I still have a knot in my throat and a certain sorrow in my heart after a weekend with Martin Luther King, Jr. Actually it was a couple days read from a friend’s dissertation that set this off. The aforementioned was in preparation for a brief engagement on a panel for an MLK,Jr. Kneel-In held last evening at the St. Phillips African Moravian Church, the oldest African American church in Winston-Salem. I was over prepared for the time I had to share and I knew it.
I tried to tighten up my delivery for the sake of brevity, which always poses the problem, what to leave in and what to set aside for later. That’s the art of writing and speaking. The more I tried the more a deep emotion seemed to arise from within me. I had stumbled upon something spiritual that needed to be reconciled.
This was somehow deeper than just my annual revisit of King’s life and the inevitable assessment of progress too little! This man went through a literal Hell in the brief 39 years of his life. Challenged by God in a mystical moment in the middle of the night, after being awakened by an angry and threatening phone call, he sat at his kitchen table on January 27, 1956, solidifying his courage and the “power that his father, Daddy King said could make a way out of no way.” 1
This transformational moment, though one of many I am sure, would lead him to understand that “no lie could live forever because the universe belongs to God and that unmerited suffering would bring brotherhood, justice and equality because God would make all things new,” developing an “ecstatic intimacy that allowed him the kind of madness that shatters the complacency of religious people.” 2
My personal challenge last evening wasn’t just the residual emotion from my read of King’s biography, but the compounded effects of an early morning interfaith event on Islamophobia. There we listened to the sincere sharing of a local Imam and Rabbi, men of equal faith to my own but of different persuasions. All three of us Abrahamic and mono-theistic in our roots and all three equally concerned with the political state of America.
That drove me to give my Sunday to reading still further into history as we know it, and the radicalization of various religions over time. I know the argument that the Institutional Church is not the Body of Christ, still yet I do have certain “deep in my bones” expectations, which history seems to erode each time I read a little more.
This morning I realize that my continued pain is the inevitable result of hero worship. In my case, men like Martin Luther, Jan Huss and yes, MLK,Jr., who long struggled with power players in both church and state, each giving a lifetime and in some cases their blood to reform or better yet transform this globe! These men set benchmarks almost impossible for mere mortals to live into.
Yet, when I look deeply at judgement calls made by each, they often fall short of my expectations. For instance, Luther’s response to the Peasants War in Germany in 1525: “Suffering, he insisted, was (the peasants) lot and they must turn the other cheek and accept the loss of their lives and property. “A worldly kingdom,” he insisted, “cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.” So, Luther commanded the princes, “Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisoned, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” Killing these peasants was an act of mercy, because it would liberate them from this satanic bondage.”3
This paragraph is even more stinging:
“Industrialization had led to the development of modern weaponry. At first, Europeans had been reluctant to use the new machine guns against their fellow Europeans, but by 1851, Minie ball-firing rifles issued to British troops overseas and used to great effect the following year against Bantu tribesmen. “Civilized man is much more susceptible to injury than savages,” Sir John Ardagh explained at a conference in The Hague that debated the legality of these weapons in 1899; “The savage, like the Tiger, is not so impressionable and will go on fighting even when desperately wounded.” Human rights could not be extended to non-Western peoples, because they seemed scarcely human.” 4
These were Europeans who had lived through massive moments of reform and still yet the seed of Adam manifests in each. Where has this gotten us, certainly not where The God intended. Not only do we still have a world plagued by racism and bigotry but live in a time of deeply threatened geo-political systems with an America on the precipice of a post democracy moment, her churches more reliant on politics than a sovereign presence. We are an overly religious people, though grossly under spiritual, gripped by a rightful fear of loss of liberty and hard earned material possessions. We need to reexamine our approach to religion!
“Healthy religion, as the very word re-ligio (“rebinding”) indicates, is the task of putting our divided realities back together: human and divine, male and female, heaven and earth, sin and salvation, mistake and glory.”5
“Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning.”6
The cumulative effect of poor judgment calls seems to have us in a moment that jeopardizes the future of our globe; yet from a more positive perspective, perhaps a time when the full work of our Creator is manifesting itself.
What if God has been at work since the days of Abram, moving mankind back toward those garden walks with Adam? What if God in Christ paid the price necessary for our sins, in fact the sins of the whole world, descending into hell to set the captive free, all the captive! “Therefore God says, ‘When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’ But this, ‘He ascended’ —didn’t he also first descend into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” (Ephesians 4:7-10).
Meanwhile we as Christians continue to impose our faith, as if God had no concern for others than we. He clearly pointed this out to Judaism through the Prophets of Israel (Is 53), yet we Christians live as if the Advent of Christ was God starting all over again, with a whole new set of rules!
Could God all along have been revealing the context for a perfect plan of restoration, first among the Children of Israel, then fully manifesting Himself in The Christ and His glorious Church, while silently at work in the hearts of the offspring of Ishmael, as promised to Hagar?
Could we be living in a day similar to when God brought Jacob and his long lost brother Esau back together? Jacob was needlessly terrified at the possibilities of loss, so much so, that he lined up his possession and loved ones in a diminishing order to mitigate his loses. Yet as Esau approached this terrified but favored servant of God, just as Jesus shared in His story of the Prodigal Father, Esau too brought gifts and embraced Jacob; all to his surprise!
“Behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.”7
Perhaps there is a day that each religion stubbornly resists, and all the forces of evil fear, thus fostering the racism, injustice and war that is so rampant? “And when this (day) happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”8
1 Making All Things New: The Redemptive Value of Unmerited Suffering in the life and Works of Martin Luther King, Jr., Helen Losse, 2000.
4 Ibid. p.20