Faith: Martin Luther King betrayed

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor  |  May 21, 2003 at 5:49 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- Forty years ago, when I covered the Civil Rights Movement as a foreign correspondent, these words reverberated around the nation and indeed the world: "We walk hand in hand, we walk hand in hand -- one day, one day." It was the second stanza of "We Shall Overcome."

In those days it seemed clear to everyone that the word, "we," meant all of us -- black, white, and brown. That's what Martin Luther King said on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, where I was among the exuberant crowd listening to his "I have a dream" speech:

"We will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: 'Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

Forty years on, I may be forgiven for my vicarious sense of betrayal -- vicarious because, though not an American, I was a young reporter stirred like everybody else by the hope this great moment seemed to awake in all of us, foreigners included.

Forty years on, I read with repugnance in the Washington Post an account of racially segregated commencement celebrations at Berkeley and Stanford, Penn and Michigan State.

I read that there is self-segregation in the dorms. I read that lists are being distributed on campus, identifying faculty members by race.

Pardon this alien's disgust with the sanctimony about "diversity" and "multiculturalism" oozing out of the most celebrated institutions of higher learning.

I was there 40 years ago when blacks and -- yes -- whites, were jailed, beaten with rifle butts and bitten by bloodhounds for a noble cause -- integration. Now I wonder: Was all this just about toilets, water fountains, the backs and fronts of buses, and, admittedly, access to schools?

How is it humanly possible that those demonstrators' grandchildren do not find it in their hearts to rejoice together over having completed four years of college side by side in the year 2003? How come they were not conditioned by parents, pastors, teachers, and professors to find each other's company an enjoyable enrichment of life?

To add a Christian angle to these melancholy observations -- this is, after all, a religion column -- it seems these kids, most of whom are at least nominally Christians, simply do not have St. Paul's wonderful words in their bones:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

No, I don't blame those students. I blame the egotistical intellectual culture that has hijacked Martin Luther King's movement, which was -- of that I am sure -- driven by the ethos expressed in this verse from Paul's epistle to the Galatians.

When I interviewed King in 1963, he made it clear that we were to delight in diversity (oh, how I hate this ludicrously abused word now!), just as we should take delight in a garden's multitude of flowers.

The "Me" culture that followed turned King's sentiment on its head; it turned God's eclectic garden into separate monocultures, where political correctness endeavors to cover up the re-division of communities into "us" and "them."

When I attended seminary late in life, one lecturer averred, "All whites have God in their heads, and all blacks have God in their hearts." I asked him how he would apply his theory to the God in the head of Mother Theresa and the God in the heart of Idi Amin, and he called me a racist.

Well, I am not a racist and I didn't make these distinctions -- he did, and theology professors nodded goofily in agreement.

It is bad enough that college kids, aided and abetted by an intellectually dishonest academic culture, erect a Berlin Wall between themselves at a time when should be jubilant over the accomplishments to which their diplomas attest.

But I find the self-segregation of white and black Christians, especially of Evangelicals holding the same beliefs, even more scandalous. If in these troubled days the Church does not hammer it into its members' heads that the Body of Christ is indivisible, who else can do it credibly?

As for liberal churches, they frequently contribute to the atomization of Christ's body in a systematic way. In First Things, the wonderful Journal on Religion and Public Life, I read about a Lutheran congregation (I am Lutheran) that has the audacity to segregate at the very point where the members of the Body of Christ unite with each other and their head -- Christ -- in the Eucharist.

This congregation's bulletin announces, "On the pulpit side a male assistant will serve the common cup; a female communion assistant will serve the individuals cups. On the baptism side, the procedure will be reversed."

Imagine, at the most sacred moment of divine service, sexual identity enters this demented culture. Here we worry about racial segregation, and these folks manage to divide men and women whom God has created to love each other!

Looking out of my windows in the center of Washington, I derive a modicum of comfort by observing a steady increase in the number of young inter-racial pairs down there, on the sidewalks. What does this teach us, I wonder, -- that where church and academia fail, at least libido manages to succeed?

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