On August 16, 1967, less than a year before he was assassinated in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. King spoke to the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta in a speech entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Toward the end of the speech, after recounting the many successes of the Civil Rights Movement up to that point, King turns to more sobering realities.
And I must confess, my friends, that the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs. But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.
For King, in light of inevitable setbacks, audacious faith was a requirement in the pursuit of racial justice. The opposition was simply too great. He knew, theologically and experientially, that the spiritual powers of racial oppression would not relinquish without a fight. He understood that much of the time – maybe most of the time – it would seem like righteousness was losing, as though justice would remain out of grasp, as though hate would in fact overcome love. The fact of racist presidents and powerful economic interests opposing King’s beloved community did not come as a shock to him or to peers like Ella Baker, Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, or Dianne Nash.
Likewise, perhaps we should not be shocked when we encounter such opposition today. The audacious faith that was necessary then is just as needed now.
King closes his speech by urging his colleagues to hang on to audacious faith.
Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” [Galatians 6:7] This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.”
From a distinctly Christian perspective, King envisions how faith is to be embodied in the struggle for justice. He quotes from Galatians 6, the longer passage which reads:
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. [Galatians 6:7-9]
Living by faith means far more than a one-time placing our faith in Jesus, though it includes this. And the life of faith means far, far more than waiting quietly through injustice until Jesus returns. The life of audacious faith, as described by King, is one of actively sowing, planting.
We sow in faith, actions and words that please the righteous Spirit of God. We sow the truth in times of deception. We sow solidarity when our neighbors are slandered. We sow compassion in the face of dehumanizing policies. We sow public protest in response to cover-ups and backroom deals. We sow reconciliation in the midst of purposeful segregation. We sow prayer and fasting, we sow Sabbath worship and rest, we sow joyful celebration and feasting… we sow, in other words, a vision of the Kingdom of God that is coming even now, on earth as it is in heaven. And we sow in faith.
All of this is an act of audacious faith because the reaping – the harvest of justice and righteousness – is not our responsibility. Only the holy and sovereign Creator God can bring in this harvest. We, through audacious faith, are simply called to sow.
But though our faith in God’s righteousness and justice may be audacious, it is not misplaced. Our faith is secure; our hope is assured. And so, despite what the circumstances of the present moment may claim, we must press on in faith.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Do not grow weary. Do not grow skeptical. Do not grow cynical. Do not grow bitter. Do not succumb to despair, to selfishness, to greed.
No, like the saints who’ve gone before us, we must once again choose faith. Choose audacious faith. And then go – not weary or despairing – but energized by the life-giving Spirit of Jesus to plant that audacious faith everywhere you go. Plant hope. Plant justice. Plant reconciliation. Plant forgiveness. Plant mercy. Plant grace. Plant truth. Plant love.
For in the power of God’s time we will reap a harvest – a harvest of righteousness and justice – if we do not give up.
Most of you know my oldest son and you know that, like his younger son, he is adopted. You may not know that my son can trace his ethnicity through Filipino people, Puerto Rican people, and, especially, African American people.
My son is five years old. This means that in seven years he will be twelve years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when two Cleveland police pulled up to check out this “young black male” while he played with a toy gun a friend had recently lent him.
In seven years he will be the same age Tamir was when he was confronted by a white police officer had been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit to serve in his previous policing job.
In seven years he will be as old as Tamir who had exactly two seconds before that emotionally unstable, police officer pulled his gun and shot him twice.
In seven years he will be the same age of Tamir who, after being shot, was left unattended on the ground for four minutes. Rather than administering first aid to the mortally wounded child the officers tackled his fourteen-year-old sister who was running to his aid. They handcuffed her and put her in the back of a police car where she watched her brother bleed.
In seven years my son will walk in Tamir’s shoes. In twelve years he will walk in Trayvon’s shoes and Jordan Davis’ shoes. In thirteen years he will walk in Michael Brown’s shoes.
After Michael Brown’s killing, Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote about the despair his death elicited in so many parents. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
I think about my son and I think about these other sons and I think about the truth and desperation of Ta-Nehesi Coates and I feel anger.
When we consider that that it has been forty-seven years since Rev. Dr. King was gunned down in Memphis and yet we are still trying to convince this nation that Black Lives Matter, I get angry.
