An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham… 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. (Matthew 1:1-17, NRSV)
A genealogy? You’ve got to be kidding!
Why would Matthew begin his Gospel in the most boring way imaginable? The answer is, he isn’t! There is something else—something powerful—going on here. At a time when Evangelicals have enough influence to get a presidential candidate elected, we might find it surprising that Matthew was originally written by and for marginalized Christians to help them resist the political and religious establishment of the first century.
These opening seventeen verses ground the struggles of God’s people in the grand story of God’s mission to liberate humanity. These verses offer perspective and hope. They exclaim what Martin Luther King Jr observed in the 20th century—that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He, too, learned a lot about struggling by faith.
On March 8, 1971, while the world was watching the world heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a group of seven men and one woman (including two professors, a day-care provider, and a taxi driver) broke into an FBI field office and stole all their files. What they found exposed COINTELPRO—a massive top-secret FBI counterintelligence program used to monitor, manipulate, disrupt, and neutralize social and political movements in the United States. Among those targeted by the FBI was Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I first learned that Dr. King and civil rights organizations were being spied on, harassed, infiltrated, sabotaged, blackmailed, and publicly maligned by the federal government, I was shocked. Nobody taught me that in school! Why hadn’t I learned about that?
Concerned with the resurgence of American nativism, nationalism, and white supremacy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I went looking for role models of resistance within the Evangelical Church. Surely white Evangelicals did not stand by silently while their black brothers and sisters were mercilessly deprived of justice in the 1960s. Right?
Wanting to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before, I posted a question in an online forum of nearly 2000 Evangelical ministers. I asked, “Does anyone here know the names of white ministers who publicly stood with Martin Luther King during the civil rights era?” The response I received was shocking—dead silence. For two more days I asked the same question before I finally received a reply I was not prepared for. No one in this online forum, not even a reputable church historian, personally knew a single white minister who stood for justice with Dr. King. Not one.
I went on to discover that, not only had many white Evangelicals abandoned their oppressed brothers and sisters of color, many were actually the oppressors. Call me naïve, but I was utterly disappointed and heartbroken.
In A Letter from a Birmingham Jail dated April 16, 1963 Dr. King laments:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
Lord, have mercy.
How did these African-American Christians endure so much without losing faith? The political establishment was against them. The religious establishment was against them. Their movement was discredited and demonized—labeled illegitimate and illegal. They were marginalized, abused, and betrayed. It was in these seemingly hopeless times that they persisted by faith in peaceful resistance singing “We shall overcome…”
The first century Christian readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have had a lot in common with the twentieth century Christian leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, we are already overcoming but have not yet fully overcome. The struggle continues. Will we refuse to understand? Will we remain so distracted by our individual stories that we fail to recognize the grand story? Will we be more cautious than courageous? Will we remain silent behind the security of stained glass? How will we respond when enemies are powerful? When allies betray? When friends are silent? When evil is called good? When good is called evil? The author of Hebrews urges us onward:
… since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV)
Welcome to the resistance. We shall overcome.