On April 3 and 4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition hosted a special event titled “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” to reflect on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic death. Jackie Hill Perry delivered this talk during the event.
The next generation, I imagine, will be one worth watching. A week or so ago, the largest youth protest since Vietnam took place when thousands of youth from across the nation used their voices to speak out against violence, gun violence, and to speak for gun control. Generation Z, as they’ve been called, has already begun to champion what matters most to them with a passion and conviction that I would think they must have learned from the generations before them.
Many of them have seen the protests against police brutality, done by folks maybe a decade or so older than them. They have seen the bent knee during a national anthem and understood it to be a revolutionary act. They have watched their Twitter timelines fill up with a 180-characters-worth of honest and grieving words. Words that have stirred in them a desire to be just as loud for what is right as the silent are being for what is wrong. This generation has learned some things from us. Well, some of us that is.
Some of us may not have been alive to get close enough to the windows to see a sit-in in action at a segregated lunch counter. We weren’t there to wave as the Freedom Riders rode past us, resolute in their mission even if it meant that they might die on their way home. Some of us weren’t old enough to watch as Martin and others walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. But when we found out about it, it did something in us. It taught us that to care about injustice is to do something about it.
To put ourselves in harm’s way even if that means peace for my neighbor that this work, this work of loving our neighbors and making sure others will do the same, ain’t always comfortable. But by example they’ve shown us that it’s worth it.
When it comes to the generation before us, we’ve learned some things. But there are some of us that have learned other things. Some may not have been there to hear the sound of a body swinging back and forth on a tree, the cracking of the branch and the laughter of the ones that made the noose.
You might not have been there in the pews when the deacons made sure the colored folks sat in the balcony as not to sit too close to the white parishioners as they heard the preacher tell them that all this segregation that’s going on was the will of Almighty God.
Some of you in this room probably weren’t old enough to see all that the generation before you did. But don’t think that in some way you haven’t been taught by it. Taught to not take the death of a brown body serious even when it swings, or should I say retweets, in front of your face. Taught to stay seated in your pew while oppression happens all around you. Taught not in words, usually, but by living, that this work, this work of loving your neighbor and making sure others do the same, doesn’t belong to you.
Taught that because your beautiful baby boy can walk down the street with Skittles and tea in his hand when no one threatened by the color of his skin that the privilege of safety means that you are exempt from caring about the price of black pigment. Oh, surely we have learned some things. The generations are always teaching by example.
If you read the Book of Ezekiel before, you’ve come across a passage that speaks to this idea of generational teaching. We find the prophet Ezekiel addressing the elders of Israel. God has a message for them, but first he wants to give them a little history lesson. He reminds them about how he rescued the people of Israel out of Egypt, with the promise that he would then bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey. But on the way, as we all do, they started tripping. They, in more ways than one, disobeyed God. And as judgment, God relegated them to a 40-year stay in the wilderness until the entire generation that left Egypt was dead.
But while in the wilderness, the disobedience didn’t cease. They continued to walk in unbelief toward God with their idolatrous ways. But eventually, as God said would happen, each one of them perished until the younger generation was the only generation left. And Ezekiel 20:18, God tells the elders about what he told the children that were left and he says:
And I said to their children in the wilderness, do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor keep their rules, nor defile yourselves with their idols.I am the Lord your God, so walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you.That you may know that I am the Lord your God. But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes, and were not careful to obey my rules by which if a person does them he shall live.
Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations, and disperse them through the countries because they have not obeyed my rules, but have rejected my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols.
During the 40 years in the wilderness, these children had learned some things.
They’d seen some of their parents worship the gods of Egypt. They remembered when their mothers removed the gold earrings out of their ears and watched them turn them into golden calves. They were there when their father slept with the women of Moab and when their family sacrificed to a god named Baal, a god they knew was not the God of Israel, but a god that they thought was more worthy of their worship than the one who took them out of slavery.
These children grew up in an environment where the people of God had an allegiance to all sorts of idols and lived by all kinds of statutes that they’ve created for themselves. So, when it was their turn to obey God, when they heard the command of God to walk in his statutes and to obey his rules, the only footsteps they chose to follow were the idolatrous feet of their fathers.
And for all we know, they probably thought that generation knew best. Because clearly seeing each and every person in the generation prior to them drop dead in the wilderness wasn’t enough proof that God was not to be played with. The children of Israel had learned some things.