When we consider that it has been fifty years since the voting rights act was passed, sixty one years since separate schooling based on race was unconstitutional, and yet we are still fighting to protect voting rights and still fighting for quality education for all, I get angry.
When we consider that it’s been one hundred years since Ida B Wells shone the spotlight of her journalism and rhetoric on the rampant lynching of unarmed, innocent African Americans and yet today we face the mass imprisonment of black and brown citizens, a reality unprecedented anywhere else in the world, I get angry.
When we remember that the Civil War ended one hundred and fifty years ago yet our nation remains unconvinced about the basic personhood of black and brown people, I get angry.
When we remember that the first Africans were stolen from their continent four hundred years ago and brought to America, when the wealth and power of this nation was purchased with the sweat, blood, suffering, and deaths of the descendants and kin of those enslaved Africans, and when America has the audacity to place the blame of black suffering at the feet of black people, I get angry.
When we hear pundits lie and spin about the suffering and prejudice faced by brown and black people, when they ignore the white supremacy that has been this nation’s religion for hundreds of years, I get angry.
I’m angry this morning because what James Baldwin wrote was true in 1972 and it’s true in 2015:
The truth is that this country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort.
I’m angry this morning because theologian James Cone is truth when he writes, “Whites cannot separate themselves from culture that lynched blacks, unless they confront history & expose sin of white supremacy.” Yet, how many of us white people are willing confront that history and expose that sin?
I’m angry this morning because of the lies our nation continues to tell. I’m angry because we kill our prophets and then sanitize and commercialize their legacies. I’m angry because my son is five and soon he will be twelve and then seventeen and then eighteen. And, if I’m honest, I’m angry because the injustices of this earth seem so entrenched that I wonder whether there is any realistic hope for anything different.
We are not the first to wonder about earth’s injustices. The young church in Ephesus who received Paul’s letter wondered about these things. Within this center of imperial and oppressive power they struggled to know how they would maintain their new identities as followers of Jesus. Like us they had to ask, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? How do we worship the Lord in a place such as this?
Our passage, Ephesians 1:17-23, shows two ways the early church answered this question. As we listen to their answers, as we see their example, I hope that added to the anger we might feel today will be hope. After all we are not the first to face the injustices of earth. We are not the first to walk closely with righteous anger.
The first thing Paul directs the church to do is to focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. Notice the passage:
17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
A simple way to summarize Paul’s run-on sentences in verses 18 and 19 would be: I pray that you would know the power of God. Not some generic power or some generic god. I want you to know the power of the living God who raised Jesus, the Messiah, from the dead. This is what Paul wants.
Some of us tend to focus on the unjust and corrupt powers that surround us. And we need to see these and call these out. But they can never to be our primary focus. Because there is no life there. There is no hope there. A person lost in the dessert and dying of thirst will only find it so helpful to have his circumstances described to him. What he needs is someone with a way out of the wilderness. He needs the hope that despite how terrible things appears, there is a way out.
It’s the same for us. We have to be honest about the corrupt powers and sources of injustice in our city. But these cannot be the primary focus of our sustained attention. They cannot be our only focus. No, our primary focus must be on the one who elicits not anger but awe. Our focus must be on the one who elicits in our hearts not pain but praise. Our focus must be on the one who compels not despair but delight. Our focus must be on the one who compels not worry but worship. Our focus must be on the one who provokes us not toward apathy but toward action.
In other words, we must focus our best attention not on the corrupt, impotent, and fraudulent powers of this world, that peddle in division and destruction. Rather, we are called to fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We are called to focus our gaze on Jesus who, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame. We are called to behold the One who even now is seated at the right hand of God the Father, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the age to come.
This was the secret weapon held by many of the leaders and participants of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course they looked at the injustices around them; many of those women, men, and children were forced to experience profound injustices every single day. But as clearly as they could describe those corrupt powers and as precisely as they could articulate what needed to change in America, many of those individuals had an even greater and more determined focus: their Savior. And so they could experience the worst of racial injustice without being overcome by it. They could taste the venom of hatred without it ever taking their hearts hostage.
We can see this focus on God’s power through Jesus in one of Rev. Dr. King’s sermons, this one in New York City in 1967 as he made clear his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
See, it’s not simply that we focus on the only genuine and authentic power in the universe, the power of God. It’s that when we worship and esteem Jesus our lives actually change. One of the ways we change is that we begin to see the resources of heaven that are available to those of us who are citizens of that kingdom.
