Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Racial Justice and the Uneasy Conscience of American Christianity

  • Russell Mooreis president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Dr.… More
  • Updated Jun 12, 2020

culturally diverse group of adults two huggingPhoto Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

Editor’s Note: this article was originally published on on April 10, 2018

Last week I delivered this message as the opening keynote of the MLK50 Conference. In addition to the video, I’ve also included a transcript of my remarks below.


Good afternoon. My name is Russell Moore, and I’d like to call our attention to the word of the Living God in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 23. Matthew 23, and could we begin reading with verse 29 and read on down through verse 39, Matthew 23:29-39. And would you please join me in standing out of reverence for the Word of the living God.

Holy Spirit says through the mouth of Jesus:

 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town,  so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

May God bless his Word to us today. You may be seated.

There is a wreath at the Lorraine Motel. I have no doubt of that. There are probably many wreaths of flowers and arrangements that are being placed at the Lorraine Motel today, tomorrow, and the rest of this week, and that’s a beautiful thing because those flowers signify that a nation remembers this week, one of the greatest Americans, an American prophet, a half century after his assassination right here in this city.

Those wreaths and arrangements can be misleading, though. Because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a beloved community, but he was not a beloved preacher in an awful lot of communities.

As a matter of fact, it’s all too easy for us to think right now that the hatred directed toward Dr. King and his message was limited to that bullet that felled him at the Lorraine Motel. But that’s not the case. Dr. King came into Memphis embattled. He was here because sanitation workers were existing under unsafe conditions and unjust working conditions. He had been speaking out on the Vietnam War and other issues in American life and even some of his own allies thought he was going too fast, confusing issues by speaking to too much. And some of his allies thought he was going too slow in speaking of nonviolence and speaking of love. And among white Americans, the approval ratings for Martin Luther King Jr., fifty years ago, were just below that of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

And what of the evangelical movement? Black evangelicals stood largely with Dr. King, but the power structure of white evangelicalism did not. As a matter of fact, those few white evangelical leaders who stood up and said the message that Dr. King is preaching and teaching is just and right weathered withering criticism. When my predecessors, J.B. Weatherspoon and Foy Valentine, stood up and said very simply that all human beings are created in the image of God and that the system of Jim Crow is an offense in the eyes of God, there was backlash against them. Letters were sent in; one Louisiana Baptist lay leader wrote in and warned that if the commission “did not cease its sinister maneuvers against Southern traditions, we can repeal the Commission itself at the local level by being less cooperative with our Cooperative Program.” When Southern Seminary invited Dr. King to preach in chapel, Baptist churches embargoed donations. Dr. Duke McCall, who was president of Southern Seminary at the time, recalled that after Dr. King preached that he heard of a Baptist layman, a member of the First Baptist Church of Dothan Alabama at the time, who was raising fifty thousand dollars for a mass mailing to all Southern Baptist Convention churches to fire Dr. Duke McCall as president. Dr. McCall said to the layman, “that’s a stupid thing to do. Just give me twenty-five thousand dollars and I’ll resign.” You can have it.

And historian Charles Marsh, writes about his father who was a pastor who talked about how all of the official statements that would come out of the denominational entities would often hit a roadblock at the local level. And he said this is what happens in churches: It’s an easy thing to summarize what it’s like in the life of a local congregation because he says this, “If you are a Baptist preacher and you want to be successful, you better size up the people quickly. If they want aqua-colored carpet instead of the standard maroon, you’ll take a sudden liking for Aqua. If they root for Ole Miss over the Crimson Tide, you’ll not want to say too much about your fondness for Bear Bryant. And if they want you to keep quiet about Negroes, you’ll put a lid on your uneasy conscience. No bishop or presbyter will come to your defense. The local church is free to do its own thing, governed by the contingencies of race, class, and custom, by whatever idiosyncrasies prevail. In the 1960s, congregational polity turned out to be the southern way of life, baptized by immersion.”

This is exactly what Dr. King was talking about when he was writing from Birmingham jail to Christian evangelical pastors who were saying: Go slow. Don’t say too much. Don’t expect too much. Don’t go too fast. And Dr. King says, as I stand here in the Bible Belt, I see steeples everywhere, and as he said “When I look at those steeples over and over again I have found myself asking, what kind of people worship here? Who is their god? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with the words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?” Dr. King looked at the steeples and wondered “who is their god?” and “where is their voice?”

