New York, NY (January 22, 1997)_Close to 200 persons attended an evening program sponsored by the Racial Unity Ministry (R.U.M.) of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The promotional material stated that the program was "in celebration of Christian unity and the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.", and featured "an informal dialogue about the lives of King and Malcolm X and . . . what Christians can learn from these two men."
All Angels Church (Episcopal) in upper Manhattan hosted the gathering. Its Senior Rector, Colin Goode, began the evening by referring to King's "I Have a Dream" speech (given at the civil rights demonstration in Washington, DC, in 1963). He stated that he was moved by King's phrase, "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism"; and he said, "One of the dangers of the church is that we spend our time talking about what we should be doing" rather than doing it.
"Institutionalized White Privilege"
The Moderator for the evening, Dennis Day, a member of R.U.M., referred to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an indication that "we were finally on the road to genuine racial equality." He stated that King and Malcolm X were "noble men, who spoke with eloquence and conviction and an urgency tinged with a moral imperative. As well as one being a Christian, one was Islamic, but both evolving in their perceptions of a just society and the virtues of a righteous life." Further, both were "concerned with what theologian Paul Tillich terms as man's ultimate concern_that is, man's relationship to God and how that relationship is executed in all human relations." Mr. Day said that the erudite speakers would give a deep insight into the concerns of these "two giant Americans,...concerns deeply rooted in challenging the corrosive effects of racism, sexism, and harrassment, while confronting institutionalized customs of white privilege in our democratic society." He said that there is "certainly no short supply" of contemporary issues: "ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda, child poverty and the void of child labor laws locally, homelessness, the growing income gap, and, of course, race, caste, and color persecution." Both of these men "were felled by an assasin's bullet, but their indomitable spirits live on, inspiring, . . . challenging, and cajoling us with their vision, their hard truths, and, in the end, a common ideal that we can and shall overcome."
Mr. Day stated that the "illustrious presenters" was each "eminently qualified to reflect on the spiritual evolution of both men." Dr. Dean Trulear is on staff at Community Baptist Church of Love, on the faculty of New York Theological Seminary, and on staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Dr. Louis DeCaro, interim pastor of Vroon Street Evangelical Church, graduated from Geneva College and Westminster Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. from New York University. He also authored On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X.
King was "picked by God Himself"
Dr. Trulear maintained that Martin Luther King, Jr., must be seen as a religious individual, instead of a civil rights or black leader. He said that King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech was not rooted in the American dream so much as it was an appeal to "Biblical prophecy and a religious vision upon which he ultimately stands." King's dream, then, does not fit the American dream, but fits "the standard pattern of protest characteristic in American society." According to Dr. Trulear, "All successful reform movements and social change strategy in this country make some form of appeal to the symbol-system of the very society they seek to transform. Whether consciously or unconsciously, oppressed groups latch onto some corporate dimension of the world-view of their oppressors in their quest for a change. . . . An appeal to American symbolism [in King's speech is not necessarily indicative] of an uncritical loyalty to America. To argue that King's dream was deeply rooted in the American dream is therefore to domesticate the radical nature of his mission. It is not to America, but to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition that King looks for his vision of a just society. . . . In his later years, King was able to publicly expand his vision for justice to include a world-wide community." Cited as examples of this broader vision were King's protest of the Vietnam War, his call for world peace and radical demilitarization, and an attack on economic injustice.
Trulear argued that "first and foremost, [King] was a preacher, a prophet, a man of God, picked by God Himself, that his life might be lived in the service of others. Therefore, he operates as someone with a moral world-view, unafraid to allow moral maxims and moral absolutes to intersect with the real stuff of politics and social justice."
With regard to King's personal piety, Trulear stated, to the amusement of the audience, "I don't know if King was saved: I'm not on that committee." But "King certainly thought of himself as on a mission from God."
Malcolm X: "an instrument of God"
Dr. DeCaro recounted his Italian charismatic background, and his training at Geneva and Westminster. He said that the best book he read while in seminary was one he found in a used book sale_"probably it was placed there by a discouraged black student who probably left that semester": W. E. B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk.
