I n 1967, in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon at the Southern Christian Leadership Council’s 11th Annual Conference. His sermon was titled, “Where Do We Go From Here?” He focused on two words we are all too familiar with in the church, love and power, highlighted in the following excerpt:
Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly.
You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation, which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.
Now, we gotta get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best—power at its best is love, implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.
What we have witnessed during this unprecedented time in our world with the pandemic and racial unrest along with political divisions will certainly be recorded in the history books. Generations from now will look back at these moments and question the way in which the church responded in the world. This new year’s history was made on January 5 when Rev. Raphael Warnock became the first African American senator from Georgia elected. No sooner than we got that news did we began to see the unprecedented way in which extremists who claim to love God and country stormed the Capitol building while votes were being certified to officially elect Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president of these yet-to-be-united states.
We texted about it, we posted on social media about it, and we talked with others about it. But I am mainly concerned with the silence and lack of response from the mainline white evangelical church. In those crowds we saw on television were posters and flags, saying, “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus 2020.” One of those signs was the truth, and one of the signs was a lie. Yes, Jesus saves, but no, Jesus did not run for office in 2020. The problem is that the white evangelical church has conflated the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of God. The unbeliever, the carnal Christian, or the person lacking discernment can no longer pull apart Jesus of the Gospels from a John Wayne-style Jesus.
So, where do we go from here?
There are calls for unity, but the church has yet to tell the truth about American history and the ways in which the church was complicit in America’s original sin of slavery. There can be no reconciliation and repair without truth telling. There can be no forgiveness without repentance. The church is always in a hurry to run to forgiveness without ever doing the hard work that leads up to that.
Let me be clear about forgiveness. Forgiveness is the work of everyone. It does not belong to one specific group of people. I believe that we have all been affected and hurt by the ways in which white supremacy plays out in our everyday lives. This is where I think we miss the mark on forgiveness. For Black people, forgiveness starts with us. What I mean by that is this: we must work on internal forgiveness for the ways in which we have allowed that hatred of others against us to live in us. As a result, we begin to internalize those things and it shows up as self-hate, lightening creams, straightening our hair, and even community violence. I argue that we must first forgive ourselves for the ways in which we have allowed the image of God to be marred in us.
Secondly, I think white people need to go through a process of forgiveness in moral repair. It is much like when someone in the military goes off to war and sees things or engages in something that breaks them internally. There is a repair that must be done inside of them; with no repair, that damage plays out in unhealthy ways. You cannot witness a lynching or experience violence being perpetuated by someone you love without it having an effect on you morally. A pathway to healing for both Black and white people involves deep, internal work on both parties before outer forgiveness can be asked for and received.
When we think about forgiveness, we think of it largely as an interpersonal process between specific parties and related to a specific transgression. For example, I was wronged by a person in this specific context and they need to repent of that wrongdoing and I need to offer forgiveness. This is how we have thought about forgiveness; this is how we have often interpreted forgiveness in Scripture. This is not incorrect in how we approach forgiveness, but I believe there is more to this pathway of reconciliation.
For further thoughts on forgiveness, racial reconciliation, and a way forward for the church, read part two: The Pathway to Reconciliation.
Join the movement
Pastor Peter Watts is leading change with the Beyond Words Movement, a collaborative initiative of the Justice Journey Alliance that enlists church leaders nationwide to lead their communities into action to address systemic racism.
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Peter Watts is a commissioned pastor within the Reformed Church in America. He serves as pastor of The R.O.C.K. Church in Los Angeles, California, and as supervisor of advocacy and race relations in the RCA. You can connect with him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.