On January 20, 2014

Civil Religion: Civil Fights

We risk engaging in idolatry, not only when we worship false gods but also when we set up false devils! God is not honored when we are unfair to people with whom we disagree” -G.K. Chesterton

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I posted this video (below) last year, but in light of what we’re talking through I wanted to show it again.

I think it exemplifies the heart of what I’m trying to get at with this blog series. I’ve been asking the question, Can a religion be civil, without being a civil religion? Can we hold convictions strongly but with kindness?

And I think that’s exactly what Dr. King does in this video.

The Dream on Tape


You’ll notice Dr. King is taking quite a bit of flack, he’s being asked some hard questions by some white reporters who seem to be feeling some anxiety associated with the spirit of that age (not to mention some poor fashion sense). And Dr. King never loses his calm, he never responds belittling or with anger.

Heck, he never even mentions that thing that the woman reporter is trying to pass off as a hat.

Now, a couple of observations here. For all the reporters logic, and sense, they seemed to be unaware that they were speaking squarely with the voice of the status quo. Their imaginations have been captured by the spirit of the age, and they could not see it.

It’s always a danger that when God sends a prophet people won’t be able to even consider the possibility that they could be wrong and he or she could be right. We build monuments and bridges for Dr. King today, but in his day, in the very circles that celebrate him now, he was about as popular as a turd in a punchbowl.

And I think that should help give all of us a bit more humility for how we talk to each other.

If we never let the question “Could we be wrong on this?” enter our mind, there’s a good chance we might persecute a prophet only so our grandchildren can celebrate their life. This kind of perspective can give us, what Randy Harris calls “epistemological humility.”

There is a real danger of not doing a fearless self-inventory when we hear someone who disagrees with us, or calls us to something beyond what we currently think.

The second thing that stands out about Dr. King in this video is how he treated these people, and how he responded to the face of some pretty insidious seeming questions. He was extremely civil. In our day, these kinds of conversations would have been filled with graphics, sound bytes taken out of context, and lots of yelling and red-faced name calling. It makes for some great entertainment and some horrible people.

But you probably don’t need me to tell you that do you?

If you’ve been around for any time, and you’ve been paying attention you’ve noticed that our culture has gotten less and less civil and our conversations have gotten more and more shrill and angry.

Imagination and Empathy

Dr. King’s life made such an impact in the world because he had the two things that the world is sorely missing right now. Imagination and empathy. He knew that the ends never justifies the means, because invariably the ends are tied up with the means. So if change is going to happen it cannot be brought about without changing how we fight for change.

This is why Dr. King’s dream was for more than justice, it was for reconciliation. And Dr. King knew what Christians today have seemingly forgotten. You can’t have one without the other.

I think Christians today have got to move past celebrating Martin Luther King, we’ve got learn something from his strategy.

The reason I’m doing this series, is because I think we have to be able to employ imagination and empathy about how we engage the culture about all the hot button topics of our day, from reproductive rights to gun control to our talk of war (or rumors of wars) on Christmas.

I have met people (most of whom I agree with) who are passionate about issues of the day. Often they are people pursuing justice in the world, they care about serving God, and have dedicated their lives to affecting some change in their pocket of the universe.

But I don’t want to be anything like them.

Because justice, by itself, can be quite ugly.

It can fail to recognize the humanity in the people that you are opposing, and our pursuits of justice often fail to force us to take an inventory of the brokenness in our own heart. In fact, it can be a way of hiding it.

Imagination and Empathy were the two things that fueled Dr. King’s dream.

It was a dream shaped by the Scriptures, and carried about a church that cared about the reconciliation of all people to one another, a dream about the reversal of the tower of Babel, about brothers who set down their stones and decide to enter the party. It was about people who finally realized, because they shared the breath of God, they weren’t that different after all.

And the Civil Rights movement became one of the greatest success stories for social change and Christian involvement toward creating shalom in the world because it recognized that If the end goal was to love each other, than the means couldn’t be different.

You can’t yell and out-argue someone into loving you.

You can’t force or legislate someone to recognize your humanity,

You can only sit down at a table and love them with the severity that cannot be discounted in the face of hard questions and silly hats.

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  • Danny Gill

    Okay, I’m stealing that Chesterton quote.

    I become more impressed with Martin Luther King the more I learn about him . . . and I was impressed with him when he was alive (yes, I’m that old).

    You say, “This is why Dr. King’s dream was for more than justice, it was for
    reconciliation. And Dr. King knew what Christians today have seemingly
    forgotten. You can’t have one without the other.” I’m not sure why you think Christians have forgotten that. It may be more because of the sound-bite methodology of the media than anything else. Christians today care more about justice and reconciliation than they did in MLK’s day, certainly.

  • http://stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    Thanks Bro. Danny, I loved that quote too! You’re right, it is because of the sound-bite way we frame stuff. I think you’re right…for a lot of Christians, but part of the problem I have with our conversations is how angry and shrill it seems they are.

  • Danny Gill

    I’m all about not being angry or shrill, but again, I think that is far smaller a problem than it seems from what we see and hear each day in the media. They make their money on angry and shrill.

  • http://www.ehendrick.org/pastoralcare/index.htm Kevin W. Bridges

    Jonathan, what would you say about the importance of the credibility of the messenger verses the message? A few years ago I decided I really knew very little about Dr. King except civil rights info taught in grade school. So I decided to do some research. My discovery was one of surprise as I learned about a man of adultery, womanizing, plagiarism, and other things. I wish I could un-know what I know now.

  • http://www.ehendrick.org/pastoralcare/index.htm Kevin W. Bridges

    Jonathan, what would you say about the importance of the credibility of the messenger verses the message? A few years ago I decided I really knew very little about Dr. King except civil rights info taught in grade school. So I decided to do some research. My discovery was one of surprise as I learned about a man of adultery, womanizing, plagiarism, and other things. I wish I could un-know what I know now.