The recent passing of theologian Richard John Neuhaus brings to mind a passage from the book of Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”
As Michael Gerson mentioned in his recent tribute to Neuhaus in The Washington Post, there was a time when “the footsteps of theologians shook the land.” These days, he laments that the great thinkers who “provided the intellectual and moral ballast for a rough national crossing through the Cold War and civil rights movement are gone and the nation’s hungry sheep now look up to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra for spiritual nourishment.
Neuhaus was, according to Gerson, “first a man of the left, then a man of the right — yet entirely consistent on the things that matter most.” He walked with King for civil rights, and later “found the natural extension of those ideals in the pro-life movement.”
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the address for which he is best known. Long remembered as the “I Have a Dream” speech, he said things like, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”
Slightly less than five years later, the Dreamer was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, hastening our societal slide toward a culture far too comfortable and familiar with violence and death. The legacy of Dr. King and the fallout from that 1973 legal bombshell sail very close to each other again.
Some see this as an awkward convergence. But it really isn’t. Back in the ’60s, while black preachers were mobilizing masses in the pursuit of civil rights, conservative evangelicals stayed largely on the sidelines. They weren’t all that interested in changing anything. In fact, it was not uncommon to hear white fundamentalist-evangelical preachers of the day, with voices animated by indignation, decrying the very idea that preachers should be activists in the streets, mocking them to get back to their pulpits where they belonged.
Many, if not most — some notably — would later change their minds. What was the catalyst bringing change to how conservative, white clergymen viewed and lived out their roles? What issue convinced these dogmatic men of the cloth to be willing to scramble out of the pulpit-pocket and into a measure of political involvement after decades of silent separation? Well, the winds of change began to blow in the aftermath of that landmark 1973 decision.
So, here we are again in another January, decades after a killing and a ruling, still marching about Roe v. Wade and honoring Dr. King — but seldom in the same room. The two constituencies, both fierce about the importance of faith, seldom find — much less look for — ways to reach out to the other choir. On Sunday, Jan. 18, some churches highlighted the Sanctity of Human Life issue. Others talked a lot about Dr. King and his dream to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was celebrated Jan. 20. Usually it was one or the other. Some of us, however, tried to do both, because there ought to be an affinity between the two.
When Martin Luther King talked about a dream he had for his four little children and how he longed for them to grow up in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” beyond the amen and applause of the crowd around the Lincoln Memorial, far too many Americans ignored what he had to say. Or worse, some mobilized to polarize and oppose.
Those opponents were wrong. No matter how much they went to church, read their Bibles or professed the religion of Jesus, they were wrong. It was wrong for good, God-fearing Americans not to see how important it was, from a faith-based point of view, that this nation truly walk the walk it had long talked about.
And it is wrong for some people of faith today not to see the pro-life cause as very much a civil and human-rights issue.
We should have a dream that welcomes all to the table. And we should have a dream that welcomes all to life itself.
The calendar gives us a near-miss each year as these issues come close to collision. But social justice and embracing life itself as profoundly precious should not be either/or issues. They are very much both/and. And until we find a way to bring them together, it is not likely that anyone can really bring us together.
At this transitional moment in our country’s history, there are great and grave issues before us. Some wrongs have been righted. One great wrong — one that has been a hurtful wound for generations, since even before our nation’s founding — is being righted by an inauguration. Other wrongs are yet to be righted. We should celebrate the victory of wrong over right when it happens. And we should mourn when wrongs left untouched cry out for justice and mercy.
The ultimate way for us to see wrongs righted is for us to look back 2,000 years ago, to a great and grievous wrong inflicted on Christ himself. And it is through that wrong, the great finished work on the cross, that we can know what it is to be made right and whole. When our brokenness is taken to His brokenness, healing happens. And that healing transforms us into agents of light — to work for righteousness in a world of woe.