Whitewashing Dr. Martin Luther King Junior

bju-observes-martin-luther-king-jr-dayThis Wasn’t My Idea.

Last week, ‘BJU Blogs‘ reported University President Steve Pettit to have announced that as of January 2017, Bob Jones University will observe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. Plans are to close the school offices, cancel classes, and to encourage students to participate in Greenville area service opportunities and prayer sessions centered on racial harmony.

Far be it from me, to accuse Bob Jones University of doing a ‘PR’ job to ‘fix’ public perception of the University line on Dr. King. Pettit relates:

“Dr. King accomplished much in his short life here on earth,” said Pettit. “We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

We waited so long … for this?

Tame? That’s downright innocuous. To serve up this just two years shy of a half-century lacks all conviction. Whatever took BJU so long?

Much has and will be said and written about Dr. King. David Stewart [the head-case at the fundie ‘Jesus Is Savior’ website] informs us that King was a false teacher with a Communist agenda who ‘openly incited violence under the banner of “nonviolence.”’ Presenting no evidence, Stewart makes many hysterical assertions about King. But Stewart isn’t alone.

J. Carville and others cite a supposedly sane and decidedly more influential Jerry Falwell who also questions Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence.

In my thankfully brief intersection with fundamentalism, I soon learned that the communist Martin Luther King Jr. line was a recurring motif.

Meeting Daniel K. Williams

Daniel Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, unfolds this intriguing story. His perspective helps us assess MLK related hysteria and misgivings, and explains the broader civic/religious connection in fundamentalism. In his book, God’s Own Party, he writes:

‘The contrast between Graham and Falwell’s messages signaled a fault line in conservative Protestantism that would divide mainstream evangelicals from self-identified fundamentalists for the next generation.’

How things went as they did

Williams’ steady hand shows that politics and faith together divided ‘evangelicals’ and the Falwell/Jones/Rice/etc. crowd. The divisions in political life and the faith community were replicated in each other.

Particularly telling is a section, ‘The “Christian Americanism” of Bob Jones Jr.’ In addition to illuminating differences between the Senior and Junior Jones, Williams relates a side of early BJ Jr. which may not be so well known. More than one may guess, Christian fundamentalism was the political engine that powered the US ever more reactionary tendency.

A Case in Point

‘Jones became an ardent crusader against communism and political liberalism…’ Williams wrote. He adds that in Dec. 1950, Jones hosted a convention where many free-world foreign diplomats delivered speeches. Jones gave the keynote address and castigated the Department of State for ‘inexcusable stupidity or vicious betrayal.’ He charged it for throwing China’s democracy forces to ‘the raving wolves of the Kremlin.’

The ‘A-HA’ Moment

Bob Jones Jr. is the articulate and comparatively erudite version of the David Stewarts of the world. But far from rising above Stewart’s level, the rhetoric and perspective of Bob Jones Jr. normalizes Stewart’s hysterics.

Liberals and democratic socialists recognize that the socialist tendencies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In that day, anticommunism was treated by many Christian fundamentalists as a necessary adjunct to the gospel. For many fundamentalist leaders, the mass demonstrations were not so much demands for racial equality as a political challenge to capitalist rule.

Over time, King’s socialist tendency was forgotten. To the degree that this is so, he becomes socially tolerable. So Pettit can now say of King:

“We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

I can’t help but think even that milquetoast remark is forthcoming solely because Dr. King’s socialist tendency is largely forgotten, so that he can now be portrayed as someone who should be ‘respected and honored.’

Otherwise, why did we have to wait 48 years — just for this?

