A recent edition of The Chronicle Review caused me to pause and reflect on the progress the United States has made, in terms of racial unity, but also on the long way we have to go. More particularly, it caused me to reflect upon how far we, God’s church in the United States, are from his ideal for racial unity. In the article, “Our Long Walk to Freedom,” Peniel Joseph reflects upon the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington (August 28, 1963), in which several hundred thousand Americans marched in a unified effort to address racial disunity, economic security, class struggle, and voting rights. Peniel, Professor of History at Tufts University, is right that the 50th anniversary “provides an important milestone to reflect on race relations in America. It’s natural to ask: How far have we come? And what has brought us here?”
Toward the beginning of the article, he notes that during the 2012 presidential election, black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout for the first time. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 66.2 percent of blacks turned out to vote, which (in contrast to 64.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites), which “represents a potential game changer for American politics” (B10).
Peniel writes that Democrats and Republicans read this data in different ways. Democrats see it as evidence of an emerging political consensus built around minorities. Republicans argue it is a result of Obama’s (2008) election itself and thus only an outlier in the otherwise normal voting trends. Joseph argues however that both narratives underestimate “the political intelligence and sophistication of black voters.” According to Joseph this is an intelligence and sophistication founded upon the hard, culture-shaping work of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Democratic Party was not always the party of minorities, or especially of blacks, in America. By the late 1960s, however, the “Democrats found themselves identified primarily with the struggles of black and poor people” (B11). Though George McGovern was trounced in the Presidential election of 1972, as were most democrats from 1968–88, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream of a multiracial democracy did not die. It was, in retrospect, simply deferred: a sleeping giant waiting for demographic changes to come.” According to Joseph many of those changes may have come. The recent so-called “browning of America” “may turn the [Democratic] party’s identification with racial minorities from a political negative into an enduring electoral majority” (B11).
The possibility of such “an enduring electoral majority” has its beginnings, and its most important era, in the 1960s. As Joseph states, “The historic makeup of the Obama coalition can be directly traced back to events that took place a half-century ago.” Officially titled “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the demonstration pointed toward public policy issues such as economic security, class struggle, and voting rights that lay “beneath the surface of a battle for equality that many viewed, then, primarily through a racial lens” (B11). These issues arose again and again throughout the 1960s in the midst of conversation, debate, and outright battle over racial equality.
The March on Washington occurred in the most significant, and most tumultuous, year of that decade: 1963. The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation witnessed several epoch-marking events. King was imprisoned in Birmingham, but from there wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it he evoked the nation’s founding as the “well of democracy” from which the civil rights movement was nourished. On June 11 of the same year, President Kennedy “voice full-throated approval of King’s words.” After asking “who among us” would like to switch places with King or other black Americans, Kennedy “concluded by defining civil rights as a ‘moral issue’ as ancient as Scripture but in dire need of public policy, as well as spiritual, intervention” (B12). Following Kennedy’s speech, the next day, Medgar Evers was assassinated.
The same month King served as keynote speaker at the Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was at that time the greatest demonstration of the civil-rights era. That was until the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. This event “seemed to cull the year’s triumphs and tragedies to carve out what King described as a ‘stone of hope’ from a mountain of despair” (B12). Indeed more tragedy followed, with the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (which killed four girls) and Kennedy’s assassination in November. Yet these events, especially Kennedy’s assassination, “created the moral high ground that was absent while [Kennedy] was alive” and enabled President Johnson to enact several landmark legislative acts. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) are two of the most notable.
Such progress would seem to indicate that the U. S. presidency of “a son Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas” would be marked by an increasing resolution of race relations. Yet, as Joseph notes, these relations “remain contested” (B12). President Obama, for example, received 39 percent of the vote of whites in 2012, compared to 43 percent in 2008. Furthermore, John Kerry (2004) and Michael Dukakis (1988) both scored higher on this measure than Obama in 2012. Though young voters are less concerned with a candidate’s race than any previous generation, the racial tension remains and progress continues “in fits and starts,” according to Joseph (B12).
The recent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman touched off a series of nationwide protests. President Obama reflected publicly and personally on the effect of the verdict for many black Americans. Such tension, then, marks Obama’s generation. He did however strike a hopeful tone with regard to the next generation: “they’re better than us” (B12). Joseph also comments on the disproportionate number of blacks imprisoned on drug charges as evidence of remaining racial tension. More generally, Joseph states, “blacks and whites are still more likely than not to live, work, socialize and die apart” (B12). (One may also think of the oft-quoted line, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”)
Good and bad fruit has come from the events of the 1960s, but no doubt fruit has come. Joseph sees this 50th anniversary as landmark for several reasons. “The most profound lesson that 1963 has to offer the present is about the power of collective, organized action . . . . Most of all [the civil rights activists, especially King] promoted a radical vision of American democracy with a tenacity that has almost allowed us to forget the long road we’ve traveled since then, and to pay scant attention to the hard journey that remains” (B12).
In response to Joseph’s article, I’ll limit myself to four theological reflections which, taken together, underscore my hope that the March on Washington will finally reach the church, that our churches and seminaries will increasingly be places known for racial diversity, racial unity, and interracial healing. For the deepest and truest racial reconciliation is wrought by the cross of Christ, just as the ultimate reasons for honoring and loving our racially-different brothers and sisters are theological rather than social or political.
First, God built diversity into his good creation. In Genesis, we are told that God created the heavens and earth and declared it “good” and even “very good.” Part of that goodness is the multi-splendored diversity which marked both the human and non-human aspects of his creation. He could have created the world dully, grey, and monochrome. But instead, he created it pulsating with life and color. At the center of his creation stood humanity, who he created to live in a unified diversity, loving him and loving each other.
Second, Christ’s atonement enables the racial unity God desires and overthrows the racial arrogance he detests. During the dramatic narrative of Revelation 5, all of heaven’s inhabitants gather around the throne, as “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is a culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God who created humanity is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by black Americans and white Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans), and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship.
Third, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. As we noted, Revelation 5 depicts a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a corner by one tribe of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations.
Fourth, God calls us to shape our communities (socially and politically) in ways that preview his kingdom. As believers, we live in a time “between the times,” and one of our tasks is to bring every aspect of our lives (including social and political aspects) under submission to Christ’s Lordship. In so doing, God’s people provide a glimpse of the goodness that waits in Christ’s kingdom. In relation to racial unity and diversity, we are well served to ask three questions: what is God’s creational design for racial unity and diversity in the social and political realm? How has God’s design been corrupted and misdirected? How can we as Christians bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward Christ? To be concise to the extreme in answering those questions, God’s design is a unity-in-diversity fueled by Christian love. This design has been corrupted and derailed by racism and segregation at the personal and institutional levels, and often is perpetuated by our society’s mediating institutions (of which the church is one). Following the lead of men like Norman Peart (Separate No More) and Jarvis Williams (One New Man), we must build churches which picture the gospel in their racial makeup and witness, and which work hard in the social and political realm to make racial reconciliation and unity a tangible reality.
When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uni-racial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to win admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. In these days following the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, may we pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.
 Peniel E. Joseph, “Our Long Walk to Freedom” in The Chronicle Review (August 16, 2013: B10–12).