On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. ascended to the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, one of the most historic churches in the country, and delivered a sermon titled, “A Time to Break Silence.”
In this sermon, he confronted the injustice of the Vietnam War. After all, how could one well-trained in the art of non-violent resistance, which informed the Civil Rights Movement, be silent about violence at the hands of the state (something that remains a question for us today by the way)? As he began the conclusion to his sermon, King reminded his listeners of one of the most prominent texts of Scripture, although with an interesting twist.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
The parable of the Good Samaritan lies at the heart of the Christian tradition and informs the faith of all those who were born in the womb of Mother Church. The Samaritan, unlike the priest and Levite in the story, helped the man in the ditch and crossed numerous racial, religious and ethnic boundaries in so doing.
I’m assuming Jesus was intentional that the protagonist in the story be someone who would not be constrained by years of social animus and conflict between Jews and Samaritans, but one who would act in the newness and boldness that only love can make possible. In the end, it is love — and only love — that makes all things new.
In MLK’s sermon, however, he states that neighborly love isn’t limited to interpersonal care and concern, but that same love also demands public justice. We’re not only responsible for our neighbor in the ditch; we are also responsible for the road, which continually and perpetually places people in the ditch in the first place.
We all know the neighborly thing to do when we see someone lying in a ditch in need of care. But what is the neighborly thing to do when one sees the ditches lined with brothers and sisters? What is the neighborly thing to do when the folks in the ditch have been there a long time? At what point does the love of God demand that we proactively address the road rather than reactively pull folks out of ditches one by one?
Isn’t love’s highest aim to prevent folks from ending up in the ditch in the first place? There is a time to break silence concerning an entire road in need of repair and reform.
“There is a time to break silence concerning an entire road in need of repair and reform.”
For Second Baptist Church in Downtown Little Rock, that time is now.
This week, the deacons and staff announce our appeal for racial justice with specific position statements and policy asks of our civic and political leaders. These reforms include the ecclesial, civic/social, justice system, and policing realms. The goal of these reforms and positions is to address the systemic racism that saturates our systems and destroys lives, families, neighborhoods and cultures. From this point forward, we intend to do the work this statement demands of us.
Some people — including some of the highest leaders in this land — deny the reality of systemic racism at work in our society. This sentiment pervades many white circles today, including many white churches. When people no longer see overt interpersonal racism splashed across the news, they often conclude that racism no longer exists in any form at all.
If so, what then explains racial disparities in incarceration rates, health care, education, generational wealth and many other fields? The problem with denying the reality of systemic racism, other than that it isn’t true, is that it blames victims of racial injustice for their station and situation, further heaping burdens upon the already burdened.
Therefore, denying the existence of systemic racism harms people of color because it either turns a blind eye to their experience or attempts to blame their suffering on their perceived inferiority in some perverse way. The name for that perversion is “racism.”
This is all kinds of wrong, an abomination to our faith, and it adds insult to injustice.
As people who strive to follow Jesus and are called to the virtues of truth, compassion, justice and love, we stand as a congregation today and say, “We see systemic racism at work, and it’s past time we address it and make the necessary changes.”
“We need other faith leaders, other congregations, political leaders, community leaders and people of genuine good will to join us in this effort.”
To do so, we need other faith leaders, other congregations, political leaders, community leaders and people of genuine good will to join us in this effort, even as we join those who have been doing this work for many long years.
This is a time to break silence, because, in these days, silence says as much as speech does. Our faith in God’s will and way demands it. Our hope in God’s future demands it. Our love for all of God’s children demands it.
This is a time to reclaim a radical revolution of values. This is a time to reform the road that impacts all who travel on it. This is a time to “do justice” as the prophet Micah summons us. Our love for those on the way — and our love for the one who is the Way — allows us to do no other.
Preston Clegg serves as pastor of Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark. He has served churches in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry from Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Ark., then both master of divinity and doctor of ministry degrees from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University.