A senior at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, I was destined to head north for a Christian Ethics degree at Yale when I received a Deep South summons. From Selma, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dispatched a call for reinforcements, marchers who would accompany him on his trek to the state capitol building in Montgomery. African Americans, many of whom fought for our country on the battlefield, were being denied the right to vote. King would ensure that scandal was page one news. His cadence would goad America’s conscience.
The prospects of that march were daunting: In the weeks prior to my enlistment police dogs bared fangs that threatened to shred anyone who dared cross the Edmund Pettus bridge; mounted deputies spurred their steeds into the gathering crowd at full gallop; fire hoses unleashed a deluge that swept young men off their feet; two black teenagers were brutally beaten on the steps of a nearby church; an “outside agitator” was shot.
The Alabama plea hammered home a very personal question: does the ethic you plan to study in a New England ivory tower mean anything on the ground? Thus the detour: I would go north by way of Selma.
Dr. King’s counsel to those of us who gathered in the street was mesmerizing. Shouting into a bullhorn from the back of a truck, he ordered us not to lift a finger, much less a fist, in retaliation. If they come after you with billy clubs, get down on your knees and transform your fists into praying hands, he said. This is the Lord’s battle. Trust him for the victory.
Ours was an eclectic entourage: black folk who had been so thoroughly beaten that they figured they had nothing to lose; iconoclasts who saw in those streets an opportunity to stick it to the establishment; nuns from convents far and wide; college students bolstered by utopian dreams and Camelot intentions; Presbyterian ministers, primarily from the north (as a southerner I did not know them and could not assess their number – to the best of my knowledge, my fellow southern Presbyterians comprised a scant handful); union organizers from Chicago and New York; federal troops whom President Kennedy belatedly called into action; children from towns along the way who had no idea why we were marching but reveled in the passing parade; federal mediators like former Florida Governor Leroy Collins who sensed a turning of the tide and came to negotiate King’s confrontation with Governor George Wallace; folk singers who crooned protest songs on the steps of the Alabama capitol; civil rights enthusiasts who believed with all their hearts that “we shall overcome some day;” and, of course, there was the media frenzy. Cameras flashed from the periphery, helicopters hovered overhead, and reporters darted among us in search of quotable quotes.
The Montgomery march proved a powerful moment in my fledgling ministerial career. I believed then – as I continue to believe now – that our cause was just and the resulting voting rights act that Congress adopted was a laudable advance toward a more principled America.
But as is true with any movement peopled by fallible humans, it spawned negative consequences. For northern and southern Presbyterians alike the march provided an intoxicating dose of movement politics. Hungry for additional opportunities to change the structures of society, denominational leaders leapt from one cause to another. Seeking the broadest possible constituencies they formed interfaith coalitions with non-Christian groups who shared their social goals.
Eager not to alienate political allies, denominational spokespersons over the ensuing years excised perceived stumbling blocks to their increasingly inclusive partnerships. A peace making conference leader asked, “What’s the big deal about Jesus?” and the General Assembly Council defended his speech against protests from the pews. The 2001 General Assembly refused to declare Jesus “singular, saving Lord,” choosing instead to call him “unique.” Keynote speakers at official conferences announced what any pagan could affirm, namely, that the God whom we worship is but a force within ourselves. These and other distortions have driven millions of Presbyterians to abandon their denomination for more faithful communions.
Another regrettable consequence has been the advance of an entitlement culture. The Judeo-Christian ethic that rewards self-sacrifice, personal investment, and disciplined living is being rapidly replaced by an egalitarian ideology that mutates equality of opportunity into equality of outcome. Community organizers and crony capitalists alike elbow their way toward protected places at the federal feeding trough, oblivious to the fact that the swill which they believe they deserve is funded by burdensome debts that someone must repay.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Montgomery march never stood for such entitlements. His clarion call on the Capitol steps and later at the Lincoln Memorial was for personal freedoms that would allow each of God’s children an opportunity to prosper. What we are becoming is a distortion of the American dream that Dr. King himself would not recognize.
So, with benefit of hindsight, how do I assess that detour that landed me onto Alabama streets so many decades ago? From an ontological perspective, heralding the principle of equal opportunity was the right thing to do. From a teleological perspective that measures an action based on outcomes, I would have to express my regret that a movement in which I participated spawned ideological adventures that are neither Christian nor just.
But that is the way with any human enterprise. Scripture reminds us that we all fall short of the glory of God, that not one of us is righteous. That means that our loftiest endeavor will bear the mark of Cain. Those of us who marched can rejoice that the good we sought to accomplish on behalf of our African American brothers and sisters did, in fact, come to pass. They can vote and win elections. But our rejoicing must necessarily be muted by repentance for the sins we have unleashed upon our church and nation, and our prayers that a providential God will transform all consequences for his glory.
We – most especially the crusaders among us – are forever in need of being reformed according to the Word of God.