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A Culture-Wide Bitter Root Judgment


by Mark Sandford

love hate street signs

The anti-racist protests that have been ignited nationwide (and even worldwide) have been a confusing mix. While some engage in nonviolent protest, others fight prejudice with violence. It is obvious how Martin Luther King would address this confusion. “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him,” Martin admonished, for “hate cannot drive out hate.” These thoughts didn’t originate with Martin. So many forget that before he was known as “Doctor,” he was known as “Reverend.” Jesus’ call to love our enemies and “turn the other cheek” restrained Rev. King from taking vengeance.

I’ve wondered why God hasn’t raised up another leader like Martin to speak order into today’s racial chaos. Surely people would listen; persons of every race admire his methods. But maybe the reason is that the first Martin has already spoken and God is testing us to see if we have listened.

Nowadays, everyone thinks they have listened—even those who are looting and burning the homes and businesses of minorities they claim to champion. The profound illogic of this may seem baffling, but it’s the natural outgrowth of groupthink, which is never logical. 

Martin was no advocate of groupthink. Like Jesus, he taught that individuals transform societies; not the other way around:

By opening our lives to God in Christ, we become new creatures. This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists. …Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit. 

Martin had a dream—that this humble and loving fight would raise the virtue of our nation to such heights that his children would be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But he knew that couldn’t happen until enough of us acquired the character needed for the fight. Anyone can throw a Molotov cocktail. It takes character to restrain the urge to take vengeance on those who throw them at you. It takes even more character to love them.

Looking at the news, one might conclude that few are following Martin’s dream. But as I minister nationally, I hear otherwise. You might have heard of the riots in Santa Monica, California. But have you heard of the peaceful protest there? A friend of ours attended it. It was altogether quiet and respectful, with no acts of violence or hateful insults. Then a caravan of cars arrived a block away. Rioters piled out and proceeded to loot eighty stores, as well as homes and apartments and even the Salvation Army. The protesters were furious that they had sullied their righteous cause. That the media gave the rioters more attention than the peaceful protesters was an insult to the black community and all who stand for Martin’s values.

You may have heard of the riots in Charleston, South Carolina. But a friend in Charleston tells us that there were also peaceful protesters of all races who went on a prayer-walk, singing out against prejudice and praying for police and community leaders. And after the riots, hundreds from all races united in opposition to the violence and volunteered to clean up ravaged inner-city streets. But again, this isn’t what made front-page news.

Martin’s dream is still alive; scenes like these have occurred in many places around our nation. But is the nation listening? I suspect that the reason the peacemakers got so much less airplay is not just that violence is so attention-grabbing. Our culture is increasingly more attentive toward a worldview opposite of that which Martin professed—that groups, not individuals, are born again. Rioters are trying to shove an entire society through the birth canal, as if the way to rebirth it as a “peace and love” utopia is by throwing rocks and swinging baseball bats. Vengeance, not character, is their driving force. Historically, this has birthed gulags, concentration camps, and genocide. But those engaged in groupthink are no students of history.

In Martin’s day, it was generally agreed that sound parenting and religious convictions were what built character. Families were largely intact, and respect for the ten commandments was so engrained—even among non-believers—that until the mid-nineteen-sixties most people outside the larger cities rarely locked their cars or houses. In fact, many didn’t even have locks on their doors!

I remember the day in 1966 when my dad installed the first lock on our front door. “Why do we need to do that?”, I asked him, incredulously.

“People aren’t as honest as they used to be,” he sighed. “‘Thou shalt not steal’ doesn’t mean what it used to mean. There’s been a rise in burglaries. People up and down the street are having locks put on.” I sensed a shifting wind in the world beyond our door, and for the first time in my life, my eleven-year old heart felt foreboding about the direction of our nation.

In my family, merely reading the commandments wasn’t what kept us from denigrating others’ race or looting their property. As my father, John Sandford, used to teach, “Parents body-forth God to their children.” Mom and Dad were the first Bible we ever read, and if their sin erased some of the lines, we had a heavenly Father who could fill in the blanks.

The fifth commandment taught us that if we didn’t honor father and mother, our lives would not go well. My parents taught the Christian world exactly how that plays out. When you judge your father or mother, you project that judgment onto others. For instance, Jannie’s father rages when he’s drunk but is affectionate when he’s sober, and she judges him for it. In her eyes, he becomes a mean man whose love is insincere, so she cuts all ties with him. She begins to see other men through this lens. She marries a loving man who is occasionally overstressed and a little irritated. In her head, she knows this isn’t what he is normally like, but her heart hears echoes of her father. Eventually, Jannie’s heart wins out. She declares her “angry” husband’s love to be “insincere,” and she starts to think about divorcing him. In fact, to her all men are angry and insincere.

Have you ever stopped to think about what a bitter root judgment really is? It is prejudice!

