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All God's Children I

"When we allow freedom to ring..., we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "'Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.'" (Copyright 1963, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.)

---from Martin Luther KIng's "I Have a Dream" speech given at the March on Washington in Aug 1963.

This quotation was a rousing finale to a pivotal day in the Civil Rights Movement. It was said over 50 years ago, and we seem to have made little progress since then in reaching that "day." Social, economic and racial divisions are just as prominent in today's headlines as they were then, despite widespread progress in educational and employment opportunities for minorities. "Joining hands"? Joining hearts? This seems like an impossible ideal. However, Martin Luther KIng introduced a crucial qualifier when he used the words "all God's children." Who did he mean? Did he mean "all" in the sense of universalism, including everyone residing in the United States? In this case, the "dream" is an impossible fantasy. Klansmen are not going to clasp hands with Black Lives Matter.

Instead of being inclusive, however, it can be read as restrictive, ie. referring only to those Americans who are intentionally devoted to God, even if their concepts of God aren't identical (eg. Jew, Catholic, Protestant). When we infer this restriction, then the ideal becomes an opportunity instead of an impossibility. It brings the ideal down from the stratosphere of "some day, some where, but not in my lifetime", and challenges believers to step beyond their cultural boundaries.

This concept is made clearer when we consider the nature of American ethnic and religious groups. Each of these is composed of three sub-groups, the criterion of which is the degree of openness to outsiders.

a. Bridge-builders. These people, though fully committed to the values of their own community, seek to create positive relationships with outsiders, and even with opponents. Though they are aware of areas of difference and disagreement, their focus is on cooperation and compromise. They seek less the goal of "winning" over other communities, and more the goal of everyone benefiting from new social policies. They take the initiative to reach out beyond their community, and are willing to listen to the other side. They are even willing to forgive past injustices in the hope of constructing a more positive relationship in the future with rival groups.

b. Wall-builders. This second group of people emphasizes the differences between their group and opposing groups. They are rooted in the past, and are determined to project that past into the future. They remember every injustice and grievance their group has suffered, and they have a long, long memory. They may talk about reconciliation, "but...." The "but" refers to the conditions that the other side must meet before positive relationships can be maintained, and may involve restitution, legal changes, apologies, and compensation. They believe themselves morally superior to their opponents. This moral superiority justifies, in their minds, an aggressive stance toward outsiders. They are reluctant to cooperate with outsiders or build relationships with them. They esteem their own community's values and traditions highly, and tend to look down on other groups. Compromise is considered betrayal of their identity and mission. They value the walls that separate them from other groups as protection of their own ethnic or religious identity. Another name for this group is the "Bitter-Enders."

c. Apathetics. The third group has neither the altruism of the Bridge-Builders, nor the ingroup loyalty of the Wall-Builders. Their primary focus is on looking out for their own interests, by sensing which way the societal winds are blowing and adjusting their beliefs and actions accordingly. They are the "nominal adherents" to the groups they belong to, coasting along, currying favorable relationships with other members, avoiding confrontation and sacrifice. They are not motivated by principle, so much as by pragmatics. It is these people whom Bridge-Builders and Wall-Builders attempt to inspire and recruit. The Apathetic nods his head in agreement to one side or the other, but actively pursues only his own self-interest.

In the next post, we will consider how each of these subgroups reacts to Dr King's dream of racial unity.

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