by Randy Knighten
In January of every year in the United States of America we celebrate the life of one of the most influential ministers and public theologians in the history of the world. The birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a national holiday in which we all take a moment to reflect on his life and the movement of which he was a part. We also pause to consider issues of race, justice, equality, and nonviolence on this day.

A Broader Discussion

A few years ago, I decided to show a very interesting animated film on Dr. King’s life entitled Our Friend, Martin. I considered the idea after hearing my son, in the second grade at that time, tell me about his opportunity to watch it in class at his public school. I chose to show the hour-long movie during our Sunday evening fellowship. I not only wanted the youth, who were predominately Caucasian, to view the film but I also created questions that would help shape the discussion on what they had seen. The time came to begin the discussion after the video ended. I asked the first question and there was complete silence.
I’m usually a pretty good discussion leader but I could not get our youth or the volunteers to respond to the video at all. I finally ended the discussion time with a short talk on our call as Christians to justice, love, and reconciliation. Afterwards, we played a game and went outside to hang out on the basketball court. And still there was no response to the film or to our subject for the evening, the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It appears that churches continue to struggle to openly discuss very important issues as it relates to race relations in America, which hinders a broader discussion on interracial forgiveness and reconciliation.

It’s a Problem for the Whole Body of Christ

When was the last time you heard a sermon or Bible study with the topic of racial reconciliation and forgiveness in your church? You’ve probably heard these topics mentioned as side notes. In most cases they never appear to be worthy enough to serve as the topic of a series of sermons or Bible studies. The church in America has, in many instances, a decent understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation. However, most of the teachings on these subjects have focused on the spiritualization of forgiveness and reconciliation. When referring to questions of continued racism throughout the world James Cone states, “These are the questions that must inform a black theological analysis of reconciliation, and they cannot be answered by spiritualizing Christ’s emphasis on love, as if his love is indifferent to social and political injustice” (Cone 208). A major focus has been placed on the forgiveness that we have received from God and our being reconciled back to God through Christ, but there has been little emphasis on interpersonal forgiveness and even less emphasis on interracial forgiveness and reconciliation.
In her article “When Your Church Is Silent,” Enuma Okoro discusses her reaction to the silence of her church following a recent highly publicized series of events. Those events concluded with many individuals of a particular race becoming very upset over the outcome. Enuma mentions being very disappointed over the fact that nothing was mentioned about the outcome in her church the following Sunday. She then goes on to make this comment: “I wonder when we will get it—that as next of kin to one another in Christ, the dark and seemingly endless history of the racialization of America and the American church is everyone’s story and everyone’s issue.” Far too often is the negative aspect of race relations in America only highlighted and discussed by those who have been on the receiving end of racial injustice. It is possible that the silence of our churches is due to the fact that the problem with race is only seen as a problem for ethnic minority Christians and not seen as a problem for the entire body of believers.

The Church Universal “Cannot Sit Idly By”

In Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” he states, “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We hear regularly about this reality of our interconnectedness as Christians but to often we fail to embrace this idea beyond our own ethnicities. There must be a seeking to grow together according to the prayer of Jesus Christ that all may be one in order that the world may believe (John 17:21).
Our interconnectedness must be seen as being vital to our ministry to the world. “Visible unity requires that churches be able to recognize in one another the authentic presence of what the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople (381) calls the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church.” (The Church: Towards a Common Vision; World Council of Churches, 2013) We are one Church and we must embrace our interconnectedness to the point of working to understand and embrace the suffering of brothers and sisters everywhere that have faced and continue to face injustice. The Church Universal, including youth ministries, should be in dialogue and involved in issues of violence and injustice wherever they are present. We must embrace an ethic of oneness and intentionally move forward into the future as one church comprised of many ethnicities and distinctives. While on this journey as one, there must be a continual seeking to learn and understand our differences.

Circles of Peace

We must move beyond the illusion of “okay-ness” in our churches. We sit comfortably in our pews each Sunday morning with socio-spiritual blinders on and we are never exposed to the struggles and inequities faced by our sisters and brothers of other ethnicities. On the Southside of Chicago there are groups currently exploring what it means to be communities in conversation seeking understanding. They have formed peacemaking circles all over the Southside in which they have adopted very interesting values which shape their conversations. These peacemaking circles foster environments of respect, confidentiality, and truth telling. These circles serve as containers created to hold anger, frustration, joy, truth, conflict, opposite opinions, and strong feelings. They desire to be fertile grounds from which forgiveness and reconciliation can spring forth. Is it possible that churches of all races, creeds and colors have the God-given ability to be communities like those found on the Southside of Chicago?
Circles of peace can also foster multi-ethnic, ecumenical conversations, which can lead to greater expressions of Christian unity. Maybe then we will be able to embrace the tabooed topics of race and not be fearful of difficult conversations. As our understanding of the plight of all Christians develop, we can then live in solidarity with our sisters and brothers who are experiencing oppression, thereby leading us into places of cross-cultural forgiveness and reconciliation.
Randy Knighten is in his third year of the graduate residency program through the Center for Youth Ministry Training and serves as the youth minister at Andrew Price Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.