by Orissa Arend

FebIssue2015.inddAccording to Rev. Jonathan Augustine, the author of The Keys are being Passed: Race, Law, Religion and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Jesus Christ was the first social justice preacher and He passed the keys of legacy and responsibility on to his disciple Peter. This is the Biblical passage from which Augustine launches his book about transitions:

“I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. . .”

The history he covers begins with Jesus and carries us all the way to Barack Obama, focusing on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. He spends two sections on how the Movement and Christianity resonate with environmental justice and education reform, the latter of which Augustine considers one of the Movement’s greatest accomplishments.

Augustine writes, “Courageous and forward thinking members of the Christian church fueled the Civil Rights Movement. . . to make manifest in America the ideas of equality once advocated and practiced by Jesus. . . Indeed, the Movement’s leaders juxtaposed law and religion to literally change America.”

In Augustine’s vision of the promised land of full social and political inclusion, he lays out historical, philosophical and theological connections. We need to understand these connections in order to pass forward the Civil Rights legacy today.

“As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Movement’s legacy, its surviving leaders are passing those same keys to a new generation that must accept their responsibility. Although this generation’s leaders have different battles than those fought fifty years ago, much like Peter, the keys are theirs to accept.”

Basic Principles: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus

Love your enemies, Jesus exhorted. King viewed Jesus as the supreme manifestation of that religious and ethical principle. At the same time, King articulated the moral stance for disobeying unjust laws.

In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written on napkins and other scraps, he went on to enumerate the four basic steps of direct action and nonviolent resistance: 1) collect the facts; 2) negotiate; 3) purify the self; 4) act. Break the unjust law. Get arrested. Go to jail. Unjust laws are morally unacceptable. The First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment are the legal protections for this kind of resistance. Augustine explores the tension which King experienced between redemptive suffering and martyrdom or becoming a willing victim.

Augustine, an ordained minister in the AME church, law professor and social justice advocate, examines the convergence of law and religion. Both King and Augustine believe that justice is a part of the natural universe created by God, a law higher than the laws of society. It establishes the right and the good. But society’s laws are necessary also. King found a middle way between anarchy and tyranny, both of which he abhorred. In the marches, the sit-ins, the boycotts where Black bodies were abused and did not fight back, Augustine contends that the theological promise of success rests on the fact that although Jesus was crucified, love was not destroyed. Injustice cannot destroy the love of God, which is always redemptive.

Current and Future Generations Accepting the Keys

Augustine brings these abstractions down to the practical level because he believes that the Christian message is not just about salvation; it is about service. Evangelical conservatism concerns itself with the glory of the kingdom to come. On the other hand, evangelical liberalism, Augustine’s bent, is concerned with the inequities of the kingdom at hand.

What then is Augustine asking of today’s activists as they accept the proverbial keys to the kingdom? He wants us to flood the polls on Election Day. We should be ever vigilant about laws that would push people back into voter suppression and discriminatory disenfranchisement. Accepting the keys means rejecting ecological imperialism and environmental injustice so that when God takes up residence on earth (as The Book of Revelation foretells) if we have been wise stewards, he will find a radiant, thriving cityscape, the New Jerusalem.

Accepting the keys means working for education reform as part of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.

Augustine draws a line of legal and social connection from King to the contemporary movement beginning in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education threw out “separate but equal” for public education. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched its space satellite Sputnik, giving Americans a huge incentive for education reform, so we could surpass the Russians in the space race. In 1964 summer volunteers, many of them White, set up an alternative school system, the Mississippi Freedom Schools, to teach Mississippi Blacks about history, civics, politics, and the means by which they could change society. In 1965, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, establishing a clear federal role in education after Brown. In 2001 No Child Left Behind elevated the closing of the Black-White achievement gap to the status of federal policy. In 2009 Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT) provided an incentive-based financial reward for educational innovation.

Augustine provides us with a fresh take on these complex issues. He mixes sermons with legal and social history to shift our perspective from the narrowly political to the cosmic. He reminds us that the kinship of humans remains a fact, whether we like it or not, because of the parenthood of God. Only love can hold this plethora of rag-tag, diverse humanity together in a harmonious community.

Orissa Arend is a psychotherapist, mediator, and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at

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