Malcolm X, according to DeCaro, was "not only a great leader, but also a very religious leader." Malcolm X's story "therefore is a very religious story about a very religious man." Recalling his training at Westminster Seminary regarding the development of a "Reformed world-and-life view," he said, "Reformed theology encouraged people to look at life and look at the world, and so I considered my work [i.e., his alternative, non-required readings_Ed.] an extension of what I was supposed to be learning, even though many people at Westminster would not be very comfortable with it." He asserted that "Malcolm X was an instrument of God, in providence. Malcolm X had to have been_not only because Dr. King was in the Southern theater or the Southern arena, and Malcolm was a Northern figure, but because Malcolm X came as the so-called outsider, and he viewed things very differently as the outsider. Malcolm X understood the Christian church, and he understood white people. . . . God raised him up and used him, because his whole life is a life of transformation."
"Malcolm never really hated white people"
Secondly, Dr. DeCaro said that he does not "apologize for the Malcolm X who, before going to Mecca, had a career as a social critic in this country. I notice that among black people, as well as white people, especially in mixed company, that sometimes there is a level of discomfort and a rushing to get to the 'Mecca part'. . . . The truth of the matter is, Malcolm never really hated white people. He wasn't a hateful man. . . . Malcolm X was a very loving man, a man with a very warm, gigantic sense of humor." He referred to Malcolm X as a "religious evolutionist": "His religion, his belief in God, his sense of purpose in what he was trying to accomplish cannot be separated from his political, social analysis. And more importantly, what Malcolm's analysis of United States culture was never changed after he went to Mecca. His anthropology changed, . . . so that he understood that Caucasians were not part of an inferior race. But he did not change his opinion about culture in the United States. He understood that . . . the cultural template of U. S. culture is racist, and that he never changed on, up until the time of his death. And I believe as Christians who really want to encounter racial reconciliation, we are obliged to talk about white privilege and the fundamental attitudes of this culture.
Billy Graham and White Nationalism
"Malcolm understood the Christian church. He had the unmitigated gall to call Billy Graham's message 'white nationalism'. There was a time when I read that, I threw the book against the wall, because, of course, Billy Graham is an icon of American evangelicalism_but now I agree with him one hundred percent. . . . [I]n 1963, it was Billy Graham who told Dr. King, 'Slow down.' . . . In 1963, Dr. Graham was trying to discourage what God was doing in Dr. King's ministry. In 1968, when Watts was in flames, it was the Rev. Billy Graham who was taking a helicopter ride and blaming it, of course, on communists and socialists, rather than understanding what Malcolm X understood, that what was going to happen throughout the United States was simply about rage, simply a response to injustice. . . . What Malcolm X had to say about this society, what he had to say about the black community, needs to be listened to by black people again today. What he said about white society, needs to be listened to by whites today. What he had to say about this culture needs to be understood by Asians and Latinos who, for better or for worse, are being bounced off this thing called 'racism'. . . . Malcolm X had his finger on the pulse of this culture. You might not agree with his religious ideas_I certainly don't, I don't subscribe to Islam. But Malcolm X's principles were closely aligned with what we call the prophetic ethics of the Scripture. And he believed in honest dialogue. . . . He was the kind of guy who once you knew where he was coming from, you could sit back and talk with him. And so, that is still the message that is emanating from Malcolm's life. His message cuts to the very bone of society, to the marrow, and we'd do well to listen to him."
"Listening" to all sides
After DeCaro's presentation, Moderator Day came to the podium and began by recalling the debate a century ago between two separate schools of thought, represented by W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Sensing the possibility of confliction in the audience, Mr. Day stated that the "operative word" in the current discussion is "listening" (i.e., listening to different viewpoints which all purportedly have a claim to respectability_Ed.). He then proceeded to cite DuBois' perspective. According to Day, DuBois said in The Souls of Black Folk that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line. That reality still rings true, as we approach the new millennium. I'm very happy to see that President William Clinton, in his inaugural remarks, . . . alluded to the bogey man of race that continually plagues our nation. We must, as Christian people, not retrench from this issue, not wait until the Bosnias and the Sarajevos and the Rwandas of the world and the Germanys and the Holocaust take its ugly toll on humanity. We shouldn't wait for our government to take this role. We are the government, we are the kingdom that Christ is raising up. We have to deal with diligence, brothers and sisters, on this issue of race, or it shall consume and destroy us all."
