One nation, indivisible

I grew up in the south at a time when there were only two races: colored and white. I am white.

I remember signs on drinking fountains, restroom doors, shops and restaurants that read “White Only.” I remember the shouted epithets and whispered insults. I remember the fear and loathing that separated us into two armed camps.

We were split by decades of white on black abuse and oppression. Slavery had faded from living memory, but the bleeding wounds of those days still festered. The bloody war between the states had soaked southern soil in bitter gall, and the passage of time had not improved the stench.

It was inevitable that black Americans would demand to be treated like human beings. That the kettle boiled over during the lifetime of Dr. Martin Luther King, a man of peace and deep faith is, to my mind, a proof of the hand of God in history. Dr. King’s insistence on a strategy of non-violent resistance probably saved the nation from a second civil war. It meant that for a time, black men and women paid a terrible price for their “uppity” insistence on equality. But non-violent resistance, and the white response of violent retaliation, quickly brought shame on all white men and women of good conscience. Shame produced action, and the powerful white establishment was persuaded to redress the grievances of black Americans.

Dr. King’s Christian faith equipped him well for the culture war he led. He was an optimist, putting his ultimate hope in a just and loving God. He was convinced that peace could exist between the races, even given the centuries of white on black genocide—he believed in the power of the living Christ to transform hearts and make brothers of enemies.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. —Galatians 3:28, The Message

Jesus called together twelve strangers and made them brothers. Aside from their common Jewishness, they had very little in common. Simon the Zealot was a terrorist, a member of a religious group committed to the violent expulsion of Israel’s Roman oppressors. Matthew the tax collector was a quisling, a man who had been a willing agent of the Romans, oppressing his own people for personal gain. James and John, two of the more religious disciples, may have been sympathetic to the ultra-orthodox party of the Pharisees.

There was Peter, the impulsive hot-head; Nathanael and Thomas, the skeptics; and of course, Judas Iscariot, perhaps best understood as the agnostic whose doubts about the Messiah were never satisfied, even after three years at Jesus’ side.

Jesus invited everyone he met to take a seat at God’s table. Rich and poor, Jew and gentile, male and female, all were welcomed. And all were held to the same standard: repent, serve God first in all that you do, and serve each other with the same selflessness that Christ himself lived.

You expect me to submit my freedom and personal rights to some wild-eyed Jewish radical who may or may not have lived 2,000 years ago? Are you nuts?!

Jesus, the man who allowed himself to be crucified, was not a proponent of half-measures.

Our country is once again choosing up sides. We are divided by ideology, by methodology, by tactics and strategic goals. We have different priorities and we argue passionately about them, mostly without listening, mostly without any real hope of discovering common ground.

In truth, though we talk a good game about the need for national unity, we don’t value unity nearly as much as winning. No, not just winning—we want to vanquish the opposition. We’re in our bunkers, defending our turf. We will take no prisoners. Only winning matters, because winning is our vindication.

Dr. King was jailed for his attempts to create unity. In the end, he was assassinated. Many of his followers were beaten or murdered. Churches and homes were bombed and burned.

In the midst of so much suffering, the race-baiting governor of Alabama, George Wallace stood before crowds of white supporters and shouted: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!”

Twenty years later, a humbled and repentant George Wallace began making telephone calls to the black men and women he had demonized. He spoke in quiet tones, confessing his sins as though to a priest, asking each and every one to forgive him for the pain he had inflicted. God had gotten a grip on George Wallace.

“We thought [segregation] was in the best interests of all concerned. We were mistaken,” he told a black group in 1982.

He followed his words with actions and became a change agent for the black citizens of Alabama, using his influence to right the wrongs that still existed.

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. —Colossians 3:12-15a, The Message

Political systems are necessary to maintaining order and protecting freedom in a sinful and broken world. But political systems are ultimately impotent when it comes to matters of the heart. Unity and peace are spiritual, not political ends.

A nation that trusts its political system to create unity is a nation that hopes in vain.

Jesus Christ has been called the Prince of Peace. The solutions to the things that divide us will never be found in political platforms. Only Jesus can bring us together.

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