November 14, 2012 Permalink
Sunday was the conclusion to the politics of Jesus, and I had a blast answering your questions for Town Hall Sunday! I did regret, however, not getting to all the questions, and wanted to answer as many as I could here on the blog. So in the next few days, I’ll be posting some of the great questions we missed along with my responses.
Here is today’s, via @ThomasMarlowe: Reconcile your political sermons with your support of MLK’s social justice (strongly advocating the legal system to effect change).
(Note: I am presuming Dr. Marlowe is referring to the way I have emphasized living out life in the Kingdom in our community, more so than overt activism in the American political process here.)
This is a question that often haunts me. I’ve told before about my “accidental” trip to Memphis 2 years ago, where I unexpectedly found myself at the Lorraine Motel where King was shot (now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum). The holiness of the ground itself stunned me, another story for another time (I share it in Prototype). But one of the significant revelations both on that trip, as well in the year prior when I had been doing a lot of reading on King, was that while King was largely venerated by the American public by death, just how much his message was marginalized both before and after his death on the topics most pressing him in his later years—economic injustice and the Vietnam war.
It would seem that nothing could get you into more trouble than challenging people’s long held prejudices, but there may in fact be nothing in this life people are more protective of than their wallets and their wars. The fastest way to be rejected in American society is to raise difficult questions about how people spend their money or why they fight. As Chris Hedges demonstrates so potently in his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, nations are largely ordered around the way we narrate our wars. Our money and the mythology created by our wars are often what society holds to be the most sacred.
The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. Everyone loves a martyr. Even people who hated King ultimately came to accept him as an icon in matters of race. Yet King’s critique of our economy and war would not be much more palatable after his death than before. If death brought vindication, speaking his heart on those matters had long brought marginalization. I began to wonder, as a preacher, what this means for me. Will people be willing to tolerate anything that I say about Jesus and His Kingdom—as long as I stay away from the temples of money and war, where their idols sit? It is of course impossible to critique money and war without political critique. When you are speaking to matters that are central to how people order their lives and society, politics is the name of the game. Thus, it would seem that to assert the Lordship of Jesus in these issues would entail political claims that would threaten the principalities and powers today as much as it did before King’s death.
Indeed, I do believe that calling Jesus Lord is a political claim that has real implications for how we approach real issues of life and society—so I would not want to say that there is no place for Christians to articulate their concerns in the political arena, much less the public square. But I would add this—it seems that since King’s time, our two-party political system has become more broken and more polarized, not less. Hence, while progress in those arenas is not impossible, it is treacherously difficult. And for many followers of Jesus, like myself, the alternatives offered between right and left simply are not comprehensive or radical enough to encompass the scope of our concerns.
I suppose my goal, then, would not be to completely marginalize the role of Christians in American politics, but to minimize it, or at the least, relativize it. People interpret King’s legacy differently, but my own reading of his life and work is essentially this: when King was being educated in liberal seminaries, the faith of his childhood was deconstructed in a way that made it at least tempting to abandon it altogether in favor of the bourgeois liberalism of his time. I think the further King got away from the academy and the more invested he became in the actual work of the Kingdom, the more disillusioned he was becoming with having the faith of his forefathers co-opted by bland liberalism, and the more he relied on the explicit nature of Christian faith to shape him. He was still speaking in the public square, but the older he got, the more he did so as a preacher of the gospel.
Here is the really interesting thing: while, indeed, King made great progress in his lifetime politically, and that side of his work was vitally important—it was ultimately the message of the cross embodied in his own death that changed the world. Think about it: as it was for Jesus on the cross, as it is for the two witnesses in the book of Revelation, change could only come through death. His life would have be to offered up, tapping into the intrinsic power of the cross, for there to be a resurrection of King’s dream in the world. While the political activism was important (fair wages for black sanitation workers, etc.), King’s death became the spiritual center for the cause of racial justice in America.
So to come to the question, I feel like the best thing I can do as a pastor is to form people in the shape of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. This will have political implications, but they do not come first. It may be that God works through us to an extent in the sphere of American politics, but that will be an extension of people shaped and formed by the message of the Kingdom of God and cannot work the other way around. If we do impact that political world, my sense is that it will also come as it did for King—less through lobbying and more through sacrifice, less through legislation and more from not loving our own lives even unto death. I also think as it was for King, it will come from power exercised underneath the established powers rather than from on top of them.
So I would want to draw people deeper and deeper into the heart of the Kingdom and even more so, the heart of the King. Ultimately, the witness to the world that will be most powerful (from the New Testament Church to the “beloved community” King loved to speak of) is the creation of an alternative community. To put it bluntly, I think we, on the whole, been far too unsuccessful at creating such an alternative community to the structures of the world to be overly concerned with trying to tell the world how to live. It seems to me the time is right to invest ourselves in Christian communities that truly demonstrate to the world that another kind of life is made possible by the resurrection. In our own cultural climate, it is hard for me to envision any project more important than showing the world a community where the poor, the alien, stranger and the widow (no matter where they come from or what they’ve done) can receive the transforming love of God through the touch of human hands.
At the end of the “Town Hall Sunday” we did this weekend to close out the Politics of Jesus, I interviewed Jyothi Reddi, a powerful Church of God pastor and overseer in India, specifically talking about the profound work he is doing through the orphanage he runs in caring for the most disreputable people in their society. The government in his country is not interested in helping them, nor are the wealthy in his country. Truly Jyothi is showing the world a radical alternative to the systems of the world in his own care for the broken and marginalized. It was a stark reminder to all of us that all this language about the Kingdom of God is not and cannot be abstract—this is real life; Kingdom come.