During a time of informal discussion between the two presenters, Dr. Trulear noted that Martin Luther King, Jr., differed from the mainstream of the black church in two significant ways. The first had to do with economics. Trulear quoted from W. E. B. DuBois, to the effect that "black people argued for a seat in the front of the bus for so long that they forgot to ask where the bus was going." Trulear commented, "It was his way of raising questions about integration. I mean, if the society is sick, why would you want to be a part of it so much? If all the people in Westchester County [suburbs just north of New York City_Ed.] are a bunch of racists, or whatever, why do you want to be a part of it? . . . King saw [integration] as an opportunity to infiltrate the system and transform it, much as in the way, say, that Daniel and the Hebrew children . . . of the Exilic literature were called upon to be a transforming presence in Babylon." The second way in which King ran counter to mainstream black thought was his criticism of America and especially the military. This was particularly true when King came out against the Vietnam War in the mid-1960's.
Dr. Trulear also stated "wrestlings between principles and loyalties is what characterizes much of what we're doing in contemporary racial reconciliation work. It seems that a lot of us are willing to engage in reconciliation or engage in social transformation or engage in acts of charities and mercy as long as they don't alienate us from our communities of origin. But to take the risk that I may in fact be alienated from my community of origin_for me to take the risk of, 'I go to a predominantly white Anglican church'; and people will say, 'What's wrong with you? Why are you doing that?'" He suggested that to go to that type of church, or to make "a conscious choice to go to a church that has black and white clergy, that has black and white members," means that "you're running a risk" of alienation. A person may not "want to stick out beyond the boundaries of what is historically classical with respect to being an African-American." He added, to the bemusement of the audience, "I don't play country music, you know."
He stated that both King and Malcolm X had made "conscious decisions of what it means to be right and righteous before God." Dr. DeCaro added that Malcolm "felt the conviction [to come back to America] to correct the wrongs that he had sown."
"Scriptures are influenced by social location"
Dr. Trulear said how helpful Dr. DeCaro had been in pointing out "Malcolm's vision of America and how social location impacts the way in which we look at America. . . . We all want to think that we're Biblical Christians. . . . If the only part of the Bible that you had was the book of Philippians, and you had to build your church based only on the book of Philippians, your church would look very different than if it was built on the book of Colossians. . . . The church built on the book of Colossians would look like . . . Christ is Lord over all and would be involved in all sorts of social transformation, and you'd be concerned about seeing the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of life. Whereas a church built on the book of Philippians would be much more concerned about diversity, about sharing, about the health of community life within the churches. So that, all of the things_even the Scriptures are influenced by social location. How we view Scriptures is influenced by social location. How we live Scripture is influenced by social location." He then stated that, while he could identify with Martin Luther King, Jr., since both he and King were raised in a middle class background, he could not readily identify with Malcolm X, who came up from poverty. Therefore, "I need to hear him if I'm going to effectively minister in those contexts, because his voice is an authentic voice, coming from the streets."
Malcolm X "has helped me to become a better Christian"
Dr. DeCaro confessed that Malcolm X "has helped me to become a better Christian." Among other reasons, this is because the depth of Malcolm X's "commitment to Islam embarrasses me."
Moderator Day alluded to a "commonality" between King and Malcolm X, in that they both opted to live in the city. "Christ's ministry played itself out in the city. . . . I am especially struck by the notion of the ability to transform the city through ministry as both men perceived their own calling."
Dr. DeCaro responded that Malcolm X had a "romantic if not a spiritual commitment to New York City."
Day also said that he was struck by King's devotion to putting principle over materialistic values. "These are similarities which both of these men bring to their experience and we can draw from and learn from, the fact that both, in every instance, consistently throughout their lives, placed principle over material values."
Using the 'N' word
During the open question time, the first questioner wanted to know how to respond to fellow-workers, even blacks, who use the 'N' word ("nigger"). Mr. Day noted that the comedian Richard Pryor, since his pilgrimage to Africa, has now ceased using that term in his routine. Dr. Trulear picked up on the same story, saying that Pryor claimed that God spoke to him on the matter. Trulear continued, "Do I know that? No, I wasn't there!", and the audience roared with laughter. He said that a lot of the self-deprecating nature of humor by African-Americans was due to the lack of the sense of pan-Africanism, and that such would not be present "if we had a sense of what it means to be part of this 'diaspora.'" Mr. Day added that there also must be an appreciation of the valuable contributions of African-Americans.
