Archives For Martin Luther King Jr

On March 11, 2015

Uncool: A Work In Progress

“I got myself into trouble, but it was the good kind of trouble, the necessary kind of trouble.” –Congressman John Lewis speaking about being beaten at Selma

“When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:’Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.” –President Obama this weekend honoring the 50th anniversary of Selma

Un-Cool Desktop

 

In 1968, there was a rebellion in France that came closer than any other to overthrowing the government. College students were rebelling against the stringent education system and there was several riots in the street which exposed, on national television, police brutality. The people of France turned against their government and Europe turned into a tinder-box, waiting for the revolution.

But it never happened…Why?

Because summer came. The students took off for vacation. The revolution went no where, because it had no where to go. The French students were bored and had seen the anti-war protesters on television, and thought that was something that looked cool to do. In the words of Paul Grant,

“Cool makes for great street theater but doesn’t lend itself to serious activism.”

Most Revolutions go nowhere because they have nowhere to go.

Over the past few decades we’ve talked more about changing the world than ever before, but this begs the question…change it to what?

it is so much easier to be against something than it is to be for anything, and I’m starting to believe that most of the rhetoric that I see online these days is image management, that is we want to be seen as rebelling against the status quo, but not enough to skip summer vacation,

The Best Religions Don’t Need Batteries

A couple of days ago, Ross Dothat, a thoughtful, conservative Catholic columnist at the New York Times wrote an article called “The Case for Old Ideas” where he disagreed with the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari who is airing a sentiment that seems to be growing more common these days. Here’s what Harari said:

It was only when people “came up with new ideas, not from the Shariah, and not from the Bible, and not from some vision,” but from studying science and technology, that answers to the industrial age’s dislocations emerged… “In terms of ideas, in terms of religions,,,the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East.” It’s in Silicon Valley that people are “creating new religions….that will take over the world.”

Ross Douthat points out that Silicon Valley is certainly changing the world, but in ways that are leading to a whole new set of rich/poor divides, a whole new slate of dehumanizing some people for the profit of others, and that this is not a new development with our relationship to progress. Here is Douthat’s point in rebuttal to Harari:

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

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Image from WhiteHouse.gov

It’s unfortunate timing for Harari to say that people coming up with new technological ideas, and not the Bible or some vision are the solution to the world.

Because it was precisely a vision from a Baptist pastor that had saints marching out of their churches and over the bridge 50 years ago this week. It was a dream that was drenched in the spirit of the Prophets, and it was the Isaiah of the Bible that no less than the POTUS quoted in closing his speech in Selma this weekend.

Changing the Future Lies in the Past

I’m pushing back on progressive Christianity with this series not because I don’t believe in progress but because I do. I just don’t believe that there has been a better vision of progress that has come along in the past couple of thousand years than the one that has got us this far. Every Church in every age has to figure out how to embody it in their time and place, every generation God’s people have to reinvent how to change the world, but they don’t have to reinvent what the changed world looks like.

I don’t know of a better manifesto for the future than the prophets and apostles of the past.

And even though it may often appear that Churches and Christians are too slow to move for our own good (sometimes we are), even when it appears that we are stumbling in from one spirit of the age to another and not the Gospel (a charge sadly often true) even when it appears that we are stuck in days gone by. Please remember, on our best days we’re not primarily concerned with how we appear.

And if we are not useful to the world with criticism, than let us be useful to the world as a specimen. We may be seen as a throwback to age without wi-fi and common sense but I believe whole heartedly that we are more than that.

I believe that God’s good world is headed somewhere, and that what seems quaint and farfetched today just might be celebrated tomorrow. Because somedays those church doors swing open and we walk across bridges when it’s not cool to walk across because we have a dream from yesterday about how tomorrow ought to be.

We don’t rebel because it’s cool, that never lasts, we rebel because we hope. Not a hope in politics, not a hope in human greatness or that things are just slowly getting better with each invention, that’s not just hubris, it’s foolish. No, we are prisoners of hope in God.

Somedays we fail, somedays we are the white clergy urging patience not the Baptist Pastor in the jail cell, and on those days it’s tempting to disavow the people who share this common dream, but remember…

We are a work in progress.

On January 19, 2015

There is a Promised Land

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

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On the Thursday morning that Dr. King was assassinated he also was attacked by one of his own friends….with a pillow. On the day of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. got in a pillow fight in his own hotel room.

I don’t know about you, but that fact makes me smile in some deeper parts of my soul. The realization that even though hate might kill this good man, it couldn’t kill the goodness and joy in the man. I smile at the realization that during Dr. King’s final moments alive he was able to smile.

And then I wonder…how did he do that?

Standing on Promises

This past summer I went to Israel with a group of people For the most part, we were your usual group of Christians touring the Holy Lands, retired doctors and lawyers and teachers on a pilgrimage to see where all the stories that had saturated their imagination had happened.

For the most part we were white and southern. But that doesn’t quite account for all of us. There were several African-American women from Memphis, and I spent the majority of the first few days seeing the Holy Lands with them. Mainly because they were so nice and kind, but also because I didn’t want to just see the Holy Lands, I wanted to see it through their eyes.

See, I’ve learned just enough about the Bible to remember that the Bible is harder for me to read than others. The Bible is hard for me to read, not because of a lack of training or my ability to never quite get above a B in Greek. It’s hard for me to read because or where I read the Bible from, and where I don’t.

People who have known systematic oppression and marginalization were the ones who wrote the Bible, it is as it were, a history written by the losers. And so when my new friends were seeing these stories of the land of liberated slaves I wanted to know how they saw it.

And that brings me to Mrs. Shirley.

Mrs. Shirley was a senior saint who also happened to be African American. She had lived her entire life in Memphis and she had seen a lot. She told me about her family’s struggle to rise out of poverty and her concern for her children and grandchildren to do well in a system that seemed stacked against them
And then she told me a story that became one of my favorite memories from the trip.

When when she was only 14 years old, and she got to walk with Dr. King when the Civil Rights movement came to Memphis. In order to go on one of these marches she had to go through all the training about how to keep the protest non-violent in the face of other people’s great anger, she was trained how to respond if people spit on her, or how to react if she or someone she cared about were beaten.

But the advice that really stuck with her was when the civil right protest organizers told her that if that the police released the dogs that they should try to remain calm and keep walking hand in hand. As she was telling me this story, Mrs. Shirley remained calm, as if she was still following the instructions, but she had a fire in her eyes as she was remembering.

I didn’t know how to respond to her story so I asked her if she was scared during all of this and she said, “No, not really.” Then a few minutes later she came back and said, “I can’t lie. I’m embarrassed now, but I was scared. What I really afraid of was the idea that those dogs might bite me.”1183155006_08b1215aeb

Protests and Pillow Fights

I don’t know what you did over this holiday weekend, but I joined the crowds watching Selma. The movie about Dr. King and the civil rights stand off that ultimately past sweeping Federal Voting reform. During that movie I wept on more than one occasion. But the scene that touched me the deepest was watching little African-American girls march with dignity into the angry crowd armed with billy clubs and attack dogs.

I wept because I now knew who that little girl was, and I knew that even thought she might not look it, she was afraid.

But Mrs. Shirley, like so many of my black brothers and sisters who lived through the civil rights movement, wasn’t angry. She wasn’t angry at other white people, and incredibly enough she wasn’t angry even at the people who had unleashed the dogs on her. She had every right to be furious but she had chosen another path.

So eventually I asked Mrs. Shirley how she did it. I wondered what could move someone to refuse to harbor bitterness against those who wish you evil. And that’s when Mrs. Shirley told me the most profound gospel-like things. She said something to me that made me realize how Dr. King could get into a pillow fight on the day of his assignation, even after saying the night before that he knew his life was in danger.

Mrs. Shirley said she wasn’t angry because, “There is a Promised Land”

And suddenly it all clicked for me. Mrs. Shirley wasn’t just there to see the Holy Lands, Mrs. Shirley was there because her entire life had been oriented around a God who makes promises that the future will be better than the past.

There is a Promised Land.

The civil rights movement succeeded because tens of thousands of men and women trusted that what God had promised would one day become a reality, and they were able to refrain from violence or anger because that God would one day keep his promises.

If we want justice, if we want to keep from getting angry in the face of injustice, we must remember this. There is such a thing as a perfect justice and one day it will roll down like a river. There is such a thing as a perfect righteousness and one day it will flow like a never-ending stream. If we want mercy than we must remember that there is such a thing as a good and compassionate God.

That’s how you do it. There is a Promised Land, it’s not quite here yet but it is coming and it changes everything.

The final public words of Dr. King were spoken in a church in Memphis and as we look back on a year of racial tension, injustice and peace, his words are just as hopeful and calming as they were on the day he spoke them:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I’m happy tonight.

I’ll die tomorrow.

I think I’ll have a pillow fight in between.

Because there is a promised land.

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.

On January 16, 2012

More Than Civil

What 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 lots of yelling and red-faced name calling. But that wasn’t what Dr. King’s dream was.

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On January 18, 2011

Living the Dream

It’s easy to relegate Dr. King’s vision for a more just world to a time of historic importance. But his was a vision without an expiration date, and it’s one that makes important demands of Jesus followers for all time.

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On January 19, 2010

Prophets and Heroes

Sometime during college I went through a pretty significant transition about how I considered the gospel. I began to see it as good news for the world, not only in the age to come, but also in this time and place.

And that transition, was due in large part, to a dead preacher from Alabama, named Martin Luther King Jr.

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