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We are a great nation; we must be a good nation

50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. urged people of faith to champion racial unity, equality seems closer, but ever elusive.

A half-century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. gave us a message of hope and a warning against violence in his 1967 work, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Garment workers at the Abe Schrader Shop in New York listen to the funeral service for Martin Luther King Jr. on a portable radio on April 8, 1968.African-Americans, King wrote, had achieved new freedoms, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now all Americans — black and white, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor — must unite in a fight against poverty and work to make America a place of equal opportunity.

He shared that optimism with his countrymen, even in the face of threats. On April 3, 1968, from a church pulpit in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. King proclaimed that he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land.

The next day, Dr. King was fatally shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Like a sudden cold front, a wave of grief swept across the country. Confusion, anger and disillusionment gripped every street corner. Cities became war zones as America staggered — aimlessly, it seemed — in the haunting shadow of the assassination.

It was the very chaos Dr. King feared would come, should we fail to deal honestly with the problem of racial injustice. Our countrymen feared — and our enemies delighted in — the notion that our nation would collapse from within. We were the Roman Empire in its final days. Only by remembering Dr. King’s clarion call to nonviolence did we emerge from the horrors that followed his death.

Now, a half-century later, the question remains: “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?

We’ve witnessed in our lifetime amazing strides in race relations, including eight years of leadership by our nation’s first African-American president.

Yet those who call for racial separation continue to promote an agenda of fear and venom. In our communities we see acts of injustice by those sworn to protect and serve us all. Words of hate poison our politics and turn us against each other.

Jerry Taylor | ViewsPerhaps our division is due to a lack of vision — including the vision Dr. King urged us to keep. The words we learn from the Old Testament book of Proverbs haunt us: “ Where there is no vision, the people perish.

We are a nation of free markets. But when we place greater importance on money than human beings, when we exalt profit as the highest value, when our vision of prosperity promotes unethical competition, greed and overconsumption, our nation’s soul becomes unhealthy.

We must never sacrifice liberty, truth, compassion and equality on the altar of greed, falsely believing that our wealth will save us from the perils we see in the developing world, that it will provide us with security from threats foreign and domestic.

Those illusions were shattered in the attacks of 9/11 — and a few years later during the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed. Most recently, in the presidential election of 2016, we saw — especially in states ravaged by economic downturn — a repudiation of the rising tide of globalization.

Sadly, much of our progress in race relations got lumped into this rejection of globalization. Too many of us mocked efforts to promote diversity as “political correctness,” as concepts that were holding us back from greatness.

Regardless of what awaits us, we must realize that our nation’s greatest treasure is not its wealth — nor its massive military, nor its status as a global superpower. America’s greatest treasure is a common vision based on shared aspirations for a peaceful and free society. We too often forget that, and we recklessly pursue profit instead of the counsel of prophets.

No matter how much physical wealth we lose, no matter what our enemies attempt to do to us, we still possess the enduring qualities of conscience, compassion, creativity, imagination and hope.


“Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”

I firmly believe that unity found in Christ — unity that crosses lines of ethnicity, political belief and socio-economic differences — must be our goal. This is not easy to achieve, but it is our only viable alternative to an increasingly fragmented society.

What an opportunity for us, as followers of Christ, to practice true, counter-cultural unity.

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

That sentiment, attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, is hundreds of years old. Scholars, warriors and leaders have repeated it, including Dwight D. Eisenhower as he campaigned for the presidency.

I am reminded of words thousands of years older, recorded in Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

We are a great nation. We must be a good nation. We must exercise power with compassion. We must be fair, just and equitable. Only then will God crown our good with brotherhood.


“Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”

It has not been — and will not be — an easy journey. But we are a people who can do the impossible through the one who gives us strength.

In his final hours among us, Dr. King reminded us of this:


“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”


JERRY TAYLOR
is an associate professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas. He is a leader of the Racial Unity Leadership Summit, a program that brings Christians together to work for racial reconciliation in Churches of Christ.

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