“We have heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King calling us to cut the cancer of prejudice from our souls and from our land. But we have never heard his voice so eloquently as in his death. We have never heard his voice so eloquently as in our grief at his assassination.”
So began an open letter to the people of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the Grand Rapids Press on April 5, 1968, and signed by the student body of Calvin Theological Seminary. The letter went on to confess, “We have witnessed oppression, exploitation, corruption and have not spoken or done God’s Word . . . Our prejudice and indifference demands [sic] shame, and shame demands action.. The death of Martin Luther King cries for us to speak the word of justice, to speak the word of love, to speak the word of righteousness and then do that word . . . That concrete action must be expressed in low-cost housing, equality of job opportunities, equality of educational opportunities.. The seminary student body also marched in honor of Dr. King and lowered the flag to half mast even as seminary President John Kromminga and Professor Henry Stob spoke at a memorial service calling on all to not let Dr. King to have died in vain.
In historical retrospective, that all seems lovely and right. Of course, at the time there were some–many?–who saw it otherwise. Indeed, the reason I became aware of all this recently was because in going through my late father-in-law’s files from his many years as a CRC pastor, we ran across a letter that apparently had been circulated widely to CRC pastors and congregations by a man from a small town in West Michigan. I will not divulge the letter-writer’s name but will call him Roger (and “Roger” made an avocational career out of letters to the editor over the years, as some would still recall were I to use his real name). But in 1968 Roger was not pleased with his denomination’s theological school.
As a “Christian Calvinist” he protested the seminary’s words and actions because “the social gospel preached by Dr. King is not the true gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. King’s new social order was more communist than Christian” and anyway somehow Roger also knew that the Baptist preacher son of a Baptist preacher “did not believe in the infallibility of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, nor in salvation through the blood of the substitutionary atonement.”
King, Roger went on to assert, was “the Arch Apostle of civil disobedience . . . rioting and insurrection followed wherever he went. Thanks to his afforts [sic], racism has now reached a peak intensity which threatens personal safety in our streets.” There is more but I will desist save to note that Roger also claimed that most of what the Civil Rights movement advocated for would only augment but never solve racism. Only those who preached the true gospel would solve “racism and its attendant problems.. Roger ended by calling on Calvin Theological Seminary to stop “fraternizing with the enemy.”
Just one letter from one man in one West Michigan town from 50 years ago this April. And yet . . . there can be little doubt that Roger found a receptive audience in some Christian Reformed congregations and members. It was half a century ago now but as we begin a new year and come off a year in which the specter of Charlottesville still hangs heavy in the air, how much has really changed?
It is easy to see now how Roger tried to hide his own racial bias and prejudice behind a welter of spurious claims and accusations about King and the Civil Rights movement generally. It is easy to see how he ardently embraced every negative thing said about King whether there was evidence for such claims or not. But in the last number of years I have heard so many similar things. How often haven’t we heard the claim that Obama made racism worse, not better; that every racial incident that happened across his eight years as President were somehow his fault (never considering apparently that the election of the nation’s first black president enraged the racism already out there). How often haven’t we heard claims about Black Lives Matter that could have been written by Roger himself. And how often haven’t these claims and charges and speculations emanated from inside the church itself even as outrage over our current President’s mealy-mouthed response to Charlottesville led to the resignation of exactly one member of his pastoral advisory board?
Fifty years is a long time. And there has been progress since Dr. King was felled by a bullet on April 4, 1968, not least of which really was the election of a black man to the White House. But the year gone by has stood as a bracing reminder of the ugliness still out there among our fellow citizens and possibly among our fellow church members in some cases. As we enter the year that will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s death, we can recall the (remarkably eloquent off-the-cuff) remarks by another person who died 50 years ago this year: the remarks of Bobby Kennedy when he informed an Indianapolis crowd of King’s death.
“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
Yes, let us dedicate ourselves to that. To all that and more until the Rogers of our church and society can no longer find a platform for their thinly veiled cancer of prejudice.