22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Paul says: God has placed everything under the feet of Jesus, the head of the church. Our incorporation in Jesus means that the power that is at work and available through Jesus is available to us as well! So Jesus can say things like:
18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [Matthew 28:18-19]
12 “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:12-14]
As we are given the Spirit of wisdom and revelation and as the eyes or our hearts are enlightened we see and worship our powerful Savior and we also discover that his power is available to us. To put it differently, when we see Jesus in his power we discover the resources of heaven that are available in our struggle against the injustices of earth.
So to the question, How will we resist the unjust and wicked powers that surround us? the first answer is that we focus on God’s power as exemplified through Jesus’ resurrection and rule. When the power of God is our focus all of the corrupt powers slide into their rightful place. We don’t ignore them, we don’t downplay them, but we allow them to take their rightful place beneath the feet of Jesus who will make all things right.
The second answer to that question comes on the heels of the first: We discover and utilize heaven’s resources against earth’s unjust powers. We could spend the rest of the year looking into the resources of heaven. I have time for just four.
The first resource is reconciled community. Drawing from 2 Corinthians we say that our church identity is a reconciled and reconciling people. Through Jesus God has reconciled us to himself and to one another. This would have been one of the radical implications of the Gospel to the church in Ephesus and it is no less radical today.
Reconciled community begins to deconstruct the racism we are all regularly exposed to. Social scientists call this implicit racial bias. That is, we are formed culturally to associate certain positive and negative characteristic to people based on things like skin color. But within a diverse church community, these implicit biases are not only challenged, they are slowly replaced by other, more generous and loving biases.
Reconciled community also requires that we stay. One of the defining legacies of Chicago is white flight and reconciled Community is the opposite of white flight; it requires that we stay, that we remain present. We don’t walk away from people who are different. We remain with the knowledge that we are family.
A second resource of heave that is available in our struggle against injustices is our secured identities. In Christ Jesus we have identities as God’s children that are secure and eternal. We don’t have to defend ourselves or prove ourselves. We can live with confidence from our place as beloved and empowered children of God. But there is more.
When our identities are securely in Jesus, we find that our ethnic & cultural identities are affirmed. Deep within Christian belief is that God loves us as we are. We are not required to become something different in order to be accepted. The church has gotten this wrong at times, requiring that individuals learn a new language or dress in a different cultural style. But these are aberrations of the Gospel. Our country slices and dices, marginalizes and sidelines based on skin color, accent, grammar, traditions, the shape of a person’s eyes, nose, and even height! But not within the Kingdom! This community is meant to be the place where every one of us experiences the radical hospitality and acceptance of Jesus.
Having secured identities in Christ also means that we can be protected from the co-option and coercion of the corrupt powers. In his book Liberty to the Captives Raymond Rivera points out that in different seasons the church will cooperate with or resist the powers. In one sense it is easier to resist than cooperate, but when we are clear on where our authority and identity comes from we can also cooperate without being co-opted.
The third resource of heaven is courageous truth. Jesus said of himself in John 14:6, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. We are followers of the Truth so we aren’t afraid to tell the truth. A great example of this is found in that same speech Rev. Dr. King gave against the Vietnam War. He knew this speech would make powerful enemies. Yet he had to tell the truth.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
As King demonstrated, followers of Jesus deal in the currency of the truth, regardless of its consequences. This means that we tell the truth about injustice We resist the tendency to soft-pedal. When media attempts to redirect our attention by talking about black-on-black crime or “thug” culture or the so-called crisis of fatherlessness, we call bull-sh*t. And we tell the truth.
We also tell the truth about Jesus .To those who think Jesus is only concerned with our souls after we die, we tell the truth about the Kingdom of justice and mercy and peace that Jesus came to proclaim and inaugurate. And to those who think that Jesus is one interesting morality teacher among others, we tell the truth about the Son of God who chose the cross to put to death the sin and rebellion within our hearts and who resurrected victoriously over evil and death.
Finally, in our struggle with the injustices of earth endless grace is another of heaven’s resources available to us. Fundamental to Christianity is the belief that salvation comes through God’s grace alone. Late in this letter to Ephesus Paul writes, 9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. But too often we treat grace as Christianity 101. In fact, grace is the air we breathe. It is the sustaining reality of our relationship with God and our status as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is the grace of God that allows us to pursue God’s justice in an unjust world. How?
