Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, September 08, 2012

One of the greatest stories ever told

When I listened to Congressman John Lewis' speech at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, his reminiscences about what it took to gain the vote for black people brought the nobility and grandeur of the civil rights movement back into focus. We are in danger of forgetting this era altogether. Lewis is almost the only one of the old warriors left. The obituary sections record the passing of these extraordinary people, one by one. Older black people lament that the young do not remember or care about the suffering and the courage that was required to win dignity and the vote.

It is especially urgent that the roots of the movement in Christianity be taught, understood, and celebrated. All too often, when the movement is remembered, its character is vaguely identified as "religious" if, indeed, this factor is mentioned at all. Martin Luther King's debt to Mahatma Gandhi is recalled far more often than his more formative devotion to Jesus Christ. It is very difficult to find a study of King, or the history of the movement, that does justice to this central driving motive, because the books that do, like Richard Lischer's The Preacher King, are read only by Christians. The books that don't, like Taylor Branch's otherwise superb trilogy, are the ones that get the big prizes and the wide readership. I have read Branch's books with intense absorption, but he is tone deaf to the theological underpinnings. Right now I am reading the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Race Beat, a thoroughly gripping story of the way that the newspaper business at first ignored and then became a player in the movement. The book is inspiring, and I highly recommend it, but Christianity scarcely appears.  Even John Lewis' own compelling memoir, Walking With the Wind, downplays its author's own faith, a stance I suspect was urged on him by the publishers. Andrew Young's memoir, An Easy Burden, is more obviously Christian, and in that regard is more useful as a guide to the way in which biblical faith undergirded the movement. The black church, its preachers and its ardent members, was the heart and soul of the non-violence that electrified the world.

If insight into the Christian foundations of the movement is sought, a good book to read is Charles Marsh's God's Long Summer. I call it a theological thriller. He particularly celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer, an almost illiterate woman with an extraordinary biblical mind, who was largely ignored and neglected during her all-too-short life but is now becoming better known. Another fine book, My Soul Is Rested by Howell Raines, gives us a taste of the movement's Christian character because it quotes so many participants--even though Raines himself is clueless (he refers to King as a "fundamentalist" when he means, simply, devout and committed).

I have been reading, off and on, about the movement for about twenty years. Such reading is inexhaustibly inspiring, almost beyond belief. It would be a fine thing if every Christian made a point of learning more about it. Classes on it should be taught in churches. Today's younger people have little or no knowledge of the movement beyond a few stock references (Rosa Parks' feet hurt [an almost farcical caricature of her actual motives], "I have a dream," hoses and dogs in Birmingham]. They need to know that the almost unbelievable courage and long-suffering-ness of the movement's leaders and foot soldiers are among the most profound testimonies to the reality and power of Jesus Christ that the world has ever seen.