The 50th anniversary commemoration of the march on Selma, a watershed moment in the civil rights movement, has come and gone and, in my opinion, left debris in its wake like a summer thunderstorm. It’s clearer to me now than ever before that American society is not equipped for the task of racial reconciliation, and that it’s going to take the unified, Christ-committed church to lead us there.
There were some positive signs. Two Republican members of Congress, Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, were co-sponsors of the 50th anniversary commemoration under the auspices of the Faith and Politics Institute, which has hosted the commemorative march in Selma since 1998. They aggressively recruited their Republican colleagues to participate in the event, and a record number of them showed up. Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, were also there, reflecting what has been a conciliatory and charitable post-presidency for our 43rd president.
But then the storm started.
POLITICO reported that, while Scott and Roby were co-sponsors of the event and former President Bush would be in attendance, no one in the House GOP leadership was planning to attend, nor was the Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) from the Senate GOP leadership team attended and, after the story broke, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Majority Leader, said he would attend, and did.
The damage was done, however, and the reaction was swift and sharp. I know because I was one of the ones excoriating the GOP leaders for their failure to participate. The party speaks often of its desire to reach out to minorities and other constituencies that do not typically align themselves with Republicans or conservatives, but they then miss out on opportunities like this one to build bridges and tear down walls. In my book, I wrote about the political brush fire over the failure of the top-tier GOP candidates for president in the 2008 election to participate in a 2007 presidential forum on minority issues:
The men considered the four major Republican contenders at the time—former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain (AZ) and former Sen. Fred Thompson (TN) — had all declined to participate, citing scheduling conflicts. Some indicated that scheduling a forum in the last week of the fundraising cycle left them with a difficult choice between participation in the debate or raising desperately needed funds for their campaigns.
Mr. Smiley wasn’t buying it and neither were the Republicans who worked with him to arrange this forum. Michael Steele insisted that the GOP frontrunners come to the table, saying “I think it’s an important opportunity for Republican candidates to put up or shut up, when it comes to minority communities in the country.” Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, a Republican with a notable track record of outreach to minority voters since his days as a U.S. congressman from Buffalo, said, “[W]e sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do — meet in a country club in the suburbs one day? If we’re going to be competitive with people of color, we’ve got to ask them for their vote.”
Newt Gingrich, in my opinion the greatest thinker and intellectual force in the conservative arena today, was direct and unflinching in his criticism:
“For Republicans to consistently refuse to engage in front of an African American or Latino audience is an enormous error. I hope they will reverse their decision and change their schedules. I see no excuse — this thing has been planned for months, these candidates have known about it for months. It’s just fundamentally wrong. Any of them who give you that scheduling-conflict answer are disingenuous. That’s baloney.”
I acknowledged in my book that a number of Republicans, including the man who would emerge months later as a primary contender for the GOP nomination, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, chose to participate in the forum, just as a number of Republicans joined the 50th anniversary commemoration at Selma this past weekend. As my pastor likes to point out, however, using a key leadership proverb that he has adopted as one of the core values of our church, “the speed of the leader is the speed of the team,” and the leaders set the pace, cues and focus for those they lead. Thus, it sends a powerful message to advocate and adversary alike when the leadership takes a pass on visible and historically meaningful events such as this.
The reaction of political partisans was predictable and sad. If there were such a thing as a kindergarten translator to take their comments and convert them into language a five-year old would understand, the main arguments went something like this:
• “Why should they go somewhere where everyone’s going to be mean to them?”
• “See, I told you they don’t like black people!”
• What’s the big deal? They’re just marching – it’s not like they’re doing anything that really helps people!”
• “I don’t want to them to come – I don’t like them anyway!”
Certainly, not everyone was on their best behavior. There was a heavy dose of politics at the event, to be sure, practically all of which was counter to the GOP agenda. One activist refused to march because former President Bush was marching. Conservatives accused the New York Times of cropping President Bush out of a picture showing the lead line of marchers, a charge the paper vehemently denied.
The problem, you see, is that no one can get past their political tribes or their political idolatry to acknowledge our shared humanity in all its glory and scandal. No one is willing to acknowledge that, “from one man He made all the nations” (Acts 17:26), making us one blood and one race, and no one is willing to concede that there is no human being within the realm of our senses that isn’t made in the image of God. Politics seeks to divide rather than unite, and it is ill-suited for the racial healing that must take place if we are to remain one nation. Politics at its core is all about seeking, acquiring and holding power, and anything that lessens one’s power is without value and discarded. Politics causes one to hold to the delusion that because they are in a particular political tribe or hold a particular position on a political issue, they are pure and their opponent is evil. This delusion makes it easy to dismiss those who disagree with you, and it is a poison that seeps deeply into the grass roots of our culture, as any length of time spent scanning social media sites will tell you right away.
Well, to paraphrase and sum up Romans 3:9-19, the apostle Paul says, “Get over yourselves! Not one of you measures up!” There are no qualifiers in that statement, either. Whether you are the oppressed or the oppressor, the standard is the same, and we have failed to meet it.
When your idol is politics, you are unable to do one thing that is essential to the Christian life – humble yourself. Politics is not interested in humility, but rather humiliation. In order to win, someone has to lose, and there is no room for compromise. That means no confession and repentance for the sin of racism, and no forgiveness for those who have wronged you, and therefore no reconciliation. If you are not willing to deny yourself and pick up the cross, even if it’s not a cross of your making, because you desire to be reconciled to your brother or sister before you make your offering to the Lord (Matthew 5:23-24), if you are not willing to forgive as you have been forgiven (Colossians 3:13), if you are not willing to, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18), then you will reap what you have sown, and you will never know peace.
If you are not a believer, then my words will be foolishness to you. If you are a believer, however, my admonishment to you is to take the Lord at His word, and surrender your desire to be more righteous, because you are not. Surrender your fear of being hated for being a peacemaker rather than just a peacekeeper, because yours will be the Kingdom of Heaven. Surrender your desire to have dominion in this world, because “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:35). The church is in the world, but not of the world, and we need to discard the ways of the world, and adopt the ways of Christ if we are to build a bridge that will stand long after the bridge at Selma has crumbled to the ground. The politicians and those for whom politics is their idol will fail; that’s not a threat, but a promise. Only the church has the transparency, humility and grace to reconcile us to one another, as the Lord reconciled Himself to us:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
Ron Miller of Lynchburg, Virginia is an associate dean and assistant professor of government at Liberty University, a commentator and author of the book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch. He serves the No Walls Ministry as a member of the board of directors and the director of No Walls University.