Romans 13: You keep using that text. I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Respect Authority. Romans 13.”

This has to stop. As a blanket, dismissive response to any and all protest or critique of government, king, and country, it has to stop. When you pull that reference out of context and use it to label as sinful anyone who doesn’t bow to a given authority or symbol of authority, you do violence to the text and to God’s people.

If you disagree and insist on holding to that generalized understanding and use of Romans 13, consider and be prepared to reconcile it with the following:

  • Paul himself, the author of those words, resisted government authorities and defied Roman and religious laws often enough that he wrote words that you probably have on your mirror or desk or bumper sticker or living room wall from prison. You don’t author four books of the New Testament behind bars if the intention of seven verses you wrote to folks in Rome was to require unqualified yielding to all laws and customs of king and country.

  • Jesus violated the patriotic, legal, and religious norms of his day so frequently that he was rejected and despised and, well, killed for it. You can’t strip Jesus down to a spiritual fairy tale and remove him from the legal and patriotic context in which he lived. He was a real man angering real people by not following their customs – customs which existed primarily to show respect and submission to human authority.

  • Exactly no one I know when having this conversation has ultimately held to this position: “Yes, I believe we should always respect and submit to and obey ruling authorities no matter what they do to, ask from, or demand of us.” There is a line of conscience and injustice for all of us; the appropriate drawing of that line is a matter of reasonable debate, but this haphazard invoking of Romans 13 suggests that any such line is sinfully rebellious. I don’t think most who use it that way actually believe that, and I don’t believe such a claim holds up to the weight of the Bible as a whole.

  • This broad application of Romans 13 has been one of the primary weapons against the growth of self-determining government (democracy) for centuries, because such a reading of Scripture easily dismisses even non-violent resistance of human authority (read: voting against an incumbent power) as rebellion against God.

  • We all look around at various ruling authorities in the world every day and hope and pray good people can resist them and free themselves from such oppression. We thank God for and sing hymns about successful revolutions.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands came to be because a group of people decided to no longer be subject to their ruling authorities. We now call them our Founding Fathers. The original American heroes. Celebrating their decision and its successful implementation by means of war is the center of all American patriotism. That it happened a long time ago makes it no less subject to Romans 13. Now we turn around and accuse people who do not appropriately honor on our terms that authority-rejecting revolution and the nation it birthed of not respecting and and being subject to God-appointed authorities. This is a blatant inconsistency.

King George

After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York City for the first time, a crowd of budding Americans headed for the statue of King George in Manhattan. They pulled it down and later melted it into 42,088 musket balls to shoot at British authorities.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands actively defies this universal application of Romans 13 and has done so for well over 100 years. Right or wrong, regime change is central to U.S. foreign policy, and the heart of our approach to regime change is encouraging, funding, and arming local peoples to resist, oppose, and overpower their governing authorities. We’ve done it on every continent but Antarctica and Australia. Recently. To assume Paul’s words uniquely apply to U.S. citizens but not others is not only ethnocentric, it is a terribly poor interpretation of Scripture.

  • Because of that last fact, demanding that people submit and show respect to that flag and the government for which it stands in uniform ways that you approve of actually demands they show allegiance to an entity actively defying the very principle that compels you to demand their allegiance in the first place. (I know, writing that makes my head hurt too, but it has the doubly painful quality of being true.)

I’ll stop there, though this list could continue. None of this means Paul’s words in Romans 13 (or other biblical instruction about governing authorities) are wrong or useless. It means they have a context and meaning that fits in the big picture of Scripture and isn’t determined by our current patriotic sensibilities. The Bible always demands a level of understanding and care that simply isn’t present when we turn texts into oversimplified weapons against those with whom we disagree.

One of the particular errors involved here is that we are allowing the human authority itself (and popular opinion that human authority has helped shape) to define respect and submission instead of letting the full counsel of Scripture and the lived examples of Scripture’s players form our understanding of those concepts. The assumption that the Bible’s and the world’s definitions of respect and submission would be the same or that the Bible is demanding we swallow whole the definitions of submission and respect given to us by human authority runs counter to the clear teachings of the Bible (instructive and modeled) in numerous other texts.

This isn’t an invitation to debate any particular protest, so please don’t do that here. This is a plea to use real care when handling the Scriptures – care for the Bible itself and care for the people you are using the Bible to accuse and dismiss. I know (almost) no one is purposefully misusing the text, but this is dangerous ground for people who love the Scriptures.

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I’ve been memed: a short word on dismissing people you don’t understand

We’ve been traveling and otherwise occupied since Saturday, so I’ve missed a lot of the heat over the national anthem protests. As I glance through my timeline, I’m discovering that a lot of people I know and love – friends, former teachers, mentors, etc. – seem to be closed-book indignant about and dismissive of a deeply held spiritual conviction of mine. Most of these folks are Christians. Most don’t know I have this conviction; it’s not one everyone holds, and it hasn’t seemed fruitful for me to advertise or advocate widely for it. But it’s a conviction absolutely rooted in my faith, my reading of the scriptures, and my being convinced that Jesus is King and that my whole self belongs to him. 

