Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His murder not only cut short one of the most remarkable lives in American history, it also cut short a long-postponed conversation about race in America.
There has been no shortage of attempts to restart that conversation. When he was president, Bill Clinton tried to jump-start it during the 1990s. The recent controversy over Senator Obama’s pastor’s hateful tirade, and Obama’s speech suggesting a new conversation, is yet another attempt.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that these “conversations” are like all conversations: talk and little else. They are a way of putting off what needs to be done, the goal King gave his life for: “All God’s children” coming together and being one people.
For the process to move beyond words to the realm of action, Christians must set the example.
And it will not be easy. As many people, recently Senator Obama, pointed out, the most segregated place in America is church on a Sunday morning. Some downplay the importance of this fact, arguing, among other things, that it reflects housing patterns and worship styles.
Well, even if this were an acceptable explanation, many Christians do not attend their neighborhood churches—they get in their cars and drive to another neighborhood on Sunday mornings.
In other words, the segregated nature of Sunday mornings in America is the result of choices made by individual Christians—both black and white. Likewise, undoing this segregation and setting an example for the rest of the culture can also be the result of individual choices—that is, if we care to set such an example.
Like the men at a prison in Darrington, Texas, this past Easter: Mark Earley and I joined some 500 prisoners and Prison Fellowship volunteers to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. Both on the platform and in the prison yard, I saw black and white, Anglo and Latino, worshipping the risen Christ together. As I looked over the crowd, I did not think about people as being one color or another. I thought about them as people, and they thought the same way about themselves and about us.
Now, if you know anything about American prisons, you can appreciate how unusual this was. In a world where racial and ethnic identity can literally be a matter of life and death, these men transcended race and embraced their true identity as brothers in Christ. And what happened this past Easter was far from unique. This unity is one of the greatest joys of our prison ministry.
Look, if it can happen behind bars, there is no excuse for business-as-usual outside prison walls. This is especially true when we realize that King’s vision was one driven by a Christian understanding of man’s relationship to God and his fellow men.
On the night before he died, King spoke at Mason Temple Church. He warned of hard times to come, but added that God had shown him “the promised land.” And while he might “not get there with you . . . we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Forty years later, we are not there yet. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, we give the world the right to judge Christ by the way we treat each other. I wish the world could judge Christ by what I saw in the Darrington prison.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint April 4, 2008. Used with permission.