Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an amazing leader. Facing down institutional violence, he was able to talk about the long arc of history bending towards justice. He could see further ahead than the rest of us, and inspired hope and vocation. I have talked with people who described to me meeting him, and even 30 years later they spoke with infectious passion and purpose. It’s never difficult to find amazing quotes of his to share when his holiday comes around. In years past I have memorialized the public speaker and fearless motivator. This year, I am focusing on the prefix to his name, the Doctor of Systematic Theology.
In my college religion courses, there was always an open question. What if the Cannon had not been closed? What more recent works should be added to the Cannon, or at least to the Apocrypha? Should some of the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer be added? How about Paul Tillich (the writings of which inspired Dr. King’s dissertation)? And, in what I am sure is not a surprise given the subject of this post, we discussed Dr. King, and his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. A letter written very specifically to clergy.
I recently re-read that letter, and it struck me as prescient, but for all the wrong reasons. In national politics, as we watch Christians wrap their heads around supporting people who do not appear to live Christian values in the name of politics, one part of Dr. King’s letter stands out as an unheeded warning with clearly laid out consequences that are coming due.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful… the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…
“Things are different now. The contemporary church is often … the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.
“But the judgement of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. ”
As a civil libertarian, I believe in the separation of church and state as a way of protecting those in a minority religion from being forced to profess unfelt beliefs to get along in life. As a Christian, I believe in the separation of church and state because the marriage of the two makes it far too easy for the church to be subordinate to the state, to protect the status qui, and become a meaningless social club.
Happy Dr. Martin Luther King Day. Let the words of the master orator rejuvenate and restore you to take up the good fight for justice everywhere. Let the revolutionary remind you that our job is not done. But also, let the pastor give you pause to reflect on the constant job of rejuvenating and restoring your own faith.