Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream with the world.
He did more than denounce; he dreamt. He did not merely paint the bleak landscape of racial hostility in the world’s leading nation, but dipped his brush in vibrant colors and painted a country as it could be. He imagined a day when blacks and whites were not only equal in the eyes of the law, but joined together around a table in fellowship: “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 the table of brotherhood.”
On this day when we honor the sacrifice, vision, and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we should ask whether his beloved dream has not only made it into our hearts, but also found a seat within our homes, and around our dinner tables.
Who’s Been at Your Table?
Dr. King imagined a day when the sons of former slave owners and the sons of former slaves could sit down and break bread together. Are any of us cut by the recent words of Albert Tate?
Look at your social calendar over the past six months. If you are a Republican, how many people have sat around your dinner table that voted for a Democrat in the most recent election, or vice versa? If you are an African American, how many people have you invited to dinner who have to put on a lot more sunscreen than you when they go to the beach? This should be a telling experience, as you examine the reality of your social calendar. (Birmingham, 168)
Our flawed imaginations and deceptive hearts prefer to “round up” when we evaluate ourselves, rather than dealing with specific numbers. Perhaps we should let our calendars speak to us: Do we allow our tables to reflect the love of the entire body of Christ as well as our theological convictions? What specific number of people unlike ourselves have come into our homes, and sat at our dinner tables, since we last celebrated King’s influence a year ago?
History of Distrust
We live in a time when one consistently sees more ethnic diversity in shopping malls, McDonalds drive-thrus, and pee-wee football games than in the local church. We live in a time when one wonders whether the demographics of our congregations may reflect the vision of Jim Crow more than the apostle John. We live in a time when we often eat with those who like us, agree with us, and look like us. Our true church fellowship reflects our dining-room fellowship; our communion around our dinner tables will impact, over time, who’s sharing communion at our churches.
Historically, the white church’s unbiblical orthopraxy has alienated the black church from its biblical orthodoxy. In other words, a scarred history around the dinner table has caused a breach of trust between white and black Christian communities.
During the era of American slavery (1619–1865), blacks did not break bread with their masters. If they were even in the dining room, it was to serve, not to fellowship as equals. The slaves in the room were too often synonymous with the tables they set and the plates they carried — as property, not persons.
In times of segregation and Jim Crow (1865–1949), blacks were allowed to have their own dinner tables. Drinking fountains, movie theaters, restrooms, and (sadly) many conservative, Bible-believing seminaries were marked “white only” and “colored only.” “Separate but equal” reigned supreme, as did oppression, racism, inequality, and mutual hostility. Neither the restaurant nor the dinner table displayed God-honoring fellowship.
In the Civil Rights Era (1950–1968), Martin Luther King, Jr. and others protested the continued injustices. Blacks fought for the right to legal equality with regards to voting, racial segregation, and dehumanizing discrimination. But too often they were met with silence, and even hostility, from evangelical, Reformed, and Bible-believing churches and churchmen who “remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows,” as King wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Only through tumultuous times of police brutality, riots, hosings, and dog-bitings, was a place at Uncle Sam’s table legally granted to African Americans. But even then, segregation still flourished within American homes.
Pass the Potatoes, Bridge the Gap
Our history has shown us segregation in our neighborhoods, segregation in the pews, and segregation around our dinner tables. Today, we still can see segregation in our neighborhoods, segregation in the pews, and segregation around our dinner tables. Dr. King’s dream has yet to be fully realized.
Such is the opportunity before us as the church of the risen Christ.
We the blood-bought people of God know that Jesus alone tears down the Great Wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14). The world has merely humanistic motivations for diversity; we have the word of our Creator and the blood of our Redeemer. Jesus bought a place for that diverse brother in Christ to have a seat at our table. Invite him and his family to sit in it.
God Has a Dream
Revelation 19:6–8 is a banner for Christian dinner fellowship:
“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure.”
The apostle John had a dream. In his vision, he saw a supper where blacks passed the meat to whites, and Asians passed the fruit to Latinos — all ethnicities, all tribes, all languages, gathered together to worship their unifying King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 5:9–10). More unifying than the World Cup, more exhilarating than the Olympics, our God will gather his sheep from all the corners of the globe in a omni-ethnic feast in which all languages will resound in worship to his glory.
Our dinner tables are a premier place where racism comes to die, differences come to be understood, and the glorious work of Jesus comes to be displayed to an unbelieving world. They will know us by our love for one another (John 13:34–35). Functional segregation only reveals the lapses in our love. But God gave us dinner tables to be a faint, but real, anticipation of the day that is coming.