Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

I am child of the “Moral Majority” movement of the 70s and 80s that called Christians to seek greater political power in order to promote an agenda that favored religious and conservative causes. It changed the distribution of power in the American political landscape as Evangelical Christians became a voting bloc capable of building local grassroots movements and swaying national elections. In order to continue to grow in influence American Evangelicalism partnered with some truly odd (and unholy) bedfellows in to maintain power and gain acceptance from political power brokers. These partnerships could not go on indefinitely with compromising the character of the Evangelical church and I believe we have reached the end of the road for whatever remains of the “Moral Majority.”

I am not alone in my assessment. Many of my generation have shed the name Evangelical as they have sought out a more faithful public expression of the Christian faith that is free from the harmful political entanglements of Christian Nationalism. (Read a response from our Bishop Todd Hunter about Christian Nationalism.) And yet Christians should continue to vote and use our voices to advocate for just causes. How do we forge a way forward that keeps us from the dangers of power or passivity?

In his assessment of our current political climate Christian Historian John Fea writes, “It may be time for those Christians who want to influence public policy to think about what it means to face the future from a position on the periphery rather than from “a seat at the table.” He points to the Civil Rights movement led largely by Black Christians as a model for our way forward.

The Civil Rights movement to give equal rights and protections to Black Americans did not begin accidentally. I was taught that in school that Rosa Parks sat down on a bus one day and was too tired to move seats and thus began the Montgomery bus boycott. But Rosa Parks was a trained activist with a commitment to non-violence. She and others thought carefully about how they could gain attention and create change without compromising their principles. 

We often see images of thousands of people peacefully walking with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in protest. But his movement was actually quite particular about who and how they invited people to participate. At the height of the movement King and his associates were still carefully training people in the strategic methods of non-violence and asking them to sign this commitment that includes daily prayer and a commitment to the life and teachings of Jesus.

Over time Dr. King gained the national spotlight and was invited to sit at the table with political leaders and even presidents. But when he met with them he always came with the attitude that he was an outsider, speaking truth to power. Even when he was making progress for his cause, Dr. King would publicly break with leaders over issues where they had a disagreement, as he did with President Johnson over the Vietnam war. He did not want to compromise his message in order to gain influence.

We must find our way forward to a healthy engagement with politics as Christians that does not compromise the witness of Jesus in the world. As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day I encourage you, before you post a quote on social media, honor the man by reading it in context in order to learn more about the integrity of his work. Gaining power on behalf of a righteous cause may seem like the easiest and most expedient way forward but in the end it is too costly. Dr. King is a better guide through our political maze: “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” 

A commitment to self-sacrificial love for our neighbor as our selves is the best guard against the dangerous allure of power. Join me in celebrating the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement by learning from the rich history they have left for us to follow.