In the church in which I was raised, the words brother and sister had special meaning.
They described a relationship in a larger family, one that dwarfed the mother and seven siblings with whom I shared a crowded apartment, a common last name and a tight genetic link. In this larger family, brother and sister had added meaning — a sharing of not only experience but faith and conviction.
In our church parlance, the titles “Mr.” and “Mrs.” never came up. It was as if those words had been jettisoned from the English language the instant we walked through the church door.
It was Brother Williams. It was Sister Jones. With one exception — older women honored as church mothers — everybody in the church was addressed as brother or sister. For a child, this was empowering. It meant we were all children — toddlers, twenty-somethings and octogenarians alike. We all had one Father.
So when the governor of Alabama says he regards all Christians as his brothers and sisters, I can relate.
It’s when he suggests that non-Christians don’t qualify that we part company.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has since apologized for his remarks, insisting he intended no insult. Of course, you could argue that he had no choice but to apologize, given the firestorm of criticism that followed his words.
One day after he spoke on Monday, Bentley had the attention of the Anti-Defamation League, which called his remarks shocking and questioned whether non-Christians could expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor.
Oddly enough, Bentley’s remarks were an apparent attempt at outreach and inclusion. He was speaking on Martin Luther King Day, assuring members of a predominantly black congregation that if they had been “adopted in God’s family like I have,” that made them his brothers and sisters.
But non-Christians, he added, were outside the family. “… Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.
Strangely enough, Bentley may have done us a service with his political faux pas. Each winter, we quote King’s words and try to pay more than lip service to them.
But here we are presented with an opportunity to examine them. What did King mean by brother and sister?
Certainly he used the word brother enough. Perhaps most memorably, in his most famous speech, he talked about the sons of former slaves and former slaveowners sitting down together “at the table of brotherhood.”
On other occasions, he tossed the b-word around as well. He spoke of the hope embodied in “disciplined noncomformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” He spoke of the need to “live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
He spoke of threats to his life “from some of our sick white brothers.” He spoke of the possibility that his “physical death” was the price he had to pay “to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit.”
It was as he were haunted by an entire universe of brothers and sisters. He seemed to see them virtually everywhere he looked.
In none of these remarks does the word brother or sister seem to be reserved for Christians alone.
Of course, there is no rule that says we must all agree on such concepts. Indeed, it seems obvious that we do not.
But if you’re going to make such statements on Martin Luther King Day at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. — King’s historic home turf — it would seem politic to remember that there is more than one way of envisioning the human family.
Some people see brotherhood as a private club where credentials are checked at the door. I have the impression King saw it as world-sized, with room enough for Jews and Muslims, agnostics and atheists, sinners and saints — and, yes, Christians, too.
This article, written by Clayton Hardiman, a columnist for the Muskegon (Mich.) Chronicle first appeared at www.mlive.com on Jan. 23, 2011.