And now there are wreaths at the Lorraine Motel.

And in many ways we are here, bringing a kind of wreath to the Lorraine Motel, honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King. And yet that is a dangerous thing for us to do. Because often, we can fool ourselves into believing that somehow history itself will take care of problems of racial injustice. That somehow inevitably, these things will work themselves out. That’s the reason why sometimes when we see a Charlottesville, when we see a church arson, sometimes we will say “It’s 2018,” as though 2018 itself can solve this injustice. And pastors sometimes can address issues of human dignity and fellowship and unity together. And yet when congregations start to change, inevitably those pastors will often have people saying to them, “We’re leaving because we just don’t feel at home.”

Pastors and leaders can address racism as long as it is undefined enough to be interpreted only as external hostility in the heart. But the minute one starts to speak of the shooting of unarmed black young men, or the minute that one begins to speak of the rise of nativism around the world, the mood changes.

We remember the name of Martin Luther King, but how many remember the names of the sanitation workers who were crushed to death here—whose deaths precipitated the strike that brought him to Memphis? We know the name of Martin Luther King but how many of us remember the names of those little girls who were blown apart by a bomb in Birmingham. We know that there were pastors who were fired for saying that churches should not be segregated. And yet many of those churches still are.

It’s not permissible to say so without someone saying that the pastor is getting too political, or that the pastor is not political enough. So here we are, still in a broken world, still in an unjust society, still in a splintered and segregated church.

And there are wreaths at the Lorraine Motel.

As we stand here, we hear hard words from Jesus. And Jesus speaks of two things that ought to be very familiar to any follower of Jesus Christ. And those two things are repentance and faith.

Notice first of all that Jesus here, speaking to the religious leaders, says the problem is that you come and you decorate the tombs of the prophets. He says, you come and you recognize Jeremiah, and you recognize Isaiah, and you recognize Samuel, and you recognize Ezekiel, and you recognize Elijah. And yet the reason that you are so comfortably able to honor them is because they cannot speak to you any longer. You honor them because they don’t disrupt the power that you have or the social order that you have.

This is why this is so significantly important. Brothers and sisters, we have been given the gospel of Jesus Christ that is to come against the voice of the serpent that has said to us from almost the very beginning, “You shall not surely die.” The gospel says otherwise.

But if someone stands up and begins to speak to the depth of the sin and the wickedness and the injustice that is present in issues of racism there are going to be some who will say “Why don’t you stick to preaching the gospel?” And, “Why are you speaking to something that is social or something that is political?”

Brothers and sisters, you should recognize that. Because that is the response that will come in some way or other when you preach about any sin. Whatever idol I want to protect, whatever sin I want to cherish, my response is going to be “How dare you meddle in my life!”

Living in a time when you can quote Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in commercials to sell flavored fizzy water; non-controversial. And yet, at the root of all of that, there is a deep hypocrisy because Jesus is reminding the religious leaders that God hears and God sees. God heard the sighs of his people when they were in bondage under Pharaoh. And what Jesus recognizes, what Dr. King was pointing to, is that there is something awful that happens to the conscience of a person who is able to sing “oh how I love Jesus” and then rapes enslaved women. There is something awful that happens to a conscience that is able to sing “amazing grace how sweet the sound” and then to whip enslaved men. The just penalty, the Scripture says, for such sin and such injustice is Hell. And as Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who marched with Dr. King, said: “It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. But it is horrible to be Pharaoh.

In the antebellum era, the churches debated the issue of slavery. But as many have pointed out, they often acted as though the problem was the debate over slavery rather than slavery itself. And those who would stand up and say this is an injustice in the sight of God were often told don’t be divisive; you want to maintain unity. And as one abolitionist preacher said in the years leading up to the Civil War, that call for unity is often a call to keep us unified in our sin.

