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FIRST-PERSON: The ‘Charleston Way’: Dr. King’s dream still lives

Richard Land

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP) — What extraordinary and compelling images have emerged from Charleston in recent days.

First, we were assaulted with the images of the senseless slaughter of nine innocent Christians attending a Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel AME Church by a hate-filled white supremacist just because they were black. The brutality of the crime 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 captured and modeled the true spirit of the Gospel so vividly testified to by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. two generations ago. 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, King proclaimed that “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 nonviolent, reconciling message of the 1960s civil rights revolution that transformed our nation in so many very important 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 (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). They triumphed over the 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 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) when he explained that convictional Christianity in the early centuries of the church “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.

As we witness and experience the exhilarating hope generated by this “Charleston Way,” let us pause to contrast it with the recent suggestion that convictional Christians should voluntarily withdraw from society into separate social communities, institutions and ways of living in order 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 A.D.), a fifth-century Christian whose monastery movement helped protect and preserve Christianity and Western civilization after the barbarians engulfed the Roman Empire. The movement, popularized by the former Catholic, now Orthodox Christian commentator Rod Dreher, calls for varying degrees of disengagement from an ever more intolerant 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 society stewing in its own corrosive juices, 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 Savior’s commands to be salt and light in society (Matthew 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.

We must remain faithful, bearing witness in word and deed to the transforming love of the Gospel and, doing so, like the prophet Jeremiah, by 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.

    About the Author

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land, D. Phil, is the Executive Editor of the Christian Post, having previously served as president of the ERLC (1988-2013) and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (2013-2021). He also serves as the chairman of the advisory board at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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