Each year, Americans observe the birthday of Civil Rights pioneer Martin Luther King—well, at least some of us do. While it is an official Federal holiday, the actual observance of the day varies greatly from one community to another. Some areas consider the day to be an annoying business interruption, and have even coined crass nicknames that I won’t dignify by repeating. In other areas, King Day is celebrated with the same passion and fervor as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and July 4th. Even the casual observer can easily discern that the areas of our country where King Day is celebrated with the most fervor are areas that have the strongest African-American communities, while the communities that see it as a business interruption and annoyance are those with smaller, weaker African-American communities.
I find it ironic that the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday is a day that many think of as an “African-American holiday.” If you disagree with that conclusion, bear in mind that many employers allow employees to take either King Day or President’s Day, but not both, as a paid holiday. While never expressed in such terms, it sure does look like they have an “African-American holiday” and a “Caucasian holiday,” and it’s not too surprising that the choice of holiday usually follows racial lines.
I was listening to the broadcast of a recording of Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech when it occurred to me that the seeming racial divide in our celebration of his life and mission is inconsistent with Dr. King’s goal of racial unity. If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, he would probably be speaking out against the current celebration of the holiday instituted in his memory. Now, THATs irony!
Jesus took a strong stand against racism. That strong stand is one of the reasons why the ultra-religious Jews of His time hated Him. The brand of racism common in Jewish society in that day makes the KKK look like the Rainbow Coalition. The ultra-religious Pharisee’s favorite hated minority was the Samaritans, who they regarded as half-breeds that tainted the Jew’s perfectly clean bloodline by intermarrying with Gentiles. They were so anti-Samaritic that they would travel hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid passing through Samaria. If a Samaritan were walking down the street, the proper religious Jew would cross the street, to stay as far away from the Samaritan as possible. As much as the Jews hated Gentiles, they hated Samaritans even more, for the Samaritans worshiped the God of the Jews, a thought that made the ultra-religious Jew’s self-righteous blood boil.
In the face of this racial bigotry, Jesus frequently told parables where the hero was a Samaritan. He went to Samaria and preached the Good News. He commanded His disciples to take the Gospel to the whole earth, specifically mentioning Samaria as a target. Jesus had a policy of deliberately looking beyond skin color, heritage, and socioeconomic status—looking instead directly toward the person’s heart. He dealt with every single person in the same way, going beyond externalities and cultural differences and focusing instead on individual needs and personal care. There was no place for racism or bigotry in Jesus’ relationships. As followers of His, we ought to follow the same standard—yet, sadly, the most segregated hour of the week continues to be Sunday morning at 11:00 AM.
The church ought to be setting a Christ-like example and leading the way toward racial reconciliation, closing rather than broadening the gap. In practice, we fall woefully short of that goal. What are we to do? Consider Christ’s example: in Jesus’ exchanges with the hated minorities of His day, He approached them not as subsets of society, but as individuals. He befriended them one at a time, and loved them individually regardless of their heritage.
The key to true racial reconciliation is found in one-on-one friendships that defy racial barriers—ongoing friendships that seek for mutual understanding and support, praying for one another, supporting each other in time of need, and celebrating our differing heritage rather than letting it become a wall of separation. When enough of us who claim to represent Jesus are willing to seriously build those relationships, unity will happen as a natural by-product.
That’s the way Jesus handled the racial gaps in His society. If you are willing to step out and bridge that gap the way that Jesus did, you can make Dr. King’s dream a living reality.