Can the (White) Church Hear Rev. King Today?

I can still remember the day like it was yesterday. It was in the Fall of 2004 and I was sitting outside at a Panera in Studio City, CA. In front of me was a copy of Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr., my first exposure, not to the man, but to his writing. Shamefully I have to admit that I anticipated glancing at the table of contents before turning to something “more interesting.” Three hours later I had read the whole thing cover to cover, lingering long over key parts and choking back tears on several occasions. It is not an exaggeration to say those moments irrevocably altered the course of my life.  It's not an exaggeration to say that Strength to Love by MLK altered the course of my life. Click To Tweet

I was a brand new graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary. I had come to Pasadena from NE Ohio after several post-college years in pastoral ministry with lots of questions and no little anxiety in my soul about the health and future of the Church in a rapidly shifting cultural context. I had a strong sense about where and how I would begin to find answers to those questions and relief for my anxiety. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Strength to Love was for me a gateway in a completely unexpected world of discovery. Through the powerful and prophetic words of Rev. King, I was at once confronted by the overwhelmingly monocultural nature of much of my theological formation and exposed to the power of contrasting perspectives and insights of unfamiliar voices.

The writing of Rev. King catalyzed me into a now 10+ year journey of looking for opportunities to intentionally cross cultural barriers, especially where there exists a common commitment to following and worshipping Jesus, so that my own perspectives might be relativized (and thus strengthened) by sisters and brothers who exist in different social locations and whose understanding of God and God’s mission in the world is differently formed. This is especially important – and something I am also indebted principally to Rev. King for helping me to see – when it comes to those who occupy places of cultural privilege (such as myself) opting to step into the world – the thought world, but more importantly the actual physical spaces of – those who suffer under various forms of marginalization or out right oppression.

For reasons that I won’t go into here, I think it’s important to ask whether or not the (white) Church has the capacity to hear Rev. King today. [1. I place “white” in parentheses here as a way to acknowledge that while it is this group of Christians who likely is most in need of Rev. King’s voice, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that, like all good Prophets, Rev. King spoke to the whole people of God and, lest we miss solidarity as the unifying spirit of his ministry, we do well to receive them together] In the simplest of terms, we all know that there is a natural inertia toward sameness. And, the more dominant a cultural stream, the greater this inertia. My own story bears this out perfectly. Does the (white) Church have the capacity to really hear Rev. King today? Click To Tweet

So, here on a day set aside to honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I thought I would simply offer a number of quotes from Strength to Love that stuck out to me back on that sunny day at Panera in Southern California. Perhaps God will use them again as catalysts for others, especially my fellow white Christians, to begin to more intentionally cross cultural barriers for the sake, not just of learning, but of establishing the kind of unity, solidarity, and love that Rev. King envisioned on account of his commitment to Jesus Christ. [2. Hopefully it goes without saying that isolated quotes cannot convey the full meaning of a person’s project or even carry the full weight of the single source from which they are taken. May these quotes be taken not as fully representative of Rev. King’s work, but as invitations into immersion in a new social reality.]

“But life as its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony… truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.” (13)

“A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.” (17)

“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.” (18)

“Violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace.” (18)

“Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of that system.” (19)

“Everywhere and at all times, the love ethic of Jesus is a radiant light revealing the ugliness of our stale conformity.” (23)

“We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians, who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word and refused to shape their witness according to the mundane patterns of the world.” (25)

“Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” (28)

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” (34)

“Our missionary efforts fail when they are based on pity, rather than true compassion.” (35)

“Saul was not an evil-intentioned man when he persecuted Christians… He persecuted Christians, not because he was devoid of integrity, but because he was devoid of enlightenment.” (43)

“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” (50)

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (53)

“For modern man, absolute right and absolute wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing.” (60)

“A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.” (63)

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master of the state or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” (64)

“While speaking of the laxity of the church, I must not overlook the fact that the so-called Negro church has also left men disappointed at midnight… Two types of Negro churches have failed to provide bread. One burns with emotionalism, and the other freezes with classism.” (64)

“Having no place for God or for eternal ideas, materialism is opposed to both theism and idealism.” (73)

“A healthy religion rises above the idea that God wills evil. Although God permits evil in order to preserve the freedom of man, he does not cause evil… The cross, which was willed by wicked men, was woven by God into the tapestry of world redemption.” (91-92)

“True peace, a calm that exceeds all description and al explanation, is peace amid storm and tranquility amid disaster.” (95)

“Christianity contends that evil contains the seed of its own destruction.” (109)

“The Negro must convince the white man that he seeks justice for both himself and the white man… Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.” (121-122)

“Men have usually pursued two paths to eliminate evil and thereby save the world. The first calls upon man to remove evil through his own power and ingenuity in the strange conviction that by thinking, inventing, and governing, he will at last conquer the nagging forces of evil… The second idea for removing evil from the world stipulates that if a man waits submissively upon the Lord, in his own good time God alone will redeem the world… Rather, both man and God, made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of himself on the part of God and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man, can transform the old into the new and drive out the deadly cancer of sin… Evil can be cast out, not by man alone nor by a dictatorial God who invades ur lives, but when we open the door and invite God through Christ to enter.” (128-133)

“In a dark, confused world the Kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.” (154) [3. All quotes taken from: King, Martin Luther. 1981. Strength to Love. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.]

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