Don’t you find it troubling that the letter, a letter from a Birmingham jail, a letter Dr. King wrote in 1963 to Christians, white Christians to be specific, contains in it the same frustrations being voiced to our white brothers and sisters today in 2018? The letter is 55 years old and yet this generation has not fully improved upon the beliefs and the behavior of the prior.
The urgency of justice is still being questioned. The hearts of many brown and black believers are still disheartened as their brothers and sisters, the brothers and sisters that they share pews with, who seem to be so unwilling to pursue authentic peace, authentic peace that includes the presence of justice and not the peace that prefers the absence of tension.
How could it be that one generation can progress so much and yet be so similar to the generation before them? And all of us, we can see it is because the generations are always teaching in all of us and one way or another have followed in somebody’s footsteps.
If we want to equip the next generation for gospel diversity, we have to start here. Our methods have to be modeled if we expect for them to be followed. But we cannot and will not model what we don’t believe. And guess what? Your children, your mentees, your disciples, the people in your children’s group, your youth group, they are learning from you even if you don’t know yet. They’ve seen who you invite over for dinner. They’ve heard how you pray for your country. And some have never heard one plea for the peace of a black mother whose son was killed in a backyard. Or a petition to a God on behalf of a Hispanic teen who was terrified that she would be deported from the one home that she has always known. They are watching who you watch. They are listening to who you are learning from.
If there is any indifference in your heart toward gospel diversity, you better know that your indifference will be to them a norm to which their world views will be shaped. But just as the next generation can learn some negative things from us all, because God is in us, with his help we can do what some of our fathers didn’t do.
Why? Because we are a chosen race. We are a royal priesthood. We are a holy nation. We are a people for his own possession that we may proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light.
We must show the next generation what it’s like to be a part of a chosen race. A chosen generation. A generation made up of people that are white, and brown, and black, and every other color that God has made for his glory. A generation of folk that God has brought to himself. A generation of people that may have some bad blood inside of their bodies because of sin and their different upbringings, but a generation that will fight for the oppressed in America and beyond, just like the God of Israel fought for the oppressed in Egypt.
Let the next generation see what a royal priesthood looks like. How a people who’ve been anointed by the Spirit, sanctified by God, and brought near to his throne through the Son, show them how they move about the world. Show them what a living sacrifice looks like and how it’s not a lamb or a goat, but a body, and bias, and comfort, and fear, and lovelessness, and pride, and privilege, and how this priesthood lays it all down on the altar to be burned before God, so that we can show the new generation what real worship looks like.
Show them a holy nation. Show them a nation among many, but a nation under one God and with liberty and justice for all. And don’t get it twisted. This holy nation ain’t America, it’s the church of God. It’s the bride of Christ. It’s a nation whose king was a Jewish man killed by an unjust government as ordained by a sovereign God.
This nation looks different than the rest because it’s governed by a God that is good, and holy, and wise, and just, and merciful, and empathetic, and dignifying. And as this holy nation lives among others, the generations will see what it looks like when your ultimate allegiance is King Jesus.
Show them what it looks like to be a peculiar people that belong to God. We don’t really belong to this country. We don’t really belong to a political party. We don’t belong even to our economic status. Heck, we don’t belong to this world. We are a people for his own possession.
And when we believe that, when we believe that we belong to God, we will live completely free from the statutes and the rules that these identities impose on us. That way, we will love not according to what makes us similar, but we will love in accordance to our Savior if only we would just be who we are.
The next generation would learn some things. They would learn something glorious. They would learn about God in us. They would know that the people of God love differently than the world. That the people of God embrace diversity because that’s what God would do.
And that’s what God has done. The next generation would follow in our footsteps and then they would come to realize that as they did, they were actually following Jesus, and not a God made in America’s image. They would come to see that as you set your mind on things above where Christ, he is seated at the right hand of God, the place he went after he did what was just and right, the seat he sat down on after dying and raising on behalf of people, that he died [to purchase] for himself [a people] from every tribe, tongue and nation. They would see that because you set your mind up there where he is, that they can, too.
When we set our eyes on Christ instead of setting our eyes on our fathers’ idols and everything else that keeps us from gospel diversity, you can be sure that is when we begin equipping the next generation for gospel diversity.