As I read over the Pew Research Center’s June publication of Black, white and Hispanic Americans’ opinions on whether or not church sermons should heavily focus on political activism and race relations, the results did not shock me.
Although the survey was taken before the killing of George Floyd, there was a clear split along racial lines, with 62% of Blacks saying that Sunday messages from the pulpit should tackle these issues, while only 36% of whites agreed. Hispanics were a close second behind Blacks, with 53% believing that sermons should have some political leanings. Forty-two percent of whites firmly stated that sermons should not include social justice or racial-equality standpoints.
Much of the difference regarding the inclusion of political perspectives in sermons among Blacks and whites who attend church regularly is rooted in cultural experiences. During the civil rights movement, Black churches were not only sacred houses of worship; they played a critical role in incorporating prayer in political strategy during the struggle for racial equality. God was fervently sought to dismantle Jim Crow segregation and its foundational barriers of systemic racism.
Today, in many Black communities, people are looking to the church for guidance as social justice protests have catapulted across the nation after Floyd’s death. I believe that as Black ministers seek God, as they pour out spiritual encouragement, wisdom and instruction to their congregations, the divine theme of love in the Gospel of Christ must remain the central focus.
In many of my columns on social justice, I have used examples from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons to demonstrate how he always placed Scripture at the core of his messages on race relations. I will take this opportunity to use another one: King’s 1957 address to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, titled “Loving Your Enemies.” This message is especially relevant during our current climate of heated racial tension.
The text for this sermon comes from Matthew 5:43-45, where Jesus taught the multitudes saying, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
A lot of hate has been expressed during the Black Lives Matter movement. One incident happened in Branson, Missouri, a few days after the Pew church questionnaire was released. A white woman draped in a Confederate flag screamed to a BLM supporter, “I will teach my grandkids to hate you all.” The woman, identified as Kathy Jenkins by the Springfield News-Leader (though she said her last name is Bennett), angrily pumped her fist and continued to yell her “KKK belief.”
While reading these detestable comments, I referred back to King’s spirit-filled words when he said that “even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there.”
Love in spite of. How many Christians, Black and white, can honestly say that they love people like Kathy Bennett or even Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight excruciating minutes? If we were to give in to our human, fleshly nature, we would obstinately maintain that Bennett and Chauvin are unredeemable, but this is not what Scripture teaches, as King preached.
Love redeems people. It liberates the souls of those who have been obstructed by hatred. This is why Christ commands us to pray for our enemies: If we pray on one accord in the church, our prayers can change the hearts of those who have been waxed cold by bigotry.
One example of this that my mother always mentions to me is that of George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who defiantly championed segregation. Thirty years after the march from Selma to Montgomery, Wallace, age 75 and confined to a wheelchair, had an aide read a letter asking forgiveness of those who were viciously beaten by state troopers under his command at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who was an organizer of the Selma march, told Wallace, “We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom.”
This is what the power of loving our enemies can do, and the church needs to zealously preach this message as we strive for racial healing and advocate for meaningful change.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @JjSmojc.