Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martin Luther King Day

Today the nation honors the memory of Martin Luther King - his courage, his leadership, his vision, and his sacrifice. I can think of no better way to understand why he's so highly regarded than to watch or read his I Have a Dream speech and/or his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Both are excellent windows into the soul of the man, and in them both we see that King was motivated and inspired by his deep faith in, and his understanding of, the message of the Christian Gospel. Here's his very powerful and very moving I Have Dream speech:

Reflecting on the history of the American civil rights movement and its roots in the American experience with slavery I was reminded of something I had read recently about contemporary slavery.

There are an estimated 27 million people in slavery today, most of them children. Thousands of boys hardly big enough to hold a gun are enslaved by militia thugs in Africa and forced to murder, maim and rape (See the movie War Dance). Thousands of Asian girls, barely pubescent, are sold as sex slaves, often by their parents. Millions of others are forced to work long hours, as many as twenty hours a day, shackled to machines and looms, or to toil as domestic labor.

One sometimes hears that the Bible endorses slavery and that American slave owners were often Christians. The first claim is not true. The Bible recognized that slavery was a fact in the first century Roman Empire and that there was little that a nascent Christian church could do to change it. Christian slaves were encouraged, therefore, to live so as to be a witness to God to a pagan world, to use their suffering to glorify Christ.

The second claim is technically true, but misleading. Early southern slave-owners were often nominal Anglicans whose religion had very little relevance to their moral lives.

In any event, the abolitionist movement, like the twentieth century civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King and his allies, was led by Christians who took the Gospel seriously - people like William Wilberforce and his Clapham group, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, even the misguided and possibly deranged John Brown. Add to these the thousands of lesser known Christians who participated in the underground railroad, who wrote editorials in newspapers and magazines, who preached from the pulpits of hundreds if not thousands of churches on the need for Christians to live up to their creedal beliefs that all men are God's children, created equal and in His image. It was this preaching and influence, it was this conviction of the equality of all men before God, that gradually persuaded more marginally committed Christians of the incompatibility of slavery and the Gospel.

Today it is the case that slavery flourishes mostly in those lands where Christianity languishes, or where Christians have little political clout. This is a fact that should be troubling to anyone concerned about human rights as our society grows increasingly secular and Christianity gets pushed further into the shadowy margins of our public life.

Western secularists would do well to ask themselves what grounds they will have to keep slavery at bay if their dream of a completely naked public square is ever realized. Once Christian theism ceases to be the ground, guide, and motivation for moral conduct, as it was for Dr. King, it will gradually, and inevitably, be replaced by an ethic of might-makes-right, and in such a world slavery will almost certainly make a roaring comeback. A completely secularized world will look very much, at least as far as human oppression is concerned, like those parts of the world today where Christian influence is minimal.