Courageous Discipleship in an Idolatrous Nation

What follows is the last part of yesterday’s sermon from 1 Thessalonians 1.

What are you known for? What is our reputation? Our Lord Jesus wants his gospel to so thoroughly transform us that we cannot control our reputations. He desires for us to have been so completely rearranged, so completely put back together, so completely rescued from sin, saved from death, and liberated from the devil’s deceptions that the message of the gospel leaps out of us.

I need to be direct about this. Some of us, myself included, risk mistaking our association with someone else’s reputation for the gospel as our own reputation for the gospel. What do I mean?

We have among us women and men whose discipleship to Jesus has led them to costly sacrifice and suffering in the face of this nation’s idols and ideologies. Their love for and allegiance to Jesus has allowed the message of the gospel to spring forth from their lives as a beautiful witness to Jesus’ saving lordship.

Others of us, shielded by layers of privilege, have avoided sacrifice and suffering. We  content ourselves with private beliefs about Jesus rather than whole-life discipleship to Jesus. Worse, we have mistaken our proximity to those men and women who have sacrificed, who are suffering as evidence of our own faithfulness. But proximity is not faithfulness and some of us are guilty this morning of appropriating somebody’s else’s reputation for the gospel as our own.

We must not be content with living a vicarious life of discipleship. Turn away from your idols. Serve God alone. Wait on the Lord Jesus. God wants his gospel to leap out of your life. Don’t be content with anything less.

When the gospel transforms you at the levels of your motivations, priorities, and reputation it will no longer be possible for you to be a passive citizen of this idolatrous nation. The miscarriages of justice we saw from the Cook County Courthouse this week are the rancid fruits of a nation that has longed worshiped the god of white supremacy.

You’d be hard pressed to find a temple to white supremacy or carved statues to the god of racial superiority. But look a little closer and our deceptive gods begin to reveal themselves. We see our idols when we look closely at who fills our prisons. We see our idols when we listen to how our border is debated and how those who cross it in desperation are publicly debased. We see our idols when we listen to how Laquan McDonald – murdered and gone for four years – was put on trial again and again in that courtroom, his character assassinated long after his body had been shot down, the particularities of his image-of-God-bearing-body used as justification for his extrajudicial killing by a man whose racism was renowned.

5ac26ecd1e00003b137b058fFifty-two years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Riverside Church in New York City and said, “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” We see the devastating impact of our idols a half-century later when we observe that rather than transforming the Jericho Road or dismantling it, we have paved it over, made it more efficient. Rather than restructuring the edifice, we have made it larger: more prisons, more immigrant detention centers, more wars.

Our idols are bloodthirsty. Some of you know this all too well. The travesties of justice we watched this week are not theoretical to you. You cannot help but see your sons and your daughters in Laquan, Rekiya, Sandra, Philando, and Tamir. You felt the news on Thursday and then again on Friday in your bodies, reverberating like death knells, simultaneously shocking and not at all. Your discipleship to Jesus has led you to stay awake. To choose the way of love and reconciliation. Even to forgive. And some of us are tired today. Because you are living this story, have only lived this story in this idolatrous nation.

Today I say to you the words in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. We know brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you. Despite its malicious intentions, this nation has not destroyed you. The devil cannot have you and death has no claim on your life. You are loved by God. He has chosen you. You may be tired this morning. You may be afraid or angry this morning. Depression and despair may be nipping at your spirit this morning. But God… has chosen you.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has transformed you at the deepest level of your being. Our culture’s idols will one day go the way of Thessalonica’s temples and cults. Racism will die. White supremacy will die. Injustice will die. Courtroom injustice will die. Every idol  which seems to hold endless power will go the way of all things, will crumble and disintegrate. But you, brothers and sisters loved by God, will live. You may be tired, but today you live. You may be angry, but today you move and breathe and have your being held together by the Lord Jesus.

God sees you. God loves you. God has chosen you.  What does it mean for God to choose you? It means, that the same Jesus who is Lord of the universe has drawn near to you. Not in some theoretical, merely theological sense. No, God took on your flesh and came close. God took on hungry flesh. He took on thirsty flesh. God clothed himself as a stranger. God took on naked and vulnerable flesh. God took onto himself imprisoned flesh. God took onto himself the flesh that made him a despised and dangerous target to the Empire. And on October 20, 2014, God took on Laquan McDonald’s bullet-ridden flesh.

God has chosen you. He has drawn near to you. And no matter the lies from the Cook County Courthouse or the White House, you are being transformed in such a manner that nothing will stop the testimony that God has for you. No matter how your heart betrays you, the devil tries to deceive you, or this world rises up with the rage of hell to oppose you- the Holy Spirit of the Living God will fill you power, conviction, and the joy of your salvation. So today we speak life over all who are tired. We speak courage over all you are afraid. We speak endurance over anyone who is ready to give up. We loose every spiritual gift for those who are marching into battle with our enemy. We loose work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope. We bind racism and racial supremacy. We bind materialism and consumerism. We bind false comfort and blinding privilege. We proclaim today, in this city, in these circumstances, that there is only one Lord. Jesus. God with us. God for us.

“…the charge which I make against the Anglo American pulpit today…”

Francis Grimke
Rev. Francis J. Grimke

Another discouraging circumstance is to be found in the fact that the pulpits of the land are silent on these great wrongs. The ministers fear to offend those to whom they minister. We hear a great deal from their pulpits about suppressing the liquor traffic, about gambling, about Sabbath desecration, and about the suffering Armenians, and about polygamy in Utah when that question was up, and the Louisiana lottery. They are eloquent in their appeals to wipe out these great wrongs, but when it comes to Southern brutality, to the killing of Negroes and despoiling them of their civil and political rights, they are, to borrow an expression from Isaiah, “dumb dogs that cannot bark.”  Had the pulpit done its duty, the Southern savages, who have been sinking lower and lower during these years in barbarism, would by this time have become somewhat civilized, and the poor Negro, instead of being hunted down like a wild beast, terrorized by a pack of brutes, would be living amicably by the side of his white fellow citizen, if not in the full enjoyment of all his rights, with a fair prospect, at least of having them all recognized.