Methinks a post on the ‘service opportunities’ and ‘prayer sessions’ centered on racial harmony might be in order…

Memorial Day PowerPoints

2014 Memorial Day PPT

Like any cult, a state religion of selective, political piety needs liturgies. They need Holy Days. Memorial Day is a biggie, as is July 4. Patriotic songs are sung, and national doctrines and narratives [Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism] are recited. Heroes are celebrated [adoration of the saints]. Political litanies tell what we got wrong [confession]. There are predictions of glories [beatific vision] if we get it right, and prophecies of doom [civic hell] if we don’t. There are exhortations to vote [ballot as political sacrament], calls for more [working class] sacrifice [offerings], and appeals to re-consecrate to national purpose [more chauvinism].

World Liberator or World Dominator
Saved years ago from a Cuban publication.

To help set the spirit for the event, Sharefaith makes available a variety of suitably martial Memorial Day images. Pastors and worship committees use such things to remind us of stuff we won’t forget if we know what’s good for us. For a price, of course.

‘Suitably’ matters. A lot.

Lest we doubt that images seek very specific responses, imagine the uproar if a Memorial Day church service used this as a power point image.

Actually, ‘uproar’ is an understatement. We can reasonably expect that many would up and leave.

Others would offer diatribes. Conceivably, there would be some fist-fights. Certainly some would resign from church councils and boards. Other churches would sever pastoral relations. In some localities, a few bricks [or a Molotov Cocktail] might pass through a parsonage window, driving home the message that pastor needs to leave sooner, not later.

Yet for many in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other lands where the US military routinely conducts clandestine operations, the ‘Statue of Liberty’ image may be more indicative of their experience. This raises an issue that Christians in the US ought to consider.

memorial-day-2

Say an Iraqi man wanders into this service. Twelve years ago as a young teen, he lost his parents, siblings, four uncles and nineteen cousins. His admittedly lively birthday party was mistaken for a resistance cell. A US tank shelled his home. It collapsed. He alone survived and came to the US as a refugee.

What is our guest to make of this pageantry? What of the nationalistic hymns, prayers, narratives and other symbols? Attached to the Christian story, might not the riot of all things patriotic obscure the cross and glory of Christ for this guest? Might not this hinder gospel proclamation?

If as Mt 28:18-20 and Re 14:6 imply, the redeemed are from every nation, is not God’s purpose undermined by our unbridled nationalistic fervor? At some point, we must not say that this simply isn’t appropriate?

Ordinarily, the ‘Statue of liberty’ imagery would be equally inappropriate. This is not to say that the church might never have occasion to use it; but in her worship, the church has numerous, ever–appropriate Biblical images — the bread and cup, the basin and towel. A rich history of Christian art — ancient, classical and modern — illustrate every Biblical theme imaginable. Use those in worship.

While Christians should join to sing these songs at parades and picnics, should they be doing so in a church worship service? Do displays of patriotism have a place in Christian worship or should they be reserved for the local minor league baseball stadium?

That’s the rub.

It is just too easy for the church to be co-opted by secular, civic premises and systems of thought. All too easily, we become the ecclesial reflection of the politics of earthly power and glory. That it is an ecclesial reflection of the powers of this age might explain why the church is where it is.

William Barber said:

rev_barber_2

‘If your Gospel isn’t good news for those who are poor…then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.’

This can be extended to include all people. If your Gospel doesn’t visit orphans and widows in distress … if your Gospel isn’t peace to those who are weary of strife … if your Gospel isn’t healing for the sick … if your Gospel isn’t restoration for the broken … if your Gospel isn’t protection for women, strangers and aliens, etc., … then it isn’t the Gospel of Jesus.

Whenever these or any voices are smothered or otherwise silenced, we know that we’re getting it wrong. Whenever our issues come to the fore, we must remember who we are and what we’re doing. Our central confession of faith in Jesus Christ is this:

  • Christ has died.
  • Christ has risen.
  • Christ is coming again.

That confession can never mesh with the ideologies of this world, and we would be wise to question attempts to do so.

It is never an easy task for church to rid herself of the cultural signature that is everywhere about it. It is easy for us to be blind to what this says and does. To us, it is all so normal. But we can address the more blatant displays of our culture — especially where it can cause others to stumble.