Was Dr King Nice?

Before I encountered evangelical Christianity I had an opportunity to learn a little about African-American history. I’m not sure why, as a middle-class white kid, I was attracted to it, maybe because no one else was? Maybe it was the underdog aspect of the larger narrative (an oppressed people overcomes enormous hardship)? Maybe it was my setting? More on that below. Whatever the attraction, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the central figures of modern American history. I had not yet turned 7 when he was assassinated in Memphis but I recall clearly that my home town was torn apart by riots, which had to be quelled by the national guard. Racial tension was a fact of life. In the mid-70s the courts instituted busing to try to integrate Omaha Public Schools.

It’s not 1968. Americans have come a great distance since then but we have some ways to go. White folk are more optimistic about how far we’ve come than African Americans. We probably haven’t made as much progress on what used to be called “the race question” as most white folk think.

When it was instituted, the King Holiday was not terribly popular. It is still resented in some circles. The lingering resentment over the holiday is a pale reflection of reaction to Dr King, especially by white folks, during his life. Given Dr King’s heroic status today one might think that  everyone adored Dr King and grieved when he was murdered. It’s not true. A great lot, probably a majority, of white folk in America regarded King as a rabble rouser who was stirring up trouble unnecessarily.  In the midwest, where I was raised, he was not widely regarded as a “nice black man.” In that context “nice” was code for “knows his place” and “doesn’t speak up.” It wasn’t that King wasn’t polite or even that he was violent but he made people uncomfortable, he challenged the status quo, he did not accept that African-Americans couldn’t participate in society; he didn’t accept “separate but equal” because he knew that separate wasn’t equal.

Evangelical and Reformed folk can learn from Martin Luther King Jr. Evangelicals, whole mostly come from the pietist tradition, many of whom emigrated to North America from Northern European countries, who settled originally in the midwest, who lived in small communities and who developed an ethos of “niceness” (getting along) in that setting, routinely confuse “niceness” with Christianity. Few of the outstanding figures in Holy Scripture would qualify as “nice” by midwestern, pietist standards. To be sure, those biblical figures, as they are mediated in and to pietist congregations, often become as homogenized as the milk handed out in Sunday School, whether in children’s Bible stories or flannel graphs. The prophet Joel and the book of James don’t feature prominently in pietist piety because they just don’t fit the mold. Nevertheless, there they are in the canon of Holy Scripture and neither of them was “nice.” Indeed, none of the prophets were “nice. Being “nice,” getting along, doesn’t get one thrown into a cistern. It doesn’t get one’s head cut off. John the Baptist wasn’t nice at all, was he?

With all his sins and flaws, there were echoes of the prophets in King’s rhetoric. He called a nation to repentance. He was, in his own law, a relentless preacher of the law. America is not the Israel of God, it is not the church, and one might well think that King should have resigned his ministerial office in order to pursue his social-cultural-political agenda, but King made the white majority uncomfortable and he did so pointedly, intentionally, and consistently. Toward the end of his career he was helping to organize a “poor people’s campaign.” That aspect of the movement would likely have split the civil rights movement between the economic progressives and the stricter constitutionalists. Whatever one makes of King it was not possible to ignore him then (or now). Had he accepted the prevailing ethos of (pietist) American evangelicals, would anyone have known about King? Would there be a King holiday? Would the Civil Rights Act (with all its flaws) have come into existence? Probably not. Evangelicals talk a great deal about exercising “influence” but that desire is almost certainly at odds with the ethos of “niceness.”

Reformed folk can also learn from King. We are far too concerned about “getting along,” about being popular, with being accepted by the largely baptistic, pietistic, evangelical majority in North America. We’re the sweaty, pimply-faced boy in the corner, at the dance, with the bad hair, the ill-fitting trousers, trying to work up the courage to ask one of the popular girls to dance. We’re just a little too eager. What we need is not  wardrobe makeover and grooming tips (however useful those things might be). What we need is courage and King had courage. There’s little question that King knew that his life was in jeopardy. He could have lived quietly and been quiet successful. He was not quiet. He spoke up. He acted on his convictions. He shocked the majority. He challenged the status quo. He challenged widely accepted premises, even at the cost of his own life.

We, who confess the Reformed faith, who seek to articulate and live out a Reformed piety and practice, don’t need to try to look or sound or act like our pietist cousins. We can respect their tradition for what it was but just as King (and others) demonstrated a resolute willingness to accept disapproval in the interests of a greater cause we must be willing to be what we are, even if it brings the disapproval of the pietist majority.

Niceness is a cultural phenomenon not a virtue. It’s also a temptation. Dr King faced many temptations but he pursued his course in spite of them. For a quarter century Americans have set aside a day to remember him, not because he was nice, but because he called a nation to be true to its constitution and ideals. Reformed Christians are also tempted to niceness and temporary popularity. Don’t do it. Our long-term value to American Christianity does not lie in niceness but in the heroic struggle to articulate and live the faith we confess, even when it brings us into conflict with the prevailing ethos.

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