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Racism, Religion, and Reconciliation: MLK Jr. and Rabbi Heschel

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June 21st, 2020
  

Religion and Race

On January 14, 1963, great leaders of two different worlds met at a conference on “Religion and Race” organized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in Chicago. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a faithful follower of Jesus and a spokesman for peace, met Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a Jewish theologian, teacher and social activist. 

rabbi heschel and mlk jr

The speech Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s delivered at this conference is relevant in this hour: 

“Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child.

The redeeming quality of man lies in his ability to sense his kinship with all men. Yet there is a deadly poison that inflames the eye, making us see the generality of race but not the uniqueness of the human face. There are people in our country whose moral sensitivity suffers a blackout when confronted with the Black man’s predicament.

How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.

Prayer and prejudice cannot dwell in the same heart. Worship without compassion is worse than self deception; it is an abomination.

Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?” Heschel // 1963

United to Combat Racism

It was precisely their faith and their love that brought Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. together to fight for a better tomorrow. These two bold and humble men stood in opposition to racism and its expression in religion.

Two years later, when they took part in a Civil Rights march, they both considered that event to be of great spiritual significance. Heschel later said of that day that their legs were not marching but praying. Without words, their steps were glorifying God. 

rabbi heschel and mlk jr walking in a parade together

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are  not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel //1965

That day, these two servants of God, a Jewish man and a Christian Black man, realized that they were brothers. King Jr. and Heschel both longed for God.

They both preached that prayer is a relationship, not a petition. Both called on people to reflect God’s glory here on earth. And they both stood against the evils of racism, anti-semistism, and prejudice as they prayed, spoke, and marched side-by-side. 

Religion, Racism and Reconciliation

Martin Luther King Jr. noted great similarities between the Jewish people and the African American community. In an address to the American Jewish Committee convention in 1958, He expressed how both peoples experienced hatred and worked to overcome: 

mlk jr at the front of the parade

“My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.” Martin Luther King Jr. // 1958

Repentance and humility bring reconciliation and healing. 

As believers, we are called to weep with those who weep and stand with the oppressed. 

“Weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:15-18

“Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed.” Psalm 82:3

rabbi heschel and mlk jr praying and holding flags

The Role of People of Faith

Heschel and King were dear friends who stood together to “uphold the cause of the oppressed” in their day.

Today, we are invited to do the same. As Christians, we know perfectly well that there is no room for racism in religion.

Almost two years ago, our hearts were grieved as we, like you, witnessed the outcry for justice around the globe in response to injustice and racial inequality. 

On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd lost his life under the knee of the very person sworn in to protect him. This tragedy broke our hearts and invited us all to rethink who we are and what we stand for. To take a step back into history and remember those who have gone before to lead us forward. 

We pray that the love of Yeshua would continue to transform, unite, and lead us as we seek His Kingdom and reconciliation together. Race is not a factor in God’s Kingdom.

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13

Race and Beliefs of the Heart

The Jewish people are no strangers to injustice, and as we stand against Anti-semitism, we must also stand opposed to all forms of racism, prejudice, and oppression. 

As believers, we want our love to be carried forth with action. Instead of mere behavior modification, our prayer is that God will bring true heart transformation and racial reconciliation in the coming days. 

sharing an award

Biblical Perspective

Let’s close with these words from Paul as we remember that Yeshua alone is our reconciling Peace: 

“Our reconciling “Peace” is Jesus! He has made Jew and non-Jew one in Christ. By dying as our sacrifice, he has broken down every wall of prejudice that separated us and has now made us equal through our union with Christ.

Ethnic hatred has been dissolved by the crucifixion of his precious body on the cross. The legal code that stood condemning every one of us has now been repealed by his command. His triune essence has made peace between us by starting over—forming one new race of humanity, Jews and non-Jews fused together!

Two have now become one, and we live restored to God and reconciled in the body of Christ. Through his crucifixion, hatred died.

For the Messiah has come to preach this sweet message of peace to you, the ones who were distant, and to those who are near.

And now, because we are united to Christ, we both have equal and direct access in the realm of the Holy Spirit to come before the Father!

So, you are not foreigners or guests, but rather you are the children of the city of the holy ones, with all the rights as family members of the household of God.” Ephesians 2:14-19 TPT

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

FIRM is a global fellowship of Biblically-grounded believers committed to cultivating Messiah-centered relationships that bless the inhabitants of Israel—Jews, Arabs, and others—and the Jewish community around the world.
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