As we look to the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m honored to share with you some vital thoughts on Christ-exalting diversity, from one of the world’s foremost historians, Dr. Mark Noll. This is an excerpt from the foreword to my book, Letters to a Birmingham Jail:
Bryan Loritts has recruited a serious lineup of pastors, Bible teachers, and Christian senior statesmen to do something that might seem foolish. He has asked them to write letters to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in response to his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote that letter to the white Protestant clergymen of that city in April 1963. They had expressed measured approval of civil rights in principle, but had also cautioned King and his associates about moving too fast or becoming too radical in pursuit of their goals. King responded with a classic statement defending the moral–indeed, the biblical–imperative for full civil equality for black Americans, and for obtaining that equality NOW.
But that, a reasonable person might say, was fifty years ago. Why should Bryan Loritts and his collaborators bring up the subject now? Almost no American in the early twenty-first century objects to laws mandating segregation. Almost no one believes Jim Crow was right. Almost everyone thinks that equal opportunity under the law is a good and proper thing.
Besides, did not the election of Barack Obama as the United States’ first African-American president mark an important turning point in the nation’s history. Since he took office in January 2009, opponents of Obama have mostly criticized his policies, while his supporters have mostly defended those policies. Except for a tiny fringe of the populace, the president’s ethnicity has been almost a non-factor. Moreover, in the United States’ recent past, well publicized other political controversies, with economic problems uppermost, have dominated public attention.
Yet for historians and Bible-believers alike, there is in fact a great deal more to be said. Quite a few historians, including myself, believe that many of the most important events in American history have involved race in conjunction with religion. Quite a few Bible-believers, including the authors in this volume, believe that the explicitly Christian struggle against racism remains to be won.
Looked at from a strictly historical angle, the United States continues to reap great evils from the seed that was sown through centuries of slavery and a century of segregation. Yet guided by candidates eager to be elected and enabled by pundits eager to be heard, we Americans mostly ignore an alarming set of immense social problems.
Whether by comparison with other western democracies, or even by comparison with many countries in the so-called developing world, the American social order is riven with pathologies. These pathologies have arisen from many factors, but the nation’s racial history is everywhere prime among those factors. Here is a short list: the U.S. has by far the highest rates of incarceration in the western world; it witnesses more gun violence than any other so-called civilized country; its entertainment industry glorifies violence, misogyny, sexual promiscuity, and infantile self-indulgence; it offers less medical and family support for the poor than any other western nation; it maintains inequalities of wealth on a par with the cleptocracies of the Third World; its rate of infant mortality is several times higher than most western countries; and, most grievously, the nation is witnessing a disastrous collapse of the two-parent family as the accepted norm for giving birth and raising children. The United States’ racial history is not solely responsible for these indices of social pathology, but that history has contributed substantially to every one of them.
Even more, most of us believers need to confess that at least some of the time and in some of our actions, we actively or passively nurture some of the underlying prejudice, paternalism, or attitudes that remain from our country’s racist past.
Christian believers who view race and religion as defining the deepest moral failing in American history should be very concerned about heeding the Scriptures that we say we trust, as we approach questions of black-white racial reconciliation. In dynamic fashion, this book outlines the continuing scope of the problem. It also points to the proper medicine for our disease–deeper commitment to the biblical message that in Christ the walls of prejudice that divide people from people have been broken down once and for all.
It is a book that, in its own way, is as timely as the letter that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote fifty years ago.
Mark A. Noll
Professor of History, University of Notre Dame
Member, South Bend Christian Reformed Church