God’s endless grace allows repentance and forgiveness to be normal for us. So much justice work is built on getting it right: saying the right things; knowing the right things; doing the right things; identifying the right strategies. But you will not always get it right! And if you’re counting on always getting it right it’s only a matter of time until you get it very wrong. What then? But if grace is our starting point than our goal isn’t to get it right, it’s to quickly confess when we get it wrong: when we wound, ignore, flake out. And when grace is our starting point, when we know how dependent we are on God’s mercy and grace, we can also quickly forgive when others confess their sin against us.
Endless grace also reminds us that we bear witness to Jesus regardless of the circumstances. This is and important reminder that we are not called to change the world. I’ve met many people who in their youth wanted to change the world. But things didn’t change as quickly as they hoped or in the ways they expected and so the walked away. They traded in their dream for justice for the so-called American dream of comfort and complacency.
In one of his speeches King said that, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” This is God’s grace, that his work is constant and gentle and eternal. And it is God who does this work with we as his representatives. Despite the heaviness of our world, God’s grace means there can be a lightness about our work.
I began by acknowledging my anger. I end by confessing my hope. My fiver year-old and five month-old sons, beautiful boys with complexions darker than mine, are growing up among you. They are growing up among a people who are learning to be captivated firstly by God’s beautiful and transformative power. They are growing up among a reconciled community; among women and men who know and love who they are; among people who will tell them the truth about this world’s injustices and the truth about this world’s Savior; among a people who will speak to them words of grace, who show them how to live this way of grace.
I remain angry. But not only angry. God, through his Old Testament prophet Zechariah, called his people, prisoners of hope. In this world of injustice, may it be true that we are prisoners of hope whose eyes have been opened to see the authority and power and resources of heaven that are at our disposal in our struggle against injustice.
A couple of weekends ago New Community had the chance to host, along with some other neighborhood churches, my friend Ed Gilbreath. I reviewed Ed’s new book, Birmingham Revolution, a few months back. For the Chicago Revolution conference Ed spoke about Rev. Martin Luther King’s time in Birmingham, paying special attention to his time in jail and the resulting letter that is now so well known. He then traced Rev. King’s time to Chicago and pointed to the challenges he faced here. The entire conference was thought-provoking, challenging, and encouraging and I’m including Ed’s talk here because I think it’s very worth your time.
We welcomed a guest preacher at New Community this morning, so I took a few minutes before his sermon to reflect on the violence of this past week before we spent time in silence and prayer.
Early on a Sunday morning in September 1953, four members of the Alabama Klu Klux Klan placed dynamite under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. A few hours later, when the church was full, the bomb exploded killing four girls, ranging in age from 11-14. Three days later Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stood before their families and community to eulogize the victims. Towards the end of his sermon he said the following,
Life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
For many families in Newton, Connecticut, the past few days have been as hard as crucible steel. The sheer magnitude of this crime threatens to overshadow the unique grief of each parent, each grandparent, and each friend. What happened in that school on Friday was demonic, an expression of a present evil we would prefer to ignore but cannot avoid. This week we are reminded that our enemy knows no distinction between race or class or geography. Like a lion, he prowls around looking for someone – anyone – to devour.
So while our country mourns the lives devoured in Connecticut, we, the reconciled people of God, cannot overlook the lives devoured in our own city. 488 lives taken so far in Chicago in 2012, many of them young men and young women. Our nation is shocked that such evil would be visited upon Newton: an affluent town, 95% white, that has known only one murder in the past decade. But we, the reconciled people of God, must know and speak aloud that murder and violence anywhere – including the neighborhoods within our city where outsiders crassly expect such things to happen – that any such violence is an act of profound injustice, a stench to a holy God in whose image these children are made.
Reverend King was right about the bleak and difficult moments of life and he was also right about the God who walks with us, “who lifts you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.” This is what we remember during Advent: that the Son of God, for our salvation, stepped into the grief of our world. So we do not need to rush past this pain. We don’t need to medicate our lament with distraction or entertainment. The man of sorrows who bore our sin allows us to stop and grieve. The same one who ensures our hope and our future, the one on whom all evil was brought to bear, the one whose body could not be held by our ancient enemy, death, He grants the courage this morning lament this present evil age. He is our example of righteous living for the advancement of God’s kingdom. And He too gives us the hope that one day, such grief will be a fading memory and nothing more.
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?
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.