Tom Eblen

Where are Christians in the face of social injustice? As in MLK’s day, mostly MIA.

The Revs. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Martin Luther King Jr., lead a protest march in Birmingham, Ala., in April 1963. King would be arrested during that march and write his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.
The Revs. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Martin Luther King Jr., lead a protest march in Birmingham, Ala., in April 1963. King would be arrested during that march and write his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called out his era’s dominant group of Christians — white, mainstream congregations and their leaders— for failing to heed God’s many calls in the Bible to speak out against social injustice. Too many Christians, King wrote, “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

If King were writing such a letter about today’s social injustices, the Rev. Alton B. Pollard III thinks he would focus on a different target: white Evangelical Christians.

“I think he would critique them, challenge them, hold them accountable in the same way,” said Pollard, who in September became the first African American president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a nationally influential graduate school whose students represent 20 different denominations.

“The fact that an overwhelming number of white evangelicals subscribe to division and enmity in our midst is tragic,” said Pollard, adding that most mainstream Christians aren’t doing enough to speak out against bigotry, racism and inequality, either. “We all need the love of God, including those who would not want me to exist.”

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The Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III became president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in September 2018. Photo Provided

Pollard was in Lexington on Tuesday to speak to an ecumenical group of Central Kentucky church leaders at a get-acquainted lunch at Second Presbyterian Church. It happened to be the 90th anniversary of King’s birth, which will be celebrated Monday as a national holiday.

Pollard’s mind was on King that day, especially his famous “letter.” King wrote the essay in response to criticism from some white Southern religious leaders after he was arrested for leading non-violent protests against segregation in Birmingham.

The letter’s most famous line is this: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He also wrote that rather than just be a “thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion,” the church should be “the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

“The church’s role principally is to do what God requires of us, which is love justly,” Pollard said in an interview after the luncheon. “Which means that justice and love go hand in hand. So if we say that we love our sister and our brother as individuals, but we don’t actually do anything to help their lives improve, then that’s not love. That’s something very false.”

When seminary board members approached Pollard last year about becoming its 10th president, the then-dean of the School of Divinity at Howard University in Washington, D.C., was surprised. He was an unlikely choice, and not just because he would be only the second black person to lead one of the 10 seminaries run by the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was the first seminary president to not be Presbyterian. He was Baptist, but has joined a Presbyterian church since moving to Louisville.

Pollard, 62, grew up in Minnesota in a family that fled racism in Mississippi. He is a noted scholar, author and speaker on African American religion and culture. He earned degrees from Duke and Fisk universities and Harvard divinity school. Before Howard, where he served 11 years, he taught at Emory and Wake Forest universities and St. Olaf College. Pollard and his wife Jessica have two adult children.

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Thomas Tolliver holds a sign with a famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail during a 2013 event in Lexington celebrating the 50th anniversary of King’s March on Washington. Matt Goins Herald-Leader File Photo

Pollard said he was attracted to the Louisville seminary because of its long tradition of working to bridge religious and social differences. “We are not just interested in teaching,” he said. “We are interested in difference-making. If we are going to see the transformation of our society, it must begin with the church and not end there.”

Pollard said it is past time more Christians spoke out against injustices they see in society’s treatment of immigrants, homeless and poor people, gay people and others marginalized by society. God wants us to love others, not judge them.

“We are to embody that cardinal virtue of courage,” he said. “Part of our witness is to be, I think, public theologians, to bear witness in the public square.”

Pollard said he doesn’t see enough social justice leadership in most Christian churches.

“In general as the church, we have been pretty palpable failures in our responsibility to not only create ‘beloved community’ but even, to reduce it to the level of politics, to create a democracy,” he said. “Christ’s ministry was largely in the public context, among average people. He simply went about doing good, challenging the existing social order in the process.”

When Christians fail to seek love and justice, the results are ungodly. “It’s continued strife, it’s continued hatred, it’s continued bigotry,” he said. “As Martin said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.’”

Lexington MLK Day Events

Sunday, Jan. 20

6 p.m. — Community worship service, Central Christian Church, 219 E. Short St.

Monday, Jan. 21

6:30 a.m. — Unity Breakfast, Lexington Center

10 a.m. — Freedom March, Lexington Center

11 a.m. — MLK Day celebration, featuring poet, singer Daniel Beaty, Lexington Center

2:30 p.m. — “Loving” movie, Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St.

6 p.m. — “The Mountaintop” play, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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