Anniversaries are special times. We remember the past and tell the stories that have shaped our lives. We celebrate old victories and renew long-standing relationships. We ask hard questions about why things happened and discuss what might have been. We also think about our values and envision a future that can move forward from where we are and where we have been.
As bishop I attend many anniversary celebrations of local churches where all of those aspects are part of a well-planned celebration. The recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama was a powerful event. President Obama’s remarks cast a vision that should be compelling for all of us.
Selma calls us to a vision of an inclusive America. Our diversity is our strength. We are black, white, brown, yellow and mixed-race. We are raised speaking many different languages at home but share English as a common tongue. We eat many different kinds of food and embrace many different cultures. We have deeply held values expressed in our founding documents such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Yet even those documents expressed the limitations of the 18th century, for we would now say “all persons” are created equal to show our commitment to the equal rights of women as well as men.
As Christians our commitment to such radical inclusiveness is founded on three crucial doctrines. First, we believe that God created humanity in God’s own image (Genesis 1:28). That means that every human being is a beloved creature of God and worthy of respect and dignity. Yes, all of us are sinners, but the image of God has not been destroyed — it has only been disfigured by the disease of sin.
Second, Christ died for all. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Wesleyan Christians believe in universal redemption — the idea that God desires the salvation of every human being.
Third, our understanding of heaven is that people from all nations and races will say yes to God’s offer of salvation and join together around the throne. When I live on earth with diverse groups of people, I am simply practicing for heaven, because God is going to save people from all the different groups in the world.
At the same time, President Obama’ speech also focused on the reality of our sin. Racism is alive and well in America. We have made significant progress since 1776. Laws have been changed, customs are different, and we have a black man as our leader. Yet, the reality of discrimination and oppression must be confronted.
People of all races should recommit to building the relationships that transcend racial barriers. We should focus on laws and public policies that change the discrimination which limits opportunity for so many. Police-community relations in our cities need a great deal of work. We need to change our immigration policies to allow a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented among us. We need to teach the value of diversity in our schools and churches. We are committed to an inclusive America and an inclusive United Methodist Church.
When we face the reality of our national sin, such as continued evidence of racism, we should not give in to cynicism and despair. We believe in God, and we know that God is working for justice for all and we want to be part of that.As Christians, we believe in that kind of America. May the anniversaries of the civil rights movement re-mind us of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.