On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was slated to speak in a predominantly black neighborhood. As his entourage made its way to the campaign stop, Kennedy received word that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed.
Against the advice of the police (who were uncertain about the security situation), Kennedy went through with his scheduled stop. News of MLK’s death had started filtering through the crowd, but most had not heard confirmation of his passing. With virtually no time to prepare, Kennedy spoke from his heart, and delivered the crushing news to the crowd. Here is the speech:
As news of the murder of MLK spread around the country, riots broke out in over 100 cities. But one major city did not have riots – Indianapolis. And many people credit Robert Kennedy’s speech for the peace that prevailed there.
I’ve been thinking about this speech in light of the events of last weekend. What happened in Virginia is symptomatic of a much deeper issue in our current political environment. We are obsessed with identity politics. The white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville are the most vile example of this obsession, but they are hardly unique in their fixation on a particular identity as the focus of political action.
If I may paint with very broad strokes, it seems to me that there are two very different approaches to politics. One is the current obsession with identity politics, narrow silos of political action defined by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender. These identity movements are so strictly and rigidly defined that on more than one occasion I have been told that it is not possible for me as a white man to deeply empathize with the experiences of those from a different race. This sort of tribalism is ultimately self-defeating, since it is inevitable that identity factions will eventually turn on each other in the zero-sum game of grievance that they have created.
But the other approach to politics is one that uses as its launching pad not how different we are, but how similar we are. It is the impulse to acknowledge that though we are different, there are experiences and values we all have in common, and through those shared values we can work together for the common good. You can see this at work in the brief speech Kennedy made. Robert Kennedy was white and wealthy, enjoying privileges that exceeded not only those African-Americans who were at this rally, but the vast majority of white Americans as well. And yet he could relate to the horror of a brutal murder, drawing on the tragedy of his own brother’s death, to find common ground with those in attendance, empathizing with them while at the same time exhorting them not to respond in kind. It was perhaps the first time he had ever opened up publicly about JFK’s murder. And it was powerful.
Here is the poignant conclusion to the speech:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
“Love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.” That’s what we desperately need. And contrary to what the purveyors of identity politics would have us believe, we do have a great deal in common with each other. I have linked this skit from Saturday Night Live in a previous post, but I will include it once more, because it brilliant captures just how similar the experiences of a lot of black people and white people actually are.
Most of all, it is important for us as Christians to present to the world an alternate reality. By its very nature, Christianity is subversive to the idolatries of any age, including the idols of racial and ethnic prejudice. We show the world what love looks like that is not defined by race but by grace.
I love Paul’s statement at the end of 1 Corinthians 10 – “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (10:32). Paul sees three possible identities: Jews, Gentiles, and the church. The church – the people of Christ – form a new and different identity, one that transcends the racial, cultural, or economic identities that matter to the world.
Back in May I spoke for a church in Chillicothe, OH. In the course of my weekend there, I learned that one of the members used to be part of a white supremacy organization, while another used to be a militant black activist. Now, they worship together as members of the same spiritual family. The only identity that counts for them now is being in Christ.
I have very little hope that our political situation is going to get better. I don’t see very many Robert Kennedyesque figures on the right or the left. But I have tremendous hope in the power of the gospel, and for the powerful testimony the presence of the church can make in our fractured culture.
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)