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A philosophy of love

What the Civil Rights Movement and Anabaptism have in common

by Jay Johnson

Following Jesus: We value wholehearted obedience to Christ Jesus through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

I have vivid memories from growing up in the ’60s in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. I remember our entire Philadelphia neighborhood mourning the death of Medgar Evers, a Civil Rights activist who was assassinated in his driveway. I recall television images of young black people being beaten by police, bitten by dogs, and sprayed with fire hoses. I still recollect the hope that swelled upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the fear that resurged a month later when four innocent girls were killed by a bomb in a Birmingham, Ala., church.

Deep within, many African Americans longed for vengeance, but Dr. King modeled a different response: nonviolent resistance. In his 1957 article “The Power of Nonviolence,” Dr. King wrote that the center of the Civil Rights Movement stood on the philosophy of love:

Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all. [. . . I]t is the love of God working in the minds of men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you come to love on this level, you begin to love men not because they are likeable . . . but because God loves them. . . . It is the type of love that stands at the center of the movement that we are trying to carry on in the Southland—agape.”

Dr. King wrote these words years before he traveled to India. There, he learned the techniques of nonviolent resistance. But, for Dr. King, the source of his philosophy was the life and witness of Jesus Christ, not some social or political ideology. From a young age, his convictions were shaped in the Church and by Scripture.

As Christians in the U.S., we have benefited greatly from the witness of Dr. King and so many others in the Civil Rights Movement who struggled and died for this cause. I live their legacy as the pastor of a predominantly Caucasian church in Abilene, Kans. For Christians, Dr. King’s vision continues to speak to the unifying reality of Christ’s example of agape love.

The Brethren in Christ view the Civil Rights Movement from a unique perspective. We also have a rich heritage of following Jesus, as lived out by our Anabaptist ancestors. They valued wholehearted obedience to Christ. As a result, they refused to fight back when persecuted. They believed the message of our Articles of Faith and Doctrine that: “Christ loved His enemies and He calls us as His disciples to love our enemies. We follow our Lord in being a people of peace and reconciliation, called to suffer and not to fight.” Many died at the hands of Church and state for living out their beliefs.

Following Jesus is at the core of our values as Brethren in Christ. Our Anabaptist ancestors and Civil Rights Movement leaders remind us that following Jesus will often lead us to respond in countercultural ways, to “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14).

This article originally appeared in the winter 2012 issue of In Part magazine.
Jay Johnson

Jay Johnson is pastor of Zion BIC (Abilene, Kans.). He previously served for 30 years in Christian radio. Jay and his wife, A’Lisa, have five adult children and three grandchildren.

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A'Lisa Johnson Posted on December 20, 2012

I experienced a racial riot on the playground of my elementary school when I was a child in the 70's. I remember thinking how silly it was for friends to be fighting one another over the color of their skin.
You would think that we have come a long way since then, but for the most part, America is still divided.
Only though the everlasting love of God do we find peace and commonality with each other.
I thank God for my husband, Jay Johnson.

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