Justice

forgiveness • peacemaking • reconciliation
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Justice

MLK50 Conference: Memphis

April 12, 2018 by

“And tell me, where are you in your search?” Dr. John Perkins pushed back his chair and smiled disarmingly across the table. I had just introduced myself and instead of the standard “nice to meet you” or “where y’all from?” it sounded like we were cutting through to what he really wanted to hear about. His frankness and humility in the conversation that followed were typical of the talks, panel discussions, and conversations last week at the MLK50 Conference.

Traveling down to Memphis with a small delegation from the Bruderhof, I wondered what ground conference speakers might cover as they reflected on the state of civil rights fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Surely, speakers could take the topic any direction they wanted, from banal eulogizing to angry finger-pointing. We heard almost none of this at the conference, however, encountering instead a group of churches seeking compassion, understanding, and unity.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), opened the two-day event with a searing indictment of American evangelicals’ simultaneous silence on race issues and eagerness to honor the life of King, whom Moore called an American prophet: “The reason you honor the prophets is because they can’t speak to you anymore.” Asking the church to recall the more difficult questions King raised, he also pointed to repentance and the cross as the answer, and cautioned that God does not need more coalitions, foundations, or evangelical movements; he is at work despite our efforts and failings, here in America and in churches across the world:

King has been dead for fifty years. His message still speaks, though. And even more importantly, the Gospel still saves. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Jesus. Humanity is still hurtling toward hell but the cross is still the power of God unto salvation. The tomb in Jerusalem is conspicuously empty. The eastern skies will one day erupt with glory. The church of Jesus Christ will one day be whole.

Speakers included pastors Matt Chandler, Eli Morris, and Rufus Smith; TV evangelist Beth Moore; NFLer Benjamin Watson; civil rights activists Melvin Charles Smith, Dr. John M. Perkins, and James Netters; theologians Carl Ellis and John Piper; and hip hop artist Trip Lee. Each of them called attendees to more consistently represent the love and justice of God in congregations and communities that might be averse to making practical changes. Key to their message was the idea that unity will require active and compassionate listening to one another; it’s easy to deny a problem when it’s not a problem for you and you don’t know anyone who is personally affected. I was amazed by other attendees’ willingness to take responsibility for the state of American churches and their inspiration to create change in schools, behind the pulpit, and at home.

One evening our delegation had dinner with John Perkins, who is the co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association and who attended the conference in part to launch his latest book, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race. During the meal together, I was strongly encouraged to review said book. You’ll have to wait for the summer issue of Plough Quarterly for that, but buy a copy yourself and have a read. Perkins, himself a veteran racial reconciliation worker, says there is “a certain wrongheadedness” in racial reconciliation because it denies the dignity of humanity – the fact that we are all made in God’s image and are one blood. To quote from One Blood:

Many of us have struggled with the big question of how to make lasting strides in the area of biblical reconciliation. As I look back on a life that has been devoted to this great mystery, I want to try to offer us a path back. Not back to our history that has been littered with missteps and misguided notions, but a path back to what God intended for his church. A path back to the experience of Pentecost, when people from all over the known world heard the glorious message of salvation in their own language. That was reconciliation at its very best. And it’s a beautiful picture.

Yes, it is a beautiful picture, but does it only have to remain a picture? Could that Pentecost, even in some small way, become a reality again today?

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About the author

Shana

Shana Burleson

Shana Burleson works as an editor for the Bruderhof’s publishing house, Plough, and lives at the Fox Hill Community.

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  • Hi Shana, I love reading your posts. That's a really cool opportunity you had to go to Memphis! I've been more aware of racism since moving to the eastern side of Germany where some Nazism lingers. I've also been blessed to meet people from all over the world from my German classes! A thought that came to me when starting our class again was, "If the only thing you share with someone is differences, that's one thing you have in common." It's been great to meet people from very different places and feel that we're not very different at all.

    Kristina
  • Enjoyed your blog Shana! This event I bet was very exciting. Its sad that racism still exists in this world but really sad to me is the violence that youth since 911 have known,a violent world with school shootings, bombs, terrorism all over the world. This is not a feel safe time to grow up as it was when I was a teen in the 50's which was a wonderful decade. As a retired cop its sad to see shooting of blacks and others that may or may not have been justified but I am so sad to see this dis- connect from past decades. I guess the answer is to preach the gospel and give people meaning in their lives and if they don't come to terms with their beliefs in a higher power than it will be a hard life to live in this world today!

    George Arnott