Culture Friday: Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is April 6th.

Thank you for joining us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

CRONKITE: Good evening. Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil-rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Police have issued an all-points bulletin

Walter Cronkite, the CBS Evening News, April 4th, 1968, the lead story 50 years ago. It remains the lead story this week, as we remember the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Junior.

It’s Culture Friday and time to welcome John Stonestreet. John is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

John, good morning …

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.

There is so much to be said, John, so I’d like to pick just one aspect of King’s legacy to talk about this morning.
And that’s something Chuck Colson spoke passionately about, in his analysis of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail from 1963.

King had been arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, for leading protests against segregation and discrimination. His letter was a response to fellow members of the clergy who urged King to change his tactics and obey the law.
King famously wrote, quoting here: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws, but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

The concept here is that law has to be in accord with moral law in order to be a just law.

As we reflect on the significance of King’s legacy, talk about his contribution to our understanding of transcendent moral law.

STONESTREET: You know, Chuck Colson would often say that the Letter from a Birmingham Jail was the finest piece of kind of Christian legal writing of the 20th century. It’s interesting that it was written on scraps of paper in a Birmingham jail.

There’s been a couple experiments where I’ve taken quotes, ya know, from that Letter from a Birmingham Jail and put it on Facebook without any sort of attribution and people will guess that it’s Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson o

r some other person that’s kind of considered a right wing fundamentalist. But it was really Martin Luther King, his language that there’s something beyond the law. Not beyond it so much as above it that upon which the legitimacy of our laws will be measured. And they either rest or they fall based on how they correspond with this higher law. And then what that demands of us.

I mean, it’s an amazing thing to say that in today’s culture that we — that we’re not primarily responsible to the government. That there’s something beyond the government upon which that validates or legitimizes government. There are these universal moral truths that do not change from culture to culture upon which the behavior of each culture and the laws of each culture has to be judged. I mean, that’s stuff that’ll get you thrown out of most universities these days, at least as a professor.

But there’s Dr. King’s, ya know, own words. It’s an amazing contribution to our understanding. And I think not just because it was — and I think one of the reasons is a big — because it wasn’t just theoretical. It was in light of a very specific situation, a very specific evil that he was addressing in society and he was calling religious folk in particular, pastors, who were trying to keep it quiet and trying not to, ya know — the critique against the civil rights movement is that it was agitation and that it was unnecessary and things like that.

It’s so fascinating to see this kind of legal theory, this idea of moral law, of transcendent moral law, a higher law than our society’s law being applied directly kind of to a flesh and bones situation. And you put that together in terms of this great thinking, in light of this cultural context and it’s just a terrific contribution to our thinking about it because it was so practically applied in his case.

John, what would you say are the biggest remaining racial problems in American society today, and how can white Christians contribute to helping solve those problems?

STONESTREET: I think the biggest remaining racial problems — I mean, we could go specifically to issues of upward mobility, we could go to specifically issues of personal responsibility versus structural evils. I mean, these are the great debates.

But I think right now in our cultural moment, the biggest thing that is the obstacle to — continuing to advance in our understanding of race and our ability to bring some sort of unity out of just a really dark, desperate history is that these problems have been politicized. You can almost say that’s the biggest problem in almost every aspect of our culture is that these things are not politicized. So, if you think there’s still a race problem in America, that automatically puts you on the political left. If you think there’s not really, that automatically puts you on the right and so it’s kind of this guilt by association sort of thing. And I think it’s a real problem because it’s getting in the way.

And I think specifically as white Christians our responsibility is the same as our responsibility to all our brothers and sisters which is to love. And to say that we love without listening and without actually hearing and taking seriously those concerns of our African American brothers and sisters, then I don’t think that’s a legitimate expression of love anymore than if I said I love my wife and never listen to her, or I love my daughters but never listened to what they had to say, particularly anything they had to say negatively about how I’m treating them or overlooking something in our family or something like that. And I think because we’ve allowed this issue in our own minds to be kind of chalked up to race baiting on one side or whatever, then as white Christians then we’ve stopped having the conversation.

I had a real moment of deep, piercing conviction on this issue when I spent a good bit of time in a particular social issue seminary class looking at this, this issue of race, particularly race in the evangelical church. And when I learned primarily from a book called “Divided by Faith,” which was Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, written about 15 years ago… Two things: Number one is that those in the cultural minority tend to see issues as structural issues and those in the cultural majority tend to see issues as individual issues and that there are no structural problems. That was a real revelation because as a Christian in an increasingly secular society, I saw that reflect where I thought, well, there are structural issues in these institutions that we’re not paying attention — that aren’t being acknowledged. And I see those structural things. But as a white evangelical, I’ve largely been taught to see the race issue as an individual issue without looking at any structural realities. Sin is personal and it’s structural. Sin is personally committed and then it becomes structurally embedded and we’ve got to look at evils in our society whether we’re talking about race or any other evils in our society along the lines of both of those things. So that was a real revelation.

And then the second thing that was a real revelation from studying this was when I realized across these political divides that it wasn’t just that I disagreed with people on the far left. I knew I disagreed with Louis Faircon on almost everything. And I knew I disagreed with Jesse Jackson about almost everything. But when I realized that I disagreed with my — or I didn’t — but when I realized that I didn’t see this issue of race in the same way as conservative evangelical brothers and sister, people who I know believe the Gospel, folks like the Reverend Carl Ellis and Tony Evans and people who I listen to on the radio and that I learned so much from — when I realized that we’re seeing this issue differently, then I realized, wait a minute, I can’t just chalk this up to “that’s liberal” or “that’s leftist” or something like that. And I think that’s a big problem, that we’re not even getting to the problem because of this political divide that’s already kind of determined sides on the issue.

John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, thank you.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.


(AP Photo/File) In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.

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