This week, we have been commemorating the Martin Luther King legacy on campus.
Since the students were not here for MLK day in January, we waited until they returned. Thanks to the hard work of many of our athletes, we had the large letters, “M,” “L,” and “K,” cut in the snow, taking up most of the quad. Anyone looking from the Campus Center could see them “loud and clear,” signaling the focus of our week’s activities in chapel and in the evening programming.
Beginning on Monday at 11:00 with our commemorative walk around the quad, the week’s activities have been designed to help us as a community remember the long and costly road to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that created the legal framework for a society free of racial discrimination; to lament and repent of the blindness and standing aside that characterized so many of those in the majority culture during the work of Civil Rights—even among the followers of Jesus Christ—especially tragic in traditions like our own, which prided themselves on their 19th century legacy of abolitionism; and to renew our own commitment as individuals and as a campus to continue the work of creating a society where every person—regardless of their race or ethnicity—is welcomed and treated with the dignity and respect worthy of a child of our Heavenly Father.
The events of this past year have reminded us how far we have yet to journey as a country to realize the hopes and dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King and all those like him—Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, John Lewis, James Farmer, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Jesse Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, Medger Evers, Ralph Abernathy, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, and the countless others who marched, held sit-ins at lunch counters, and boycotted busses—just to call us to imagine a world where the differences of race and ethnicity serve to enrich our life together in communities and in churches—rather than divide us.
The Search for Answers
There are many ways to understand how we arrived at the tragic state of race relations in our country today. The academy specializes in cultivating these various—often controversial—explanations, some rooted in theory, some in history, but all with their corresponding assumptions about moving toward solutions. All too often the efforts at explanation only succeed in exacerbating the divisions, intensifying the fears and suspicions of the “other,” and sending individuals back into the safety of those with whom they already agree. I see these fears even in our own Houghton constituency as we try to process what we are hearing in chapels and in other contexts. It is hard sometimes even to get to the point of encouraging people to engage critically with what is being said. Some things just seem too hard to hear at all.
There is much that can lead one to despair in this moment, especially as a Christian believer. The Christian faith plays a complex role in the story of race relations in our world in general, and in American history in particular. While Christianity has been a source of hope and solace for many in the African-American community, and while many of the abolitionists of the 19th century drew their inspiration from the Christian scriptures, the Christian scriptures have also been used throughout history to defend apartheid, segregation, and slavery as well as a wide variety of more subtle forms of racist paternalism. All too often today, in the world of scholarship, Christianity is dismissed primarily as villain or perpetrator in discussions of racism. All too often today, in the world of white Christianity especially, it is the challenge of racism and race relations that is dismissed. Christianity is used to obscure the problems of racism with phrases like, “Can’t we all just be one in Christ?” As if our differences did not matter.
The Ever-Surprising Gospel
I have come across one writer who has given me hope—not a simplistic hope, but hope nevertheless. Through his writings, first The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, (Yale, 2011) and more recently, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020), Professor Willie James Jennings of Yale Divinity Schools has shown that one can reckon deeply and honestly with the complex history of Christianity and race relations—that one can take seriously the reality and pain of racism—and still see the Gospel of Jesus Christ as relevant Good News. Professor Jennings holds out the possibility that the table of our Lord Jesus Christ may be a transformative gathering place for all those from every race and ethnicity who want what he believes is the most fundamental of human desires: a place to belong and to be entirely the individuals they have been created and called to be. It is this powerful form of Christian community where people who have nothing else in common but their desire to belong in all their particularity and their desire to be with Jesus that, according to Professor Jennings, holds out the best hope for our time.
This is the hope that we are seeking to inspire this week at Houghton College. This is the hope that invites—and awaits—our participation not only today, but each day of our lives.
Shirley A. Mullen, 1976