…until justice rolls down like waters: Contrasting Martin Luther King with pres. Obama

imagesHere’s a post that is sure to make nobody happy … but I can’t help but reflect on pres. Obama’s dilemma of leading this country as president in contrast to the way MLK led us back 50 years ago. The contrast to me is stunning and challenges all of us Christian leaders to be of a different kind of leadership best exemplified by MLK.
Over a year ago now I took some heat ( here and here) for suggesting that not-voting in the presidential election was perhaps the best stance forward for Christians seeking change in our society on all issues of justice. I was called out for being a sectarian or even worse “a white Christian telling a black Christian not to vote.” Admittedly, this call for non-voting was precarious at best when the nation is on the verge of electing it’s first black president. Perhaps I should have used better judgement? In many ways, the symbolic stature of that historic occasion cannot be minimized. To this day I am appreciative of the new president. I don’t agree with all his policies. In some respects however, I don’t think he could perform more admirably. I am glad for his election.

Yet my argument back then was as it is now: that pres. Barack Obama, by virtue of being voted into office, is already hand cuffed to the politics of violence and corporatism that indeed governs our nation. By being VOTED IN – he already is entertwined in this form of politics. He can do very little if anything to bring true justice to the world. Instead, I argued, we ought to be careful not to be distracted by the Obama presidency. At that time I was worried that the emerging church was putting all their eggs into the election basket of Barack Obama. In essence, I asked that we put all our eggs in the basket of the church and God’s working in all of the ways we bring peace, reconciliation and justice to all of our relationships individually and corporately as His people … whether marital, economic or in cases of nation-state conflict. This is where we best can see God’s justice infest the world. Vote if you must, but don’t expect much.

My review on President Obama’s first year is uneven.

Frankly, I believe he and Geithner, and Bernanke saved the economy from an all out depression. For me, my Republican friends don’t get it (I spent many years in the financial service industry). The crisis brought on by the lassez- faire market policies on a shadow banking system was about to create a catastrophe – untold economic hardship the likes we have not see since the depression. Pres. Obama, and his team, held steady, and walked us out of it. Of course, it’s long from over. And pres. Obama is all the more hamstrung by it. We will in essence have to pay for thirty years of over-consumption and excess. But the economy has stabilized.
On the other side however, I believe pres. Obama’s health care policies and Afghanistan policies show how handcuffed any head of state is. As hard as he might try, pres Obama can do little better than play along with the health care industry and its lobbies as well as the military machine of the United States. I simply don’t get how we can allow the corporate health insurance companies to control the health insurance programs of this country. We now have the costliest and the most unjust system of health care in the developed world undergirded by the ideology of the individual’s freedom to choose my doctor or my health care plan (huh? to choose from  among what?). As far as Pres. Obama’s Afghan decisions, I know I speak from a certain minority stance, but violence breeds violence. War gets us nowhere. Let us go do for Afghanistan – what we’re trying to do for Haiti in the midst of this disaster – and we will win this war through compassion and subordination (revolutionary subordination ala John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus). Let us spend all the money on military and spend it for humanitarian relief.  But again, this is unimaginable for the state to embrace as the United States of America.  So this is not so much pres. Obama’s fault. It just reveals how much his policies are a product of the system.

This is why the revolutionary stance of Christian communities is so important. We can embody a justice (in Christ) that the governemnt could never do.  And sometimes we can express this by not voting. For in essence we bring a justice that is subversive to these “powers.”
And so I get to the point of this post (I know – it took lomg enough). Martin Luther King represented on many levels such a leader of a revolutionary posture of justice in the world. Today we remember him. He was far from perfect but he understood the inherent way God works through non-violence and revolutionary subordination, the willing obedience to structures that are not just –  in order to reveal to the world injustice so that things might change for righteoussness sake.  But if MLK were to have been elected, could he have led out of such a space? It’s questionable.

This why the contrast between Martin Luther King and Pres. Obama’s positions on war is so instructive. On the occasion of receiving his Nobel Peace prize pres. Obama defended war (on Milbank’s terms of a primordial ontology of vilence). He said “Now the questions are not new.  War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.  At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.”

He then disqualified the means of non-violence as incapable of bringing down Hitler’s armies – never stopping to ask what 17 million confessional Lutherans could have done if they just refused to particpate in a Nationalist war.

In contrast, Martin Luther King some 45 years earlier accepted his Nobel Peace prize with these words:
I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results.  Nations have frequently won their independence in battle.  But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.  Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. . .  It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.

Martin Luther King spoke as a Christian. Brack Obama spoke as head of the State. And so placing Martin Luther King alongside pres. Obama highlights the challenges we Christians face who place too much hope in the government for justice. The best we can hope for is preserving structures (which I still carry hopes for with regard to the current adminstration). I do not mean to demean pres. Obama. I only show that only so much can be accomplished for justice by the most well meaning leaders of our time by the State. Much much more shall be accomplished for justice by the church, by missional communities engaging the world with our peculiar form of justice and reconciliation born out of who we are in the Incarnate work of God in Christ through His people.

Just a thought on this day we remember Martin Luther King.


Give to Haiti. I recommend donating to the fine on the ground relief effort at work by International Teams!!  You can give by credit card here. “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied … until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” MLKHaiti_Earthquake_Paul

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