In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” They are from his now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He was attempting to convince his white pastoral colleagues that he was not trying to be a rabble-rouser, but the preacher of the gospel he was ordained to be, and that the battle for civil rights in America was not a Black issue, but rather a fundamental requirement of anyone claiming to strive to realize the kingdom of God among us. It is a point that is still too often lost on white Christians.
King’s statement here is a succinct but essential expression of the gospel of Christianity; by becoming human, God knit all humanity together starting with the ones society had placed last. God theoretically could have chosen any path for entering the world, but for the gospel to have its full meaning, it was imperative for Jesus to be born as one of those oppressed by the empire, a member of a habitually outcast people, a descendant of a heritage of slavery. God’s lot was cast with such people, and they were placed first in the queue of salvation. The message is that God’s presence is found first at the fringes. God’s grace is gathered from the periphery in, like the wide arms of an embrace pulling towards the middle.
This is a notion that black liberation theologians have deemed “the blackness of God,” meaning that in becoming the dispossessed, God made that the place where the divine was to be found. Therefore, we cannot turn a blind eye to the excluded and still see God. Or put differently by the poet John Donne, “no man is an island,” because in Christ all humanity has been connected to God and to one another. By sectioning some off, we cut ourselves off from the revelation of God in our midst.
This way of seeing our fellow humans is something we must still wrestle with in the United States in 2019, and more specifically, in this community. Peoria is consistently ranked as one of the worst cities in the county for African-Americans –– based on economic, educational and occupational opportunities. But too often we work hard at overlooking or even denying this reality, forgetting that in the salvation narrative, there is a “single garment of destiny.” The moment we forget about this lesson and turn a blind eye to the struggles of our neighbors, we begin to lose sight of God among us and quiet the voice with which we can preach the gracious reign of God’s justice.
We cannot ignore the plight of African-Americans in our city –– in economic advancement, employment, educational opportunity or housing discrimination. It threatens our very proclamation of the good news of God in Christ. The tapestry of humanity is made up of threads of many colors –– that’s its beauty. When we fail to value any of them, the entire picture of redemption is flawed, dulled and compromised. Fighting for equality can never be simply relegated to the status of a concern for a minority. It must be a fundamental issue for anyone who proclaims the good news of Christ, and a primary task for all who wish to witness the presence of God among us.
Rev. Thomas and Rev. Replogle are co-rectors at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Peoria.