Dream of racial reconciliation lives on
CULTURAL AWARENESS WEEK JANUARY 13-19, 2003
I HAVE A DREAM
that my four children will one day
live in a nation where they will not
be judged by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
BY CLAUDE NIKONDEHA –
On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital and proclaimed he was there to cash in a promissory note on the Declaration of Independence: That every American is guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Dr. King added that there would be no rest “until the colored citizen is granted his citizenship rights.” He urged his audience to keep the struggle alive “until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This year, as we mark the 40th anniversary of that historic “I Have a Dream” speech, I must ask myself–did the dream come true? Is the colored American free? Is there evidence of our faith, “that all men are created equal”? Do “the sons of former slaves and the sons of slave owners” break bread together? Do our children live in a nation where they are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”?
During the past several years, The Salvation Army has promoted racial reconciliation throughout the country during the week prior to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, creating cultural awareness and a celebration of diversity.
But have we completed the work of racial reconciliation? What is the next step for the Army in bringing people of different color and culture together? What will it take to experience true reconciliation?
Good intentions are not enough. The observance of Cultural Awareness Week and distribution of thousands of posters and bulletins featuring racial reconciliation haven’t proven to be the solution.
Today, blacks and whites see the problem of racism from two totally different and diametrically opposed perspectives. When asked if America has a race problem, most whites would say no. For whites, who have little to no intimate contact with African-Americans, a race problem does not seem to exist. “Slavery is over, civil rights legislation has passed, and affirmative action has been implemented–why can’t we just move on?” For the African Americans, on the other hand, the question of whether America has a race problem is rhetorical at best and cruel at worst.
I used to believe that time cures all ills. I used to believe that racism was due to ignorance and lack of education — as people became better informed, they would see the error of their ways and put an end to racism. But racism isn’t due to ignorance, it’s due to sin. Because we are totally depraved we do not naturally love people, especially people who are different from us. Time and education won’t cure racism, only radical love is powerful and comprehensive enough to end racism wherever it exists.
In the USA Western Territory, where the blacks account for 9% of the population (Census 2000), the statistics tells us that 75% of our “social service” clients are black but in 1997 an informal survey of soldiers estimated that there are less than 500 black senior soldiers in the territory. Out of a total of 752 officers active in the Western Territory, 1.2% are black.
It is captivating to consider John Wesley’s insight that the only holiness is “social holiness.” What is the relationship between the corps (or I should say the soldiers) and the community? Are we more devoted to service and programs than to social interaction?
Racial reconciliation involves more than one Sunday a year. Service-induced pledges are only an exciting first step when something substantive follows leading people to a new place.
I believe the road to true reconciliation involves more than just one week a year. It requires different ethnic groups going to each other’s “turf,” eating their food, listening to their worship music, and being uncomfortable as they experience faith, history, and culture through the eyes of their neighbor who is different from them. It is not enough to come in as a tourist who returns home with souvenirs but rather as someone who has come to be among others.
And what does the Bible say on this issue? The Bible addresses the idea of racial and cultural divisions in terms of “partiality.” Partiality means showing undue favor for one person or group over another. The books of the law warn against showing partiality in legal decisions (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17, 16:19). The Bible’s prohibitions against this type of judgment are based on God’s own character, for he does not show partiality toward any person (2 Chronicles 19:7), and he will not allow those who follow him to judge others on the basis of external factors such as wealth, cultural background, or ethnic identity.
The book of Acts speaks of Peter’s discovery that Christ had intended the Gospel for all men, regardless of race or culture. As he was trying to be faithful to the practice of exclusion taught by the Pharisees, Peter was shown a vision of “wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air, Then Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:34-35). And later Paul confirms that message: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).
The Apostle James later warned that any attempt to show partiality or judgment against those of other races and cultures, particularly because of economic status, was inconsistent with the teachings of Christ (James 2:1). James declared partiality is a sin (2:9). Paul also warned the Ephesians who held slaves to be fair in their dealings with their servants, for God Himself is impartial and, for those who are in Christ Jesus, the master is no better than the slave and the employer no greater than the employee (6:9).
Here in the West we are talking about healthy corps and this is a great place to start. We need to provide a place where we can learn from each other’s culture and values, read books written by authors of different ethnicities, consider different theories.
Minorities have long been learning from white Salvationists. They have learned their hymns, read their books, practiced their theories. But it is time for whites to recognize they can benefit from minority perspectives on life and faith. If whites do learn from minority Salvationists, this will enrich, encourage, and strengthen us as a church. The shift from saying, “What can I do for you?” to “I need you,” would signal that perhaps words and deeds are starting to come together.