Given that today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have decided to post here an op-ed piece that I wrote for the campus newspaper at Ohio University sometime in the late 90s (I forget the exact year). At the time I was on staff w/ Campus Crusade for Christ. As you read, keep in mind that the piece was written for publication in a VERY liberal campus newspaper. I’d welcome any comments you might have.
Few individuals in the 20th century have had a greater impact on our nation than Martin Luther King Jr.. The societal change that Dr. King brought about was nothing short of miraculous, and the legacy of his heroic efforts lives on today.
We as a culture have the responsibility to see that the changes Dr. King fought for so diligently will live on for generations to come. Despite his dream to see people of all different ethnic backgrounds living together in society peacefully, and the efforts made in the past 30 years to make that dream a reality, we would all agree that the fulfillment of this dream has not been reached. This raises the obvious question of what has gone wrong.
Various reasons could be cited as to why this is the case, and arguments could be advanced as to which factors are the most prominent in preventing the fulfillment of King’s dream. But I am convinced that if we are to discover what lies at the foundation of the problem, we need to examine two key assumptions that helped form the basis of Dr. King’s views on racial equality. Both of these key pillars to King’s belief system were rooted in the Bible, which should come as no surprise to us considering the fact that he was a pastor first and foremost.
The first assumption is that we as human beings have been created in the image of God. There are many ramifications to this idea, but the primary one for our purposes here is one of significance and value. Since every individual human being is created in the image of God, every individual is entitled to the same dignity and respect. This is what sets us apart from the rest of creation; we were created with the specific purpose of reflecting God’s character. Because every individual of every ethnic group was created in the image of God, there’s no room for racism. The perpetuation of racism is fundamentally incompatible with the Biblical idea of humanity created in the image of God. I recognize that in the past there have been those who have attempted to defend racism and slavery by appeals to the Bible, but that simply reflects a terrible error in interpretation and a fundamental failure to understand the broader context of the entire Bible. Let me state it in the most explicit terms possible: racism is a sin that grieves the heart of God deeply and in no way can be supported by any responsible reading of the Bible.
The second assumption which acted as a pillar of King’s belief system was the idea that each of us as human beings are ultimately accountable to God for the way in which we live our lives. There are consequences for the evil things that we do in this life. This is such a prominent theme in the Bible that it is virtually impossible to miss. Because each of us must ultimately answer to God for the way in which we live our lives, it is in our best interests to live in such a way that we reflect God’s standards of right and wrong on a daily basis. A society composed of individuals who understand their accountability to God should make every effort to ensure that our society (composed of individuals made in the image of God) reflects the justice of God himself.
These two key assumptions helped form the basis of King’s understanding of racial equality. It might be objected that King does not deal with these ideas explicitly in his speeches, and that I am merely reading them into this situation for my own purposes. But I would argue that the reason King does not mention these ideas very prominently in his speeches is the fact that these two key ideas were part of our cultural believe system 30 years ago. He did not have to explicitly mention his belief that each human being bears the image of God and is ultimately accountable to God for their actions because an overwhelming majority of our culture agreed with these two assumptions. They simply had not applied these two beliefs to the issue of racial equality.
The primary reason why King’s dream has not been more fully realized in the past 30 years is that our culture no longer believes these two key assumptions. Most individuals in our culture no longer believe that every individual human being is created in the image of God and must ultimately answer to God for the way in which that individual lives that life. Life is now viewed as a cosmic accident in which each individual is merely the product of a Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest. The tragedy of this conclusion is that such a belief system cannot give an adequate reason for why racism is wrong. In fact, if life indeed is merely a survival of the fittest, it would logically follow that racism would be acceptable. (I’m not saying that everyone who believes in evolution is a racist; I am merely pointing out that if evolution is true it is extremely difficult to come up with a reason why racism is wrong).
I wholeheartedly share Dr. King’s dream of a society of people from many different ethnic backgrounds living together joyfully in a community. Yet I do not see how this dream will ever become reality if our culture continues to deny these two key pillars of King’s belief system: humanity created in the image of God, and human accountability to God. It is my hope that our culture will once again embrace these ideas and move ever closer to the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.