Why I Will Protest a School I Love

I am a pastor who loves Jesus. Yet I’m also realizing I’m a pastor who loves comfort, ease, a good reputation, and money almost just as much. These idols cause me to fear writing the words you’re now reading.  

But even more scary to me are the words of Jesus: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). After his first sermon proclaiming good news to the poor, people wanted to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:16–29). Time and again in Scripture, we see Jesus upsetting the religious establishment of his day in order for God’s kingdom to advance. To put it mildly, Jesus was peacefully disruptive.

My comfort disappeared when my alma mater, Liberty University, chose to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by featuring Donald Trump as the convocation speaker. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor who advocated for freedom, equality, and justice for all human beings made in God’s image. In contrast, Donald Trump, in the last few months alone, has publicly mocked the disabled, used vulgar expressions to refer to women, and spoken derogatory words against Muslims, immigrants, and Latinos. 

In a nation still struggling with racial tensions, wouldn’t there be a plethora of other speakers for my alma mater to host on a day intended to commemorate racial equality?  

“We chose that day,” Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. explained, “so that Mr. Trump would have the opportunity to recognize and honor Dr. King on MLK day.” While admitting Trump is “not a civil rights expert,” Falwell believes the presidential candidate, along with the University, stands for King’s principle that all people should be judged, as King put it, “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The Date Matters

Please hear me. I love free speech. I support inviting speakers from a wide range of backgrounds and ideas into a university setting, like when Liberty hosted Bernie Sanders last semester. I don’t have a problem with Trump coming to speak. I have a problem with the date.

What if Liberty had chosen Bernie Sanders, a candidate with a lifetime pro-choice record, as their keynote speaker to honor “Sanctity of Human Life” Sunday? The juxtaposition between the speaker and the date would be insensitive and offensive to the principles the day is commemorating, just as it will be this Monday when Trump speaks on MLK Day.

As a white father to a black son, MLK Day means a great deal to me. Without the efforts of King and countless other civil rights activists, my precious family would not exist. Whites and blacks in the South weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountain back in King’s day, much less be in the same family. Through adoption, though, my children are a living picture of King’s dream that “one day little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Sometimes it baffles me why white Southern evangelicals didn’t march with King against the systemic injustices of racism. But then I look in the mirror and quickly realize that I, in my silence and comfort, am no better. 

In his letter from Birmingham jail, King wrote:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direction action.” . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. . . . We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

To put it mildly, Martin Luther King, Jr. was peacefully disruptive. He protested in the face of hatred and violence. And eventually, through these peaceful protests, truth prevailed and society changed.

Protesting the University

I am proud of the Liberty students who’ve decided that the best way to honor Martin Luther King Jr. this Monday is to imitate him with a peaceful protest of the university’s racial insensitivity. Though I fear what people will think or do, I’ve decided to stand alongside them in their protest as a step toward repenting of my own idols of comfort and ease. Though I love my alma mater, I am planning to attend the protest out of my love and respect for these students, for all those who are marginalized in our society, and for the future of my son. 

Some think protesting is inherently disrespectful, but I humbly disagree in this case. King’s daughter, Bernice, taught us how to disagree when she referenced, in a 2009 Liberty convocation, an issue with her mother: “When there is unconditional love, you can stand strong in the position you have been convicted of even if it means you have to take a position that may be different from your own loved ones.” Christians can have differing opinions on what, if any, action should be taken.

Every single human being, including Trump, is created in the image of God. And that doctrine compels me and other Christians to actively seek justice for the poor and the oppressed as we attempt to follow Jesus. 

I won’t be holding up a sign with words of love because I seek to create division or hate. Quite the contrary. Though it will not be comfortable, I will be holding up a sign with words of love because I, in the footsteps of King and so many others, desire to see all people treated with the dignity they have already been given by their Creator.

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