John Brown: 'Demonized' by the Church
The next question was on specific examples of racial reconciliation. Dr. DeCaro, who was sporting a button with the picture of John Brown, stated that he would point to 1859 and Brown's activities as to "what racial reconciliation looks like." Claiming that Brown has been "demonized" by the church and "disowned by the Christian community," DeCaro maintained that the radical abolitionist was a "Christian man_and I don't merely mean a nominal Christian, but a believing Christian man_indeed, a Calvinist. He believed in the goodness of God, the direction of God, the leading of God. [He] believed that his work and his involvement with the black community as an abolitionist was an expression of being a Christian. John Brown's relationship with the black community is a wonderful example of what racial reconciliation looks like. He wove in and out of that community. He did not feel that he had to necessarily always be physically with blacks. He did not try to, so-called, act 'black'. He was himself in a strong, secure identity of who he was in Christ. He also had the same respect for his black neighbors. . . . To get back to Malcolm, . . . Malcolm would tell white people, 'You can help us . . . but you're going to have to allow us first of all to have that black solidarity, that pan-African consciousness.'" According to DeCaro, one must not compromise on racial reconciliation, even though taking that path may imply "discomfort" and "frustration." "It's not a panacea, it's not a pretty picture, but what Christ has in racial reconciliation, what John Brown discovered in his relationship with the black community, what gave him the strength and the encouragement to go on to the noose, and what we can have as the Christian community, first of all, starts with dealing with our own lives and going through a process of introspection . . . and then learning about the black experience. . . . Racial reconciliation looks like studying and learning black history_it's not just for black people."
Dr. Trulear answered by saying that racial reconciliation is "also about repentance." He spoke about his involvement with Promise Keepers, which has, in the current "major battle" regarding corporate guilt, come out in favor of confessing past (alleged) sins of the fathers. "There are plenty of places in Scripture where people confessed not only their own sins, but the sins of their parents. . . .The fact of the matter is that, even though I may not own slaves, . . . my social location is a direct result of things that have happened to me and my [family] in the past. . . . I may not have done the economically oppressive things, but if my ancestors did to poor blacks in Mississippi, when my people owned property, . . . I certainly reap the benefits of it. . . . For many of us, we may not think we have much, but we are sitting back and enjoying the benefits of what happened before. And so we have to come to terms with how our histories have wounded one another." He spoke of "small acts" of "representational responsibility" with regard to "the social locations that we enjoy as a result of past oppressions" as a "major part of what racial reconciliation looks like."
Responding to a question from the Moderator, Dr. Trulear said, "I think guilt's a good stage, myself. I don't want to avoid guilt, I want to process guilt, but move beyond that to issues of representational responsibility. . . . I'm more concerned about denial than about feelings of guilt."
Taking Unpopular Stands
One young lady stated that at a midwest college campus, she had been ashamed, in light of the lack of Christian witness by herself and others, of the number of prophets of Elijah, Islam, and Muhammed that were active there. Dr. DeCaro responded that "many times I found myself 'ashamed of the gospel'" because of fear that when he started sharing the Four Spiritual Laws with someone, he would "always hear all this other ugly stuff." He added, "We're all made in God's image, and if you're saved, and you're a Christian, and you believe in the Lord, you can have the authority to bring it to those people. You should be edifying your black brothers and sisters." He also stated that for a good, credible witness, one may have to "take stands on issues that are not popular. . ."
One lady stated that she was impressed that both King and Malcolm X, as "outsiders", spoke like prophets in calling the church to repentance. Her question was, What will repentance look like in the institutional church? Dr. Trulear responded by noting that the black church is "very, very clerically dominant." He would in 1997 look not to the Exodus but to the Exile as the paradigm, for these reasons: 1. in the Exile, there was still oppression; 2. there was a sense of accountability and responsibility; 3. the Exilic leaders generally were lay leaders; 4. the basic theme was transformation, not liberation.
Malcolm X and Reconciliation
Responding to a question on reconciliation, Dr. DeCaro said that Malcolm X believed in the "unity of the human race and therefore anything that brings humans back together again might be called reconciliation, especially if it was done on a religious basis. He did see the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity to be prerequisite of that." According to DeCaro, "He was very critical of liberals." The black leader described conservatives as being "wolves voracious" and liberals as "foxes", and "he wanted to know how come it was that black people ended up as lambchops on the plate."