I think most of these people, because they love me, would be willing to sit and listen to me explain my conviction. I think most probably would disagree with me, but I don’t think any of them would respond to me with dismissive memes or decide to “unfriend” me in real life (or request that I “unfriend” them) or suggest everyone boycott me or accuse me of being an ingrate or conclude that I hate America or the troops. 
I’m not prepared to dive into this debate more deeply at the moment. I do request this: if because you love, like, or respect me, you would afford me the courtesy of listening to my deeply held conviction instead of assuming any of those things I listed about me, please extend that same courtesy to those you don’t know. Disagreement is fine. Concern, confusion, of course. But I’m not the only neighbor Jesus was referring to when he told you to “love your neighbor as yourself”. When Paul urges you “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought,” your opinions and convictions are included in that admonition. When he instructs you to “in humility consider others better than yourselves,” he means be humble and to actually assign higher value to people whose convictions you disagree with and don’t understand than to yourself. He simply can’t mean anything else if he means anything at all. 
So at the very least, by the mercy of God I beseech you, stop reacting to one behavior you don’t agree with by posting dismissive, punitive, indignant memes and words that reduce other people who you don’t understand to cliches or the worst version of who you assume they might be. Whether you know it or not, many of you have done the same to me. It’s extraordinarily rare for me to say or write something like that. So please know I’m fine. Lots of folks have been insulted and reviled far longer and with far more venom than I have, and it’s good for me to occasionally sit in that space in this very small way. But I share that you’ve done that to me because it’s true and because I think it would matter to you. And I want it to matter, not because I’m deeply wounded or need any sort of apology, but because I think it matters just as much when you do it to my brothers and sisters who you don’t know and you don’t understand. 
I’m still learning what this means in fits and starts and through regular rebellion, but I’m convinced that Jesus continues to stand and urge me and urge you: Love your neighbors – and your enemies – in the same way that you love yourself. Pray for them and bless them, not condemning, condescending prayers, but with the same kinds of prayers and blessings you pray for your friends. For your kids. For yourself.

Twenty years and twelve

The nineteenth of September will forever link two people who never heard of each other and who lived very different lives. Twenty years ago on this date Rich Mullins died in an accident on an Illinois interstate. He was 41, a year younger than I am now. Twelve years ago my Mamaw died peacefully right in front of me. She was a few weeks shy of 93.

rich1     cecil-estelle-2-2.jpg

Below are some words I wrote a couple of days after Mamaw passed in 2005. My writing and some of my perspective has changed since then, but the heart of these words has not. Both of these people shaped my life in ways I’ll never shake, one from a distance, the other up close and literally from within.

I miss them both a lot.

A good day to die

Eight years ago, back in my single metrosexual almost-North Dallas days (I don’t really know what metrosexual means, but it makes my early 20s sound more exciting, don’t you think?), I got some sad news. My friend Brad and I walked into his apartment and were greeted by a message from Brad’s roommate, a big red-headed guy named Pape (which is illogically pronounced “Poppy”). Scrawled barely legibly on a scrap of paper was this note:

your dad called – rich mullins died

Both the news itself and something about its delivery were startling to me. Why would God let Rich Mullins of all people die now and why am I finding out from a stupid note like this? Silly questions, of course, but those were my initial reactions. Strangely, though I don’t remember doing it, I apparently stole the note and kept it (sorry, Brad). I only know this because I ran across it as I was shuffling through a box of miscellaneous evidence of my pack-rattery during one of our recent moves. If I had a little more energy, I would dig around for it and scan it instead of retyping the note above. The possibility that it’s in one of the 22 boxes still stacked in our garage just barely persuades me that such an effort is completely unnecessary.

Anyway, as I think I’ve said somewhere before, Rich is one of the only people I never knew who I genuinely feel like I miss. One of my first blog posts ever alluded to this. It’s okay if you think I’m weird. I just listen to him sing and read his words and feel like he knows me better than a lot of people who actually know me. I feel like he knows life the way I know life; knows Jesus the way I know Jesus; knows failure and ache the way I know failure and ache. I think lots of different people who live very different lives feel that way about the guy, and I think that says something meaningful about the residue of his life (a phrase he’d probably like).

My point here is not to gush endlessly about Rich. I’m not writing about Rich and the day he died because Monday marked eight years since he crossed over. Not really. I’m writing about him and the day he died because Monday, eight years after Rich died, I held my grandmother’s (Mamaw to all of us) hand as she made her own crossing. After a long life in this realm that we see and smell and touch and hear and taste, her lungs quit breathing and her soul slowly vacated the broken-down body it had inhabited for nearly 93 years. My cousins David and Jesse were also at her bedside, and Amy and David’s wife Linda stood behind us as we did what we could to help escort Mamaw from here to There.

AT MamawI don’t really know what those moments were like for Mamaw. She was still and peaceful – obviously more comfortable than she’d been in the days (years, really) prior. She didn’t speak to us or acknowledge our presence in ways that we could see or hear. That had ceased the night before, when several of us had spent time with her before the medications sustaining her body were pulled back. In moments Amy, my Aunt Molly, and I will never forget, Aiden sat on a stool by Mamaw’s bed and poured three year-old tenderness all over her. Writing about it would fail to convey the ways in which his reassuring words, soft hands, and sweet smiles created life all around a dying woman.

But Monday morning was quiet. We touched her and spoke to her in whispers. Though she didn’t physically respond, I