Earlier this month, I spent some time in Atlanta on business. I also took a few extra days to sightsee, and made it a point to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site and Preservation District in Sweet Auburn, which includes the burial places of both Dr. King and Mrs. Coretta Scott-King, the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Ebenezer Baptist Church (both the one King spoke at and the church’s modern facility), the MLK birth home, and the National Park Service historic site.
The burial site of Dr. and Mrs. King is a touching tribute to the two civil rights heroes (Mrs. King’s legacy is greater than generally recognized). They are laid out in stone tombs in the middle of a pool of water that gently flows from left to right, from the King Center to old Ebenezer, seemingly to remind us of Dr. King’s favorite Bible verse, “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24).
My favorite part of the site, however, was old Ebenezer, where both Dr. King and his father ministered, and where people worshiped until the new facilities across the street opened in 1999. It is a simple, unpretentious building, stone on the outside and wood on the inside, probably indistinguishable from 90 percent of urban churches built in the early 20th century. The sanctuary was small, holding maybe 100 people, with room for the choir on a small, 2nd-level loft. The pulpit was front-and-center, raised a step above the rows of wooden pews, with communion table and offering box in front of it and baptismal font behind it. The pulpit was flanked on either side by keyboards (piano and organ) for music. In other words, a simple, otherwise unremarkable, church.
But the atmosphere was overwhelming and unmistakably holy. My two hosts and I immediately fell silent when we entered the sanctuary. Dr. King’s recorded words echoing through the old building contributed to the sanctified air (I believe it was his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, but I may be mistaken). My one friend sat down in a pew to pray and surreptitiously take a few photographs. My other friend and I walked in silent awe down the isles, heads raised and mouths agape trying to soak up everything around us. None of us doubted we were standing on holy ground. After what seemed like forever, but was probably no more than five minutes, we made our way out the back after a brief, whispered conversation with the NPS staffer present (we couldn’t identify the baptismal tank behind the pulpit since that section was roped off).
Whose Side Were You On?
We continued our visit to the King Center and the National Park Service historic site (the two are separate as the King Center is, for the moment, under management of the family, not NPS). The NPS museum vividly told the story of the civil rights struggle in Atlanta, spending time on the 1906 race riot and the early years of Dr. King’s ministry. After our lengthy afternoon ended, my one friend, who like me has a habit of asking probing religious and philosophical questions (though, unlike me, he possesses the degrees to back him up), said roughly, “I wish I could say for certain that, if I had lived in that era, I would have been on the side of these guys. Can you?”
Talk about a challenging question. In retrospect, it seems so obvious which side God and His angels where on during the civil rights struggle. Of course, any white person or Christian is going to say publically, I would have backed Dr. King. The battle for civil rights was in perfect harmony with both God’s concern for justice for the oppressed and the American vision of equality for all, we say. And yet.
And yet, the people opposing the civil rights movement certainly didn’t see themselves as the racist cartoons we’ve made them out to be (though some certainly were). They saw themselves as American patriots defending the nation’s traditions against a threat. Many were good Christians doing what they thought was the right thing. Many had Biblical justifications for their violence. How can Dr. King be a good American, they would wonder, if he was a troublemaker.…a liberal….possibly a Communist…..a plagiarizer…..an adulterer? How can a man like that be an agent of God? And as Michael Spencer noted earlier this week, many conservative evangelical Christians still don’t know what to do with him (skip to item #5).
Like my friend, I wish I could say for certain that had I lived in that era, I would have been on the street with Dr. King, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, and the countless others who risked life and limb for equal rights. Retrospectively, it seems obvious which side God, truth, justice, and the American vision were on. Yet so many good Christians were wrong — very wrong. As in the case of the Civil War, both sides invoked God in defense of their cause. Abraham Lincoln said of that conflict, “both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…. The prayers of both could not be answered.” But Lincoln could see the way out of this theological puzzle. When asked if God was on the side of the North, he replied, “[the question] is not is God on my side, but am I on God’s side?”
“Am I on God’s side?” is always the right question. But in the thick of the moment, it’s a heckuva one to answer.