'Plantation' Concept of Racial Integration
DeCaro reacted against what he termed a "plantation" concept of the racial integration of the church. He declared that "the leadership [of a multi-ethnic church] has to be reflective of that mixture. [For inter-racial churches today], then, the issue is, Are black people being represented in the leadership and the government of the church and the policy-makers and in the preaching? I mean, you know, are we as interested in hearing black preachers, teachers of the Word of God, or do we just want to hear them sing? . . . That is not an integrated church, because you have black people singing in the church."
Diversity Training for Church Staff
After a long ovation by the audience, Miss Andrea Clark, a social worker who is President of the R.U.M. group, spoke about various activities in which they had been engaged. Several events had been sponsored in an informal way by people associated with Redeemer Presbyterian Church, including diversity training for the leadership of the church, and a partnership with Astoria Baptist Church in helping Habitat for Humanity to build housing in Baltimore. Last August, "the ministry decided it needed to become more of a group to really start to practice what we were preaching." A small fellowship group, which has been meeting weekly, was formed in order to grapple with issues from a Biblical perspective. "This group is open to anyone. If you want to get involved, if you want to continue what we've started tonight, if you want to really think through and dialogue and struggle through these issues in a small group, you're welcome to join us," said Miss Clark. She also announced that the group hopes to conduct a Christ and Culture class at Redeemer, and to host an expanded version of the dialogue session this summer.
Did King Preach the Gospel?
After the program, Dr. Trulear was asked, "Did Martin Luther King, Jr., preach the gospel of Christ (justification by faith alone, the imputation of Christ's righteousness, salvation by grace alone)? Was there any place in his public ministry where there was that proclamation of the gospel? If not, can he be considered a Christian minister?" He responded by saying, "I've not read all of his sermons. And if that is what must be preached in order for one to be considered a Christian minister, as the basic theme, then I suppose you could write him off or discount him. But King clearly understood himself as a Christian. He clearly understood the themes that he was preaching as Christian themes. From my standard, I would consider himself to be a liberal Christian. The doctrine that he affirmed would not be my doctrine as an evangelical. At the same time, I'm not going to write him off as a Christian, because I don't know his heart. If you phrase the question, Can he be a conservative Christian minister, that's something you can't even consider. So that, if you set up the criterion and say that if I don't see you preaching justification by faith, if I don't see you preaching the impeccability of Christ. . . if you come up with a certain set of doctrines and say, If you're not preaching this, you're not a Christian minister, then we can write him off. I can raise a parallel question: If you preach all of these fundamental doctrines, and yet hate your brother, are you a Christian minister? Because you have a whole lot of people who are preaching those doctrines, who are also ardent segregationists, who also doubted the humanity of African-Americans, or Latinos_are they Christians? I don't know! Maybe they were. After all, salvation is by grace. And Peter was a racist for ten years after he was saved. So, if we have a radical understanding of grace, then, sure, one can argue that a person may be a racist and a Christian_but they're certainly carnal. So, for me, the question becomes whether or not doctrine becomes the badge of fidelity to the Christian faith, or whether lifestyle becomes the badge of fidelity to the Christian faith. Jesus says, 'You'll know they are Christians by their love'_not by their doctrine. That's not to discount doctrine, but it seems to me that doctrine as the badge of fidelity very often can become something that substitutes for love and for justice and for what Christ says, that we are judged as Christians, that people will know that we are Christians, because of our love. Again, I'm not anti-doctrine: I just don't think that's what we're known by."
Dr. DeCaro afterwards was asked this question: "Do you really think that someone convicted of treason by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1859, someone who raised, obviously, rebellion against the civil government, is a great Christian hero and model?" He responded, "Certainly I think Robert E. Lee was, and I think Robert E. Lee did far more damage than John Brown did. Robert E. Lee lost half a million men. He used his talents ostensibly for states' rights, but he used his talents for evil, because he supported slavery. He did much more detrimental damage. He was, in fact, a secessionist and anti-government. John Brown was not philosophically against the United States government, he was philosophically against slavery. And he only attacked Harper's Ferry because he wanted to establish a strategic stronghold in the South. John Brown loved the United States. He just wanted it to deal with the problem of racism, when in point of fact all the leaders had proven to be compromisers. I'm not at all disturbed by the fact that he was convicted, any more than I am disturbed by the fact that anti-abortion people get arrested for demonstrating in front of abortion clinics. I think he was murdered by the state. And I think that evangelicals should reclaim him, and, in fact, ask that his memory be cleared."