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January 21, 2011 / Joshua

O Brother(s and Sisters), Where Art Thou?

Well, isn’t this nice? Newly elected (Montgomery Burns-resembling) Governor Robert Bentley wasted no time in getting yet another negative national news spotlight put on my home state of Alabama. On Monday, Bentley quickly got a lot of attention for saying the following to a Montgomery church crowd:

“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said. ”But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.”

Bentley added, ”Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

This came after Bentley had said, “once I became governor … I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that. I am color blind.” Blogger Ed Brayton beat me to making what I think is the key point about this little dust up. Note that Bentley made these remarks on MLK Day, in the very church where Martin Luther King once pastored. As Brayton writes:

Let me translate [Bentley’s remarks] for you: “I know that Martin Luther King said that we had to do away with artificial divisions of race in order to have a healthy society, but I prefer to divide us up all over again based on religion.” Talk about missing the point.

Yes. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think? Seriously, the governor going out of his way to make this distinction, on this particular day, in this particular location, in honor of this particular man, speaks sad, sad volumes. King often used the terms “brothers” and “sisters” and especially spoke of his hopes for “brotherhood.” Consider his ‘I Have a Dream Speech,’ where there are no less than 5 uses, and yet noticeably no mention of a personal faith requirement. A few examples:

  • “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
  • “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
  • “I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”

Then, he went even further in that last famous line:

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (emphasis mine)

Years later, King took his call for brotherhood still further in his ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech I quoted from in the last post, when he said:

…I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. (emphasis mine)

That sounds a lot to me as though the requirement for being seen as brother or sister and child of God in King’s eyes was simply being human. So Bentley may say that he is committed to serving all people of Alabama as their governor (but not necessarily as their brother), but if he really wanted to honor King’s memory, he should consider that King clearly believed we all, regardless of position or religious belief (or the lack thereof), have a far greater commitment to one another than that.

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4 Comments

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  1. Tim / Jan 21 2011 5:49 pm

    Hey man, just a few thoughts.

    1. Given the explicit statements made by this guy regarding the criteria for brotherhood/sisterhood (viz. You are my brother or sister if you are a Christian, which is true, Biblically speaking), is it fair to criticize him for not adhering to broader criteria King used?

    2. Is it probable that he was making those statements so as to clarify with his audience that his definitions for brother and sister are different than King’s, but that he still considers himself colorblind and governor of all people even I one is not Christian?

    3. Why does he have to agree to all of King’s definitions in order to honor his memory?

    Anyway, just some questions.

  2. Joshua / Jan 24 2011 1:40 am

    Hey Tim. I appreciate the comment. Good questions. I’ll try to take them one at a time here:

    1. Hoping I understand this 1st question correctly – I don’t imagine it’s fair to criticize someone for not adhering to a view that they do not or can not hold. However, if I take issue with the particular view which they do hold, then I certainly think it is fair to criticize, or imply criticism of that view itself, particularly if I wish to contrast it with what I think may be a better view. And that’s really the main thing I was aiming for here: attempting to draw what I think may be a telling contrast between Bentley and King, seemingly made all the more notable by the time and place of Bentley’s remarks.

    2. What you suggest is certainly possible, and the question brings to mind the possibility of important missing context here. I couldn’t find the full speech, so I don’t know if Bentley made these remarks in answer to a question, or in direct reference to King’s definitions, or if it was simply part of his prepared remarks lacking reference to anything else at all. It’s been reported in a way that implies he just voluntarily went into it as though giving an altar call (with no mention of a discussion about King). If that’s the case, I can definitely understand concerns some have over whether he crossed a line in his public role and whether his statement suggests discrimination / exclusion, etc. I didn’t go there, because I don’t really know, and I don’t think that he meant the statement in that way. On the contrary, some of his other statements seem to fit what you suggested: that he aims to be the same governor for Christian and non-Christian alike. But my closing point, anyway, was effectively to say, “why not more than just that?”

    3. Yeh, I don’t know if “honor King’s memory” was really the best phrase to use to make my point. I guess it depends on what we mean by that exactly. But sure I suppose one can honor and celebrate someone’s memory without fully agreeing with that person. I’m sure many many people do this each year regarding King and several others. But that’s part of the point here that I was trying to get at, which ties in with the previous post too. I wasn’t really suggesting that Bentley has to agree with everything King said. But rather, I think it’s fair to say he, and by extension, all of us should at least consider and recognize the full extent of King’s vision, if our goal is to celebrate it and carry it forward. The point there is King’s dream didn’t involve merely creating a so-called colorblind society of equal individual opportunity or surround evangelism with a view toward things eternal. It went much deeper to the temporal, political, and structural, and he become a rare voice calling for an international brotherhood and speaking against war and poverty and injustice and for the weak and voiceless in the name of love.

    Now I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King called for all this while holding such a broad view of brotherly love. I’d argue that a such a broad view was likely quite integral to that call and to such a wide circle of concern as well. But I wouldn’t at all assert that holding Bentley’s view, which I know you see as the correct biblical one, necessarily leads to some lesser love for and commitment to others or some such thing. But I guess the question here is, how much more likely is it to do so in comparison to a more unconditional outlook like that of King’s? I don’t know, but that’s a question that interests me. It seems that religious divisions and related conditional outlooks can reinforce the tendency to restrict those who are different or “unsaved” or “in sin” and treat them as unequal and second class or worse.

    But perhaps I’m making an unfair connection where there isn’t necessarily one in this case. It just seems to me to be harder to love “enemies” and to have the same circle of concern for those who are different, in the revolutionary, unconditional way King seemed to, when such sharp distinctions and conditions are established. And I feel like that’s what King was starting to get at. But why does it seem so rare to hear talk like King’s from elsewhere behind the pulpit? And what would happen if it weren’t rare at all? Anyway, I feel I’m kind of veering off the road here and don’t know exactly where I’m going. And I know we’re probably going to end up fundamentally disagreeing to some degree, because the biblical isn’t really my concern here, per se. But hopefully, you can kinda better see where my thinking is on this.

    Thanks again for chiming in.

  3. Tim / Feb 2 2011 9:08 am

    Hey man, sorry I haven’t responded sooner. I was expecting to receive an email when you replied, but I didn’t. Anyway, you cleared things up for me, ranks for the response!

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