Why We Can’t Wait

From the first moments I began a relationship with the Bible, I have been drawn to the intensity and urgency in the voices of the prophets and the apostle Paul. I was most inspired and haunted by the parables of Jesus that insisted the time is short. Growing up within conservative Evangelicalism, I was taught to imagine Jesus coming back at any moment. If the sky looked just right – rays of sunlight piercing clouds – I imagined Jesus floating down from heaven. More often than not, the message I internalized was one that generated fear: I’d better get my act together or I might be left behind. The Church used that fear to instill a sense of urgency about “getting right with God” and “being saved.”

Over the past three years, as I’ve watched Trump’s presidential candidacy and now administration unfold, the most disconcerting aspect has been the Evangelical support of Trump. The same church that preached the urgent need for my soul to be saved is now urgently championing a “savior” who has from day one proclaimed his agenda to maintain and increase the privilege and power of the white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, wealthy male by means of mocking, vilifying and oppressing anyone who does not fit into all of those categories. This is anything but salvation: the kingdom of God is marked by shalom, the flourishing of all life, and I see no good news being proclaimed or embodied here. The urgency I see seems to be directed toward the dismantling of recently hard-won ground toward justice. As Evangelical leaders and institutions align with Trump to “make America great again,” I feel a fire burning in my bones that will not be held in. I hear the words that birth liberation: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8). I see God moving every time a leader emerges who is willing to stand and cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:3-5, cf. Matthew 3). Preparing the way for God’s salvation is the work of inclusive justice: this work is the cultivation of the ground from which shalom will spring up. And this work cannot wait.

Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, has impacted me over the years since I first read it in seminary in 2006. This weekend I have returned to this book to listen, learn and further energize my sense of urgency. Justice cannot wait: human life, the salvation Jesus proclaimed and modeled, depends on it. So, today I want to offer a few excerpts and reflections that I pray will inspire those who need to lean in to a renewed commitment to justice work.

Those of us with much privilege have to actively resist our propensity to delay change. In our anxiety we are tempted to conform to the myth of scarcity rather than to the story of a faithful God who calls us into the vocation of co-creating that which is very good. In our shame we are tempted to marginalize all “others” to avoid confronting our own pain and brokenness. In our need to believe we are innocent and good, we cover up our sin – both what we have done and what we have left undone – and rob ourselves of the opportunity to repent and build something new. We have to let the urgency of others’ demand for justice break our hearts and move us to join in the work of justice. We cannot continue saying, “Slow down. Be patient. We can’t change that quickly. Not now. Wait.”

The Negro had been deeply disappointed over the slow pace of school desegregation. He knew that in 1954 the highest court in the land had handed down a decree calling for desegregation of schools ‘with all deliberate speed.’ He knew that this edict from the Supreme Court had been heeded with all deliberate delay. At the beginning of 1963, nine years after this historic decision, approximately 9 per cent of southern Negro students were attending integrated schools. If this pace were maintained, it would be the year 2054 before integration in southern schools would be a reality” (4).

Those of us with much privilege have to recognize the ways we convince ourselves we aren’t part of the problem: one way we perpetuate injustice is thinking we are doing enough. This sometimes sounds like, “I’m not racist; I have a black friend,” or “Our church is welcoming and believes in racial reconciliation: we have a few members who are ethnic minorities and we invest in international missions.” White privilege exists, and I benefit from it because I am white. This does not mean I want or intend to marginalize people of color; however, I have to be open to learning about the ways I do so unintentionally. I have to be willing to change. I have to care more about dismantling racism than I do about my own need to be perceived as not racist. I do not want to practice tokenism to avoid discomfort or protect my privilege: I want to join those who are preparing the way for justice.

In the past decade, still another technique had begun to replace the old methods for thwarting the Negroes’ dreams and aspirations. This is the method known as ‘tokenism.’ The dictionary interprets the word ‘token’ in the following manner: ‘A symbol. Indication, evidence, as a token of friendship, a keepsake. A piece of metal used in place of a coin, as for paying carfare on conveyances operated by those who sell the tokens. A sign, a mark, emblem, memorial, omen.’

When the Supreme Court modified its decision on school desegregation by approving the Pupil Placement Law, it permitted tokenism to corrupt its intent. It meant that Negroes could be handed the glitter of metal symbolizing the true coin, and authorizing a short-term trip toward democracy. But he who sells you the token instead of the coin always retains the power to revoke its worth, and to command you to get off the bus before you have reached your destination. Tokenism is a promise to pay. Democracy, in its finest sense, is payment” (16-17).

Those of us with much privilege have to risk suffering alongside the marginalized. They, unlike us, cannot choose to opt out. We must choose solidarity. Working for the liberation of others may help us see the liberation we need and create space to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. The dividing wall of hostility between “us” and “them” must be broken down, for it is a barrier to salvation for us all. It is not the gospel we preach if it is not good news for everyone, and it is not good news for everyone unless it paves the way toward salvation with justice for the marginalized and oppressed.

To the ministers I stressed the need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation. I suggested that only a ‘dry as dust’ religion prompts a minister to extol the glories of Heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell” (54).

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I would love to talk to anyone who wants to explore this struggle together.

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