Several years ago in a Session meeting at my church in Indiana, Elders debated for 20 minutes about which holiday was more religious - Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or Presidents Day. It was initiated by a conversation about which national holidays the church office should be closed. I am not sure why we couldn’t be closed both holidays, but we had to choose one, and the conversation was fascinating.
Obviously, as Presbyterians we deeply value the ways that our forebears in the faith acted as vanguards for democracy and freedom in the birth of our nation. We gladly recognize the ways that our church provided a model for our U.S. government and celebrate the presence of so many Presbyterians engaged in the shaping our national values of equality and representation.
And of course the very fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. found his vocation, not just in challenging our nation to fully realize the vision of democracy and equally described by our founding “fathers,” but also as a preacher and pastor, reminds us that Dr. King spoke directly to people of faith to continue to be at the front of the fight for freedom.
Typically we look to his seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a reminder of his challenge to white congregations in particular to do better, to speak more clearly and loudly on behalf of people of color, and to consider the ways that we are not living up to the call of the Gospel and the message of Jesus Christ.
But I also like to look back at a moment when Dr. King directly spoke to Presbyterians about our responsibility to speak and act on these issues. It was at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina in 1965. He spoke there at the invitation of Presbyterian Church’s annual Christian Action Conference, and the title of his talk was “The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.” Three thousand people heard him that day in the center’s main auditorium. You can listen to the audio of that full speech on YouTube here.
Here is an excerpt. The emphasis is mine:
These are difficult days in which we live. At points, we do live in days of emotional tension, when the problems of our nation and the problems of our world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail.
There can be no gainsaying from the fact that we find ourselves in a crisis-packed day. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that we have a crisis in race relations in our country. Some years ago, a great sociologist at Harvard University, Dr. Sorokin, wrote a book entitled The Crisis of our Age, and the thesis of that book was that a crisis develops in society when an old idea exhausts itself and society seeks to reorientate itself around the new idea.
Now this is certainly true in our situation. It is true in our nation at the present time. The old idea of segregation, the old idea of paternalistic relationships between the races has exhausted itself. And American society is seeking to reorientate itself around the new idea of integration, the new idea of genuine, person-to-person relation. This accounts for the crisis of our age, and this accounts for the crisis in race relations today.
Whenever a crisis emerges in society, the church has a specific and a great responsibility. A real responsibility in the midst of this crisis because the problems involved are essentially moral issues. The church, being the moral guardian of the community, cannot overlook its moral responsibility at this hour.
Now, we must admit that all too often the church has been lax at this point. All too often in the midst of social evil, too many Christians have somehow stood still, only to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. All too often in the midst of racial injustice, too many Christians have remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. But when the church is true to its nature, when it is true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and when it is relevant, it is always active in immaterial social change, seeking to guide and direct, seeking to bring the eternal variable of the gossips to bear on the particular situation. This is the great challenge facing the church today. This is the great challenge facing every Christian in these days of racial tension.
It is simultaneously remarkable how meaningful and relevant these words spoken over 55 years are for us today while also discouraging that we have not made enough progress to make them feel antiquated.
The work is not yet complete. The call is still for us as a church and as people of faith to answer. The responsibility remains ours.
I invite you this Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. for an Interfaith Community MLK Worship service, where we will be able to be renewed in this calling, encouraged by the work of our neighbors and partners in this calling, and to consider how we will live into this calling not just on a holiday weekend - not just on our days off - but every day of our lives.
You can register for this Sunday’s online community service here: https://bit.ly/mlk-registration