on display during the civil  rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now.  This is usually the case with nonviolent protests.  Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.  Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old  music major at  Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959.  Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest.  Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched , and covered in ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.  Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this.  Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment.  In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love.  Many in the movement practiced with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.”  They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own  .   Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power–the power of the cross and the resurrection.   This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness in the world.   The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: ” The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate.  It wouldn’t  have solved any problems for me to hate white because they hate me.  Oh, there’s so much hate!  Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

HISTORY

As we saw in chapter  5, many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they recognize that there is little in our nation’s history to yearn for.  The leaders of the civil rights movement could not make appeals to a golden age.  They could only look forward with hope….When they did turn to the past, it was often an appeal to ideals such as liberty, freedom, or justice, ideals written down in our nation’s sacred documents that had yet to be applied to them completely.  History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction at the heart of the republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'”  As I listened to to the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories, I was surprised how often I heard them describe America as a “Christian nation.”  But this was not the Christian nationalist nostalgia of David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or the court evangelicals.  It was a gesture of what they hoped the United States might become….

The early civil rights movement needed its leaders to have a working knowledge of American history, but these leaders did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project.  They knew there was little to reclaim.  Instead, they used the past as a means of  moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on.  While many white Americans today succumb to the narcissism that tells them that their place in the story of the nation is not worth serious reflection, King and his followers had a clear-eyed understanding of the past.  They desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story.

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