This is the charge which I make against the Anglo American pulpit today; its silence has been interpreted as an approval of these horrible outrages. Bad men have been encouraged to continue in their acts of lawlessness and brutality.  As long as the pulpits are silent on these wrongs it is in vain to expect the people to do any better than they are doing.

Sermon by Rev. Francis J. Grimke, “The Negro Will Never Acquiesce As Long As He Lives”, on November 20, 1898.

Rev. Grimke is a new figure to me.  I came across him by tracking down a footnote in the fantastic biography of Ida B. Wells I’m reading.  On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I’m thinking about those like Grimke and Wells who, during the years of reconstruction and Jim Crow, laid much of the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement that came decades after their deaths.  These were leaders who, like Dr. King, drew deeply from their Christian faith to challenge the dehumanizing systems during their lifetimes.

How much of Dr King can we claim?

I’ve have a personal tendency to claim Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy when it is convenient to do so.  This is especially true each year on the third Monday in January, when our nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr Day.  In the time that has passed since Dr King’s death, his words and actions have often been over-simplified to the point that hardly anyone does not embrace the civil rights leader.  As it is with other such cultural icons, there are times when we publicly praise Dr King as a way of showing that we “get it,” that we would have stood on the right side of history in Dr King’s day.

Have you observed the tendency to selectively claim Dr King?

Painting by Robert Lentz, 1984.

There are many problems with my selective and convenient association with Dr King.  For one, by choosing to take seriously the man’s thought and effort only occasionally am I not betraying the privilege and power that would have encouraged me to oppose the Civil Rights Movement had I been alive at the time?  Also, when snippets and sound bytes are taken as an adequate representation of Dr King I have then so caricatured him as to have removed the power of the full trajectory of his life.

This morning one my congressmen broadcast his attendance at an MLK event on his Facebook page.  Unfortunately this same leader has shown little interest in the civil rights issues of our day, including his recent “nay” vote on the DREAM Act.  His association with the Civil Rights Movement is culturally acceptable and politically expedient only because of the superficial symbol Dr King has become.

So what is the alternative? How might we celebrate this holiday such that Dr King’s accomplishments aren’t reduced to once-a-year, context-less accolades?

Those like myself with a limited understanding of Dr King can begin by learning more about the scope and depth of the man’s life.  Dr King’s thought ranged far and wide, generally within the framework of equality and justice.  How much of his perspective are we familiar with?  Economics and foreign policy were important parts of his civil rights philosophy; are you familiar enough with this side of Dr King to claim his legacy?

In addition to learning more about Dr King, we can begin engaging the Civil Rights Movement’s most prominent leader throughout the year.  The more I read his speeches, letters and publications, the more I see how much Dr King has to say about the struggles in our day.  Isolating his prophetic insight to a yearly holiday diminishes the man and impoverishes our own efforts towards justice.

Finally, we can take seriously the theology and Biblical presence behind Dr King’s eloquence and courage.  It was Dorthy Day who first said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”  We can avoid so easily dismissing Dr King when we notice that his moral conviction and spiritual insight came from somewhere and Someone.  Those of us who claim membership in the same Christian family as Dr King have a lot to learn about our faith from a man who worked out his own faith in such a tumultuous time.



The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today Americans celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy.  Observed as a federal holiday since 1983- Martin Luther King Jr. Day was re-framed as a national day of service in 1994- it wasn’t until 2000 that every state officially recognized the holiday.  There are few Americans as well-known or oft-quoted as Dr. King, yet many of us have read or heard relatively little from the man himself.  The Autobiography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a great place to start.

Because Dr. King never had the opportunity to write his memoirs, this substantial book has been edited by Clayborne Carson, the immensely qualified Stanford University history professor.  Carson is the editor of the definitive King Papers Project, including the audio version of A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., a worthy addition to your mp3 player.

From his years of research Dr. Carson is able to edit a first-person narrative that traces the arc of Dr. King’s childhood, pastorate, family life, and leadership within the civil rights movement.  This last theme receives the most attention and sheds considerable light on the context- historical, cultural, and theological- of those days.  The well-known events which have been flattened and simplified over time are shown in The Autobiography to have been incredibly complex, nuanced, and without guarantee of success.

This book gives us the chance to see the very human Martin King.  Rather than editing a hagiography, Carson has included the poignant moments when Dr. King experienced fear, doubt and confusion.  Great speeches and prophetic correspondence are interspersed with Dr. King’s deep concern for the safety of his family and emotional toll from living a very public life.

Readers will also appreciate the theology and rooted conviction that emerge from these pages.  Dr. King’s iconic status means his words are often lifted and co-opted for a variety of purposes, resulting in a man bound neither by time nor specific belief.  Such an ahistorical view ignores the fact that Dr. King’s vision and leadership came from somewhere.  Carson captures a man who wrestled intensely with his Christian theology in order to give philosophical and structural underpinnings to a freedom movement that would be assailed from all sides.

In the end, Dr. King saw the death and resurrection of Jesus, “that great event on Calvary,” as the hope for genuine reconciliation and justice, the foundation for “the beloved community.”  The Autobiography makes clear that one of America’s greatest preachers and leaders still has much to teach us today.