But the issues of racial injustice are about the Godness of God and the humanness of humanity. Jesus says you honor the prophets, and yet what the prophets said to you was from God, and the prophets told the people of God that they could not serve Baal and God. Baal the fertility god existed to prop up the status quo, to bring prosperity to the people on their own terms. The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, though, is not a useful God. He is Lord. And yet time and time and time again, when told they could not serve both, the people of God tragically often chose to worship Baal but to rename him God. And time and time again, in the white American Bible Belt, the people of God had to choose between Jesus Christ and Jim Crow. Because, you cannot serve both. And tragically, many often chose to serve Jim Crow and to rename him Jesus Christ

But the signs that were in this city 50 years ago, “I am a man,” sent a double message. That’s true at both ends.

I am a man—I am created in the image of God; I am bearing the dignity that comes with an image bearer of God; I am not invisible; I am not disposable.

But those signs also point out to those who are looking on: You are just a man; you are just a human being; you are not a god; you are a creature.

Jesus says this is a dangerous place to be. Because he says, religious leaders you’re able to come here to these tombs and to these monuments and say, “If I had lived in the days of my fathers I would not have murdered them as my fathers did.” “Your fathers,” Jesus says, “would not have minded the prophets either, if the prophets were dead. Your fathers would not have minded the prophets either, if the prophets would not speak. And now that there is no need to worry that they will say anything else it is easy to honor them.”

Martin Luther King is relatively non-controversial in American life, because Martin Luther King has not been speaking for 50 years. It is easy to look backward and to say “if I had been here I would have listened to Dr. King,”—even though I do not listen to what is happening around me in my own community, in my own neighborhood, in my own church.

But Jesus Christ is not dead anymore.

Dr. King, 50 years ago this week, stood up and said I have read somewhere constitutional guarantees in the Declaration of Independence that says that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, and you are not living up to what you say you believe.

That is true of America. It is even more true of the Church of Jesus Christ. Why did people not listen to the message that was coming about the injustices all around them? It’s because of a herd mentality. No one wants to be expelled from one’s tribe. No one wants to go against the stream. And when we are silent, in a world like this, where sanitation workers are still imperiled, where African-American young men are shot so often that we’re not even shocked by it anymore and we see it on the news.

Most people don’t say the “N word,” too polite for that. Most people’s bedsheets don’t have eye holes in them, too civilized for that. Most people don’t march with Confederate battle flags. But what we do want to do is to retreat to the merely personal, and to say “If only we would be more polite to one another this would go away.” “This is not a skin problem this is a sin problem.” And if we simply only talk about vague generalities about Christian brotherhood that somehow this will just automatically disciple people together.

And yet we as people who have a Bible ought to be those who understand that the personal and the systemic go together. Joseph’s brothers cannot claim that they are innocent because they acted together in a group.

And what is Jesus’s reaction? He says what is happening around you is judgment. Not that you are headed toward judgment, but you are in judgment because God is giving you over to who you really are. Because God sees the blood of Abel when Cain says “I don’t know who you’re talking about. I don’t know where he is. Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” All the way over to the blood of Zechariah who is murdered, Jesus says, between the altar and the temple desecrating the Holy Place of God.

The call that Jesus continually gives to his church is take up your cross and follow me. And so when we live in a world of racial injustice, hatred, and bigotry, the answer is not to rebrand but to repent.

Sometimes we will say “If only we could have multiethnic churches”; The church is multi-ethnic. The church is headed right now by a Middle Eastern homeless man. So why is American evangelicalism so white and middle class? Why are we not cultivating the future? Why are we not bearing one another’s burdens?

It’s because the American Evangelical movement needs to be more evangelistic. Yes. But the American Evangelical movement also needs to be more evangelized.

Jesus speaks and he says “Why are you seeking to avoid this?” Why do we rightly pay attention when someone is with us when it comes to justice issues that we care about, but when it comes to issues that affect our black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ, white evangelicals, why do we say “That doesn’t matter?” Why is it the case that we have in church after church after church, young Evangelical Christians who are having a crisis of faith? It is because they are wondering if we really believe what we preach and teach and sing all the time.

The answer to that is not just more manifestos. The answer to that is not just more gatherings. The answer to that is the kind of lament that comes from a people who are able to say “O God we do not know what to do but our eyes are on you. We are willing to confess where we stand here and ask you by your Spirit to raise up leadership to move us forward.” But that repentance that Jesus calls us to, if it leads only to despair, will lead to more sin.

Ezekiel said that the people of God who were left behind in Jerusalem were able to say, “Well God has left us; God has left us. So, he doesn’t see the idols that we put up in the temple.”

If there is despair without hope, this breeds more sin and more injustice, more wickedness. Dr. King said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” He was not talking about inevitability. He was talking about hope, and he was speaking to consciences: This is what it can look like; this is what the future can be; this is the kind of repentant person you can be if we lament together, if we weep together, if we recognize that in American Evangelicalism we so often like to think of ourselves as courageous culture warriors. We can boast that we’re battling the culture, but what happens when we’re fighting God?

The answer Jesus says, is glory. Jesus says, “You will not hear from me again Jerusalem, until you say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not come.”

But Jesus speaks to a future when God is putting all things back together. Jesus will build his church, and his church will be a sign to the principalities and powers of the reconciliation that comes through the blood of Jesus Christ. That will happen. The question is whether that will happen with us. And that I don’t know.

God does not need an American evangelical movement. God does not need a Southern Baptist Convention. God does not need a Presbyterian Church in America. God does not need a Gospel Coalition. All of these things are good and right so far as they are lined up with the purposes of God. But even if they do not, God is building His Church. Look at what’s happening in Africa. Look at what’s happening in Asia. Aslan is on the move.

The question is whether we will join ourselves to what God is doing in the world as the people who have enough faith to say blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, which means we recognize Him as Lord, which means we cannot say we want your blessing God, but don’t disturb us too much; we want your blessing God, but don’t change our order of worship; we want your blessing God, but don’t change our institutions of power; we want your blessing God, but don’t change our systems. We instead say, “God is doing something and we want to join him in that.” So we gather and say the one who has spoken to us in Jerusalem in the first century is the one who will return to Jerusalem in triumph and power, and we want to be on his side. And that’s through the cross.

If you really speak about issues of racial injustice, racial unity, you will be unpopular. The Apostle Paul is unpopular in Galatia, but he says, “I did not yield to them for a moment, to those who would change the gospel.” Why? “So that the gospel would be preserved for you.” Sometimes your ability to preach the gospel in the long run means that in the short run you’re exiled into a muddy well, or in the short run you’re fleeing into the desert from Ahab, or in the short run you’re sawn in two by the powers that be, or in the short run you’re shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. But are you able to look beyond your ministry right now and see those who will be asking in the future “Did you really believe the Word of God that came to you? Were you really looking for the people that Jesus says God hears and God knows? Were you able to look beyond your comfort of the moment to be able to see the cross where justice and peace meet together—where justice and love meet together? Were you able to see the glory there, such that in the cross of the crucified Christ, and in the building up of his church, you are able to say, “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” a crucified glory of a Jesus who bore the curse for us?

So why then can we treat lightly sins for which Jesus died? Why can we not respond in repentance and faith in freedom? We’re free to love each other. We’re free to listen to each other. We’re free to be led by one another. We’re free to serve one another.  We’re free to be the Church of Jesus Christ.

And if we have to change our worship styles, let’s crucify our worship styles. If God’s way upsets our political alliances, let’s crucify our political alliances. To be a gospel people means that we don’t seek a cheap reconciliation, but a cross reconciliation. It means that as gospel people we will have consciences alive. We will have consciences that are alive, listening to the people that some would tell us ought to be invisible. To be a gospel people means that we will groan at the wreckage of a fallen world around us, at the ways that even in our own souls and in our own hearts we decorate the tombs of the prophets while convincing ourselves, “Well, if I had been there I wouldn’t have been the kind of person who would silence the prophets.”

Though we cried, “God have mercy. Cleanse from sin. Forgive sin, but also make me whole.”

Martin Luther King has been dead for 50 years. His message still speaks, though. And even more importantly, the gospel still saves, though. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Jesus. Humanity is still hurtling toward Hell, but the cross is still the power of God unto salvation. The tomb in Jerusalem is conspicuously empty. The eastern skies will one day erupt with glory. The Church of Jesus Christ will one day be whole.

The gospel is alive. God is at work. But for now, there are wreaths at the Lorraine Motel.