To a boy who judges his critical mother, all women are critical. To one who judges an unfair teacher, no authority can be trusted. Jannie judges an entire class of people—men—because of the actions of one. The bad in men is accentuated; the good is cancelled. Every time Maureen and I lead someone in prayers of repentance about a bitter root judgment, they are repenting of prejudice and their own personal “cancel culture.” They stop treating others like their flaws cancel their virtues, and they reconcile with persons they have cancelled from their lives.

If a bitter root judgment is prejudice, then racial prejudice is a culture-wide bitter root judgment.

Martin’s cure for that was essentially the same as inner healing’s cure for individuals—repentance for recognizing only the evil and denying the good in those we have judged. But it is becoming ever more popular to fight prejudice with prejudice. There are those who are cancelling all the good that police have done because of the failings of a few bad cops. Cancelling all the good our founding fathers have done, pulling down their statues because they had moral imperfections. Censoring opposing viewpoints on social media, as if they have nothing worthwhile to offer. And there are those who, in reaction to all this, insist that prejudice is mostly a thing of the past, and they cancel the voices of minorities who have real stories to tell of the pain that prejudice is still inflicting upon them. Persons on both ends of the spectrum are turning out the lights others are trying to shine, as if this is the way to confront the darkness in their hearts. But, as Martin said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness.”

If painful childhoods are a breeding ground for prejudice, it makes sense why violence has so easily hijacked peaceful protests and stolen the spotlight from those who are following Martin’s example. For so many, childhood is becoming more painful. It’s painful enough to live with a difficult parent; how much more painful to live with none at all! Statistics graphically reveal this pain. In 1960, eight percent of children were raised without a father. Today, thirty-three percent are not living with their biological father.[1] The result is an increasingly fragile generation. Fatherless kids are twenty times as likely to have behavioral disorders, ten times as likely to end up in a chemical abuse center, five times as likely to commit suicide, fourteen times as likely to rape, and twenty times as likely to go to prison.[2] It would be prejudicial to claim, until there are statistics to back it up, that most rioters are fatherless. Nor would it be wise to blame the violence on fatherlessness alone. But I sense that at the very least, demonic powers are using the trend toward a fatherless society to inject a poisonous undercurrent of resentment into the bloodstream of our culture. Subtly, perhaps unconsciously, this is helping to shift our collective bent toward violence.   

Fathers make children strong; they challenge them to do what’s tough and to restrain violent urges. Martin Luther King helped to do this for a generation whose fathers were mostly still at home. Could it be that another reason why God has not sent a second Martin is because He must first send fathers to “body forth God” to the fatherless, and in doing so, to build into them the character it will take to heed Martin’s call?

Motherlessness is far less common; only four percent of children are living with their father but not with their mother, but that is four times what it was in 1960. (Another four percent have no father or mother).[3] And how many mothers are less able to bond with their children because of increased work hours or the numbing caused by previous abortions? Less mothering causes children to be less able to bond, more anxious, and more likely to abandon or abuse their own children. In the midst of violent persecution, David found peace in what his mother gave him as an infant: “I learned to trust you upon my mother’s breast” (Psalm 22:9). Tomorrow’s children will need that to fall back on as the violence becomes more frightening.           

I would like to leave you with some good news; surveys have revealed that the fathers who are still at home are spending nearly three times as much time with their children as they did in 1965![4] And Maureen and I are witnessing another trend the world hasn’t taken note of. A groundswell of older Christians, made wise by the trials of life, are beginning to take fatherless and motherless youth under their wings, to give them the love they have missed and the inner healing that can open their hearts to receive it. I pray that I am not overestimating their numbers.

Violence may keep on rising. But with such help, many may choose to open their hearts to the love of Father God. The strength imparted will empower them to pay any price to pass on that love, even to those who hate them. Who knows? Perhaps a few of these will become the Martin Luther Kings of tomorrow. And the rest of our spiritual sons and daughters will have the character it takes to join the peaceful protesters who have already been saying no, lovingly, to the hateful mob that’s turning out the lights.

Please join us in prayer—that the world will grow weary enough of the fruits of its own foolishness to turn its attention once again toward the loving approach with which Martin inspired a generation. Pray that once again, the one true Light may shine through us brightly enough to illuminate the bitter root judgment called racism and dispel its darkness.


[1] “More Data on the Extent of Fatherlessness.” (Accessed August 31, 2020).
[2] “Statistics.” The Fatherless Generation. https://thefatherlessgeneration.wordpress. com/statistics/ (accessed Aug 6, 2020).
[3] “More Fathers Live with Just Their Fathers than a Decade Ago.” Census Bureau. (Accessed August 28, 2020).
[4] “The Importance of Dads in an Increasingly Fatherless America.” The Heritage Foundation. importance-dads-increasingly-fatherless-america (accessed August 6, 2020).

© Mark Sandford 2021

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