The Charleston Way: Dr. King's Dream Still Lives

Richard Land Portrait

What extraordinary and compelling images have emerged from Charleston in the past week.

First, we were assaulted with the images of the senseless slaughter of nine innocent Christians attending a Wednesday night Bible study in their church, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. These people were killed by a hate-filled white supremacist just because they were black. The brutality of the crime profoundly shocked the nation.

Then came the extraordinary reaction of the victims' loved ones and fellow church members. As Christians, through their heartbreak and personal loss, they confronted the perpetrator and told him they forgave him and prayed for his soul. What a profound witness to the transformative power of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

These black brothers and sisters, capturing and modeling the true spirit of the Gospel so vividly testified to two generations ago by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who proclaimed in the face of the particularly malevolent brand of evil that would blow up four little girls in church on a Sunday morning in Birmingham, "those you would change, you must first love."

To witness the faith and forgiveness of the African-American members of Charleston's Emanuel AME Church is to expose the current generation to the life-changing impact and power of the non-violent, reconciling message of the 1960s civil rights revolution that transformed our nation in so many very important and critical ways.

Dr. King and his followers refused to allow hate to stifle and shrivel their hearts and souls, and instead became "ambassadors" of reconciliation, preaching that love conquers evil (II Cor. 5:17-21). They triumphed over the implacable evil of the KKK and the White Citizens Councils of their day, and in doing so liberated all Americans, black and white, victim and victimizer, from the corrosive evil of Jim Crow racism.

Now, a half century later, in the very heart of the former Confederacy, where the armed conflict of the Civil War actually started at Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor, these African-American Christian brothers and sisters vividly illustrate that Dr. King's dream still lives of an America where all people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." ("I Have a Dream" speech, 1963).

The white supremacist murderer wanted his evil deeds to start a race war. Instead, the black Christians from Charleston are leading a suddenly reborn, vibrant movement of racial reconciliation in America. A church born in slavery in 1816, burned to the ground in 1822 by white slaveholders in the wake of Denmark Vesey's attempted slave uprising, forced to worship underground until after the Civil War, is now functioning as the thermostat all churches should be. Dr. King made this very point in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" (1963), where he explained that in the early centuries of the church, convictional Christianity "was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion, it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."

What a difference a half century can make. Charleston's Christians, black and white, are uniting to be reconcilers, not revilers. This is the life-transforming power that is defeating evil in the human heart.

And as we witness and experience the exhilarating hope generated by the "Charleston Way," let us pause to contrast it with the recent suggestion that in the wake of the declining influence of civil Christianity in America, that convictional Christians should voluntarily withdraw from society, and function in separate social communities, institutions and ways of living, in an effort to preserve and defend authentic Christianity against an ever-darkening civilization.

This budding movement among Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Christians is being called the "Benedict" option after St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543 AD), a fifth century Christian whose monastery movement helped guard, protect, and preserve Christianity and Western Civilization after the barbarians engulfed the Roman Empire. Popularized by the former Catholic, now Orthodox, Christian commentator and writer Rod Dreher, the movement calls for varying degrees of disengagement with an ever more intolerant and transcendent secular culture.

What has happened in Charleston these past few days is a vivid illustration and reminder of what society would lose if convictional Christians chose the Benedict option. A society in which Christian mores and values are in decline is an ever more self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish society increasingly concerned with ever more libidinous, self-gratifying pursuits. Such a society will generate a lot more Fergusons and Baltimores and no more Charlestons.

As Christians, if we are to follow our Lord and Saviour's commands to be salt and light in society (Mtt. 5:13-16), withdrawing from the playing field is not an option. Faithfulness does not require or promise victory in this world, but it does demand obedience.

And if we think American society is crass, selfish, shallow, and destructive now, imagine what it would be like if convictional Christians disengaged and withdrew inward into self-contained communities and abandoned the rest of society to stew in its own corrosive juices.

No, we must remain faithful, bearing witness in word and deed to the transforming love of the Gospel and doing so, like the prophet Jeremiah, speaking God's truth in love and compassion, with a catch in our voice and tears in our eyes as we weep and grieve for the pain and suffering caused by the people's destructive behaviors.

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