Dr. King’s Thoughts on Race-Relations in the American Church

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2019

While America has made progress in race-relations since the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., there is still racism in the United States. That is always morally and spiritual alarming, because the last three centuries reveal that racism eventually leads to the slavery, domination and destruction of so-called “inferior races.”

There is much more work to be done on race-relations in the church. The reason, unfortunately, is that Christians are not exempt from being racists. They may even use the Bible, distorting its meaning, to support their racism. For example, on 3 June 1958, Dr. King preached a sermon, supposing what the apostle Paul might written to Christians, if he came to the United States of America. In it, King points to the sin of racism, which, even to this day, still plagues the church. He wrote, in the “spirit” of St. Paul,

“I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham.”

King is referring to the racist interpretation of Genesis 9:18-27, which supports the inferiority of Blacks. According to the interpretation, Ham was Black and Noah cursed the descendants of Ham, so that they eventually became slaves. But the text does not say that Ham was Black; nor does it say that Ham was cursed. Rather, it says that Canaan’s descendants were cursed, which resulted in the possession of the land of Canaan by the Israelites (cf. Genesis 9:25). The racist interpretation, then, is incorrect. But King’s language of the interpretive error is even stronger than mine, saying,

“Oh, my friends, this is blaspheming. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for. I must say to you, as I have said to so many Christians before, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”1

In Western political-religious thought, the equality of peoples is grounded in the biblical doctrine of creation. In other words,

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our Likeness….’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27, NASB).

In the context of the passage, “man” is a translation of the Hebrew אָדָם or adham. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word is ἄνθρωπον or anthropon. The translation in Latin is hominem. In all three languages, “man” is a general term, referring to “the human race,” “all human beings,” “humanity” or “humankind.” Without exception, then, all humans are equal in being, because they are made in the image of God.

King, then, is right! Sacred Scripture teaches the original unity of all human beings. For instance, God “made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth” (Acts 17:26, NASB). God delights in racial diversity. Thus, there is no such thing as “a superior race;” nor are there inferior races. There is only race, namely, the human race. Applying a biblical principle to race-relations, “[T]here is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11, NASB).

On 28 August 1963, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”2

What may have been a self-evident truth to the Founders of America is not, in fact, logically self-evident. That is why there is an urgent need today, just as there was in Dr. King’s day, to teach and practice racial equality, both inside and outside the church.

Endnotes

1. King is referring to Galatians 3:28.

2. In Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I have taken the editorial liberty to remove the responses of his audience, so that his speech flows smoothly.

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