In the previous entry in this blog, I argued that the most profitable approach to reading prophetic literature involves a variety of “pattern recognition.” Yesterday, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I took the opportunity to re-read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, and the concluding chapter of his
last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). Rather than being an exercise in mere historical reflection, this reading reminded me again of several components of a ‘prophetic pattern.’ Two, in particular, merit attention in an effort to contemplate the significance of King’s work and to consider the challenges of today.
First, as the French proverb says, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Nearly a half-century ago, King addressed circumstances that continue to threaten today. To name but two examples, he warned prophetically that “We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress…When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men [sic]” (Where, 171, 172). Of course, King’s warning only updated warnings, explicit and implicit, issued in scripture from the beginning. Human knowledge has outstripped human wisdom since the Garden. We can do many things that we learn too late we ought not to have done: build towers to reach the heavens, manufacture DDT and Thalidomide, construct hydrogen bombs. Commenting on the moral imperative represented by poverty and hunger, King observed that “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will” (Where, 177). He deftly alluded here to the major biblical theme concerning the human need for new hearts (Deut 30:6-14; Jer 31:31-34; Matt 5:8; etc.). Until human beings “hunger and thirst for rightness” (Matt 5:6), “seek[ing] first the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33), true shalom will remain beyond reach. King, like the biblical prophets, spoke about human flaws and human potentials in a specific historical context. Sadly, scientific and social progress have not altered the human propensity to exploit the poor (cf. Amos 2:6-8), or to rely on military strength (Zech 4:6), or to put ultimate trust in penultimate objects (Jer 7). We may drive automobiles instead of riding donkeys, but our hearts await renewal. Progress means that it is possible to rain destruction on cities while sitting at a computer console thousands of miles away. Congratulations, humanity – we are eight year olds with new Harleys.
Second, from the beginning of his work, critics accused King of being an “outside agitator,” a term certainly more polite than the expressions often used of him in the South at the time. The attitude that calls for change equate with “troublemaking” stood behind accusations that opponents of the Vietnam War were communist sympathizers, and that those who disagreed with the actions of the US in the Persian Gulf were somehow unpatriotic. It seethes in the jingoistic anthem “America, Love it or Leave it.” It fundamentally mistakes yearning and working for improvement to be disdain and disloyalty. It is idolatry and it is not new.
The prophet Amos preached against Samaria’s elite for abusing the poor (5:11; 6:1-8; etc.) and against Samaria’s royal house for apostasy (4:4; 5:5; etc.). The religious representative of King Jeroboam, the priest Amaziah, seizing upon the fact that Amos was a Judean, a southerner come north to preach, accused him of being an “outside agitator” and enjoined him to stop preaching at Bethel. “It is the king’s sanctuary, it is a temple of the kingdom,” Amaziah said (7:13). A few decades later, Micah, a country preacher from Moresheth (1:1) warned that Samaria’s sins had infected Jerusalem (1:5, 9) and predicted that, unless changes were made, Jerusalem/Zion would become “a plowed field…a heap of ruins” (3:12). Like Amos, Micah met with opposition: “Do not preach….one should not preach such things” (2:6). Almost two centuries later, Jeremiah announced that the temple in Jerusalem faced the fate of the earlier sanctuary at Shiloh (7:12; 26:6) – unless the Judeans changed “their ways and doings” (7:5-7; 26:13). The priests and the prophets who heard Jeremiah’s message clamored for his execution “because he has prophesied against this city” (26:11). The deliberations that ensued involved every segment of Judean society: priests, prophets, princes, the people, and the “elders of the land.” Although Jeremiah would subsequently be imprisoned for periods, and once be thrown down into a cistern and left to die, cooler heads, citing Micah as a precedent, prevailed in the deliberations.
Five centuries later, Jesus entered the temple to find the moneychangers hard at work. Combining citations from Jeremiah’s sermon that nearly cost his life (7:11) and a passage from Isaiah (56:7) as justification, Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and chased them from the temple. On at least one other occasion, Jesus similarly combined a reference to the coming destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the Jewish Wars (70 CE) and a veiled allusion to his own coming death and resurrection when he spoke about rebuilding the destroyed temple in three days (Mark 14:58; cf. Luke 21:5-6; John 2:19). According to Matt 26:61 (cf. Mk 15:29), Jesus’ attitude toward the temple became the basis for the charges against him that resulted in his crucifixion.
Patterns: change in circumstance without change in substance. Two thousand years later, a group of eight Alabama clergymen wrote an open letter, published in Birmingham area newspapers, leveling the charge “outside agitator” against King.
An hour north of Birmingham, I was watching television when a news bulletin interrupted programming with the announcement that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. By that time in my young life, I had begun to wonder how the messages about “One God, one Lord, one baptism,” “in Christ there is neither slave nor free,” and “for God so loved the world that whosoever” that I was hearing could possibly be reconciled with the racial attitudes of many of the white southerners preaching and hearing those messages. “Where was the church when children of God were being treated as though they were sub-human?” I had begun to ask. “What is the call to peacemaking if not a call to throw off complacency and to disturb the status quo?”
Patterns. Years later, I have been formulating the theory that one of the problems confronting the church today has roots in the behavior of the church during King’s lifetime. I theorize that people my age and younger have asked themselves why the Gospel of God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ failed to convert the church of my youth into an “agitator” for justice. Was it that the Gospel lacked the power to do so, or that the church failed to heed the Gospel? Neither answer soothes. King saw this conundrum coming, too, as the following passage from his “Letter” attests:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days 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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man [sic]. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender 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 even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. (“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963; available at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html; accessed 18 January 2016).
Can the church recover its authentic voice of prophetic witness? Can it agitate for true peace and real justice? It must. God’s call has not changed.