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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” contains sentence after sentence of searing and memorable prose. But already years ago when I first read the letter, one part leapt out and grabbed my heart more than others. Even before I had children of my own—much less in the quarter century since I became a parent—this part really got to me. It is the section where King is piling up one reason after the next why he and his fellows could no longer simply “Wait” for things to change eventually.
We can no longer wait, King said, because you cannot wait “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”
Matters of race and of racism are never really abstract concepts or ideas, though they are frequently discussed as such. They are always finally about real people, about real children. That is also why the Presidents of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary released a letter to the community last Saturday in the wake of comments attributed to President Trump. Both the College and the Seminary are home to students who come from countries the President disparaged (and no one, including the President, denies the disparagement—there seems only disagreement on one vile word). In the letter Presidents LeRoy and Medenblik said:
“While 600 of us may claim citizenship in another country, we are all prime citizens of the Kingdom of God and share in a brotherhood and sisterhood that transcends all borders. It is for this reason, this love for our brothers and sisters, that we are deeply troubled and offended by the disparaging comments attributed to the President of the United States in recent days about people who come from Africa, Haiti, and Latin America. These comments sow fear and hatred in our country, and they are wrong. More than 150 members of our community come from these countries, and they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. This response is in no way political. It is in every way biblical. As members of the Calvin community, it is our Christian duty and responsibility to separate ourselves from racist and hateful remarks and sentiments. The world cannot be confused about what we believe. As Christians, we are called to support and promote the well-being of every member of our community and our society regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin. We protect and defend the inviolable dignity of all people.”
These fitting words have—so far as I can see—been received mostly with gratitude and admiration. Though not everywhere. As this has made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, some disparaged the joint statement as premature, embarrassing, political, partisan, unnecessary. But I believe I know the real reason both Presidents had to send this out: it was deeply pastoral. It is because remarks about whole nations and continents are never abstract but they involve real people into whose eyes President LeRoy and President Medenblik and I as a member of the Seminary faculty must look. It is in those eyes of our students from Kenya and Ghana that we too see the clouds of hurt and inferiority begin to form just as Dr. King saw in his children’s eyes. At Calvin Seminary 30% of our students come from other countries, principally from Asia and Africa. One such African student helped take the offering Sunday morning at the church I attended. We know and love these people. They need to know we love them despite disparaging remarks made by others.
Of course, I have seen other comments in social media that even if the President said the worst thing attributed to him, he was only talking about economic and social conditions, not about the people themselves. But as one person I know said, “He called my country a toilet. I come from that supposed toilet. What does that make me?. Still others have said they have visited the countries in question and the President is right: they are awful, miserable, terrible places. Who wouldn’t want to leave for some place like the U.S.?
But that reminded me of a Calvin Seminary Chapel talk given last October by one of our students from Kenya. He began by describing his village and his country and with as broad a smile as he could muster and with his eyes twinkling with delight he said, “My country is a beautiful country. We have problems but God has given us great beauty. I so hope you will visit my country soon. You will like it.”
The pride and delight in his homeland that sparkled in his eyes was contagious and beautiful to see. Far better to see this than the clouds of discouragement that have filled the eyes of people like this in recent days. Such personal hurt is why Dr. King said over 50 years ago that black people could no longer wait. It is also why our leaders today need not wait to express Christ’s love for all and the Gospel’s embrace of the kind of beautiful language that makes for shalom. It is never too early to speak such a word.