In the first chapter of his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”, Martin Luther King Jr. describes the state of the civil rights movement in America and the state of white America’s acceptance of African Americans. He writes:
“With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade – the first phase – had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties.”
“But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.”
King captures so pointedly what I believe continues to be the great sin of our world.
In these insightful and prophetic remarks, King offers us a portrait of the repetitive state of humanity that is blinded by the promotion of exclusion.
Certainly we persist to live in a world saturated with oppression, hatred and violence, but King also draws our attention to sins subtler than hate, violence and exclusion.
We have been duped into believing that the answer to hatred and bigotry is tolerance. Tolerate others who are not like us and bear with the differences, the world says.
But tolerance is shortsighted, and it doesn’t go far enough.
Sure, tolerance may be the better option in the face of those who continue to ward off the message of tolerance because, in their words, it weakens the so-called truth of the Christian message.
But those who preach tolerance are not promoting the fullness of God’s love in Christ.
The irony of the tolerance debate is that those who preach against tolerance and those who preach in favor of tolerance have made the same grave mistake.
One side considers tolerance an evil, while the other considers tolerance the answer.
One group preaches that tolerance is a construct of the pluralistic and therefore evil world. The other side preaches that tolerance is the height of humanity’s progress in social relationships.
King was delighted that white Americans were seeing brutality against African Americans as immoral. But King also wrote that that fell short.
True community is not just replacing exclusion with tolerance. Tolerance must move beyond itself to become the full embrace of the other.
While some call for an abandonment of tolerance, and still others call for an acceptance of tolerance, the gospel of God in Christ calls us to move beyond mere tolerance to full and vulnerable embrace.
So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest? Is it tolerance or the rejection of tolerance?
Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred?
Or should we accept the mediocrity of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us but keeps us at a distance from them?
The biblical answer lies neither in abandonment of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance.
The biblical answer lies in the activity of God in Christ, who excludes no one, and who does not merely tolerate us, but who has fully embraced us.
In the words that appear on the final pages of King’s 1967 book, we find these words:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of the now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. We still have a choice today: non-violent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”
And so, the time is now. We must redeem the time that has been lost to exclusion, oppression, hatred and violence.
We must repent of our sins of exclusion and mere tolerance. We must choose between chaos and community.
One will lead to our destruction. But the other will lead us to embrace the world through love, justice, forgiveness, humility and peace, through which we can foster the common good of all humanity.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.