LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Revisiting the vision of the late Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Land said if the racial wounds of America are to heal, the people of God must apply the salve.
“In this secular-dominated age, Christians have a unique responsibility to remind society that racism as well as the other moral problems we face will not be solved without the spiritual dimension,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission.
Recalling King’s address before a standing-room-only audience in Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s chapel April 19, 1961, Land said as a 32-year-old Ph.D. graduate, King spoke of the church on the frontier of racial tension.
Land quoted King as saying, “We are broken loose from the Egypt of slavery; we have moved through the wilderness of segregation; we stand on the border of the promised land of integration.”
Land said King insisted race relations is a moral issue that must be confronted by the church.
Standing behind that same pulpit 36 years later, Land said on March 4, “There has been progress; we are a long way from where we were, thank God for that, but we are still a long way from where God wants us to be and where we need to be.
“In the heated aftermath of the end of official legal sanctioned segregation, in the aftermath of those sweeping 1954, 1965 and 1967 civil rights bills, in the immediate aftermath of the decade of reform after the Brown v. the Board of Education decision, one would have hoped there would have been far more progress in the three decades than what we have experienced,” Land said.
The call to racial reconciliation is deeply rooted in Scripture, Land said, agreeing with King’s view of “the insufficiency of mere human power and reason to confront it.”
“If there is to be a successful reconciliation of the ethnic divisions among us, it will come from the same source that reconciled us to God; it will be a spiritual power through Jesus Christ,” said Land, noting in 1963 King called the “humanist hope” an “illusion.”
“I suspect the chief problem is that government and law have probably done about all that government and law can do to rid us of the plague of racism,” Land said. “It is now a spiritual and moral problem; it is a sin problem.”
Citing Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, Land said sin created a chasm between God and humankind, but God provided a way he could live in unbroken relationship with human beings.
“God was in the world reconciling the world unto himself in Jesus Christ,” Land said. “And once we have experienced that reconciliation, once we have been put back together with God in Christ, God named us as ambassadors for Christ, as ministers of reconciliation.”
In the original language, Land said, the word reconcile in the Corinthians passage meant to change from enmity to friendship, to go from being an enemy to having peace, to be reconciled. “Because of Christ, God has changed us from enemies to friends,” Land said.
“God has reconciled; God is reconciling; God will reconcile. And he has made us to name his name as disciples of Jesus Christ; we are called to be ambassadors of that reconciliation.”
Observers of the late civil rights leader’s ministry noted when King would begin to offer the “religious and moral-philosophical basis of the movement for racial justice” the television cameras would be turned off, and turned on again only when the discussion moved from the foundation to the application, Land recounted.
“We must understand the nature of the enemy that we confront; it is an enemy within as well as an enemy without,” Land said. “Racial bigotry is woven into the very warp and woof of our society because it is a part of fallen human nature.”
When King spoke at Southern, Land reported King basked in the “winds of change that were sweeping the world.”
And embracing King’s vision, Land said, “We don’t have segregated lunchrooms, segregated water fountains and segregated buses like we did in the ’50s and early ’60s, but we still have problems of the heart.
“The salt of the law can change actions, but it is only the light of the gospel that can change attitudes; the salt of the law can change behaviors, but it is only the light of the gospel that can change beliefs; the salt of the law can change habits, but it is only the light of the gospel that can change hearts,” Land thundered.
Noting an undergraduate course titled “Christianity and Race Relations” was taught at Southern in 1939, and that African American students have attended the Louisville seminary since the early 1940s, Land said intentions were good, and progress in racial reconciliation was made.
In fact, Land said the subject of race relations did more to define the Christian Life Commission in its first 50 years than any other single issue, adding the commission was “on the right side of the race issue when there were so many institutions in American life and Southern Baptist life that were on the wrong side.”
Holding aloft a yellowing copy of a flyer titled, “Race Relations: A Charter of Principles,” published by the CLC to announce a statement of principles adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1947 and reaffirmed in 1948, Land said 50 years ago the convention acknowledged the existence of a fellowship of believers which “forbids us to allow worldly patterns of prejudice to drive a wedge between us and our Christian brothers of other races.”
But he quickly added, “The shame and disgrace is that often, less reconciliation goes on in the name of Christ than in other sections of our society.
“For a long time we have known what we ought to do; unfortunately this is not where all Southern Baptists have stood,” he said.
“Prejudice is at its base a sin problem, it is a spiritual problem, it is a consequence of the fallen, sinful human heart.
“Government has a role to play: God ordained civil society to punish those who do evil and reward those who do right, but government cannot save us,” Land said. “Only the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can do that.
“The fact that racism at its foundation is a spiritual problem and will be vanquished only by spiritual means does not mean that legislative and judicial relief should not be applied to racial discrimination and bigotry,” Land said, noting legislative and judicial remedies have radically altered the status of legally institutionalized race discrimination.
“Yet because of the fact of the vertical reconciliation that we have experienced in Jesus Christ, the hope of reconciliation on the horizontal scale with our brothers and sisters in Christ, with our fellow human beings, is a possibility,” Land said.
“The good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is that we can overcome racism. We can be reconciled once we have been reconciled to Jesus Christ,” Land said, adding, “Change can happen. Change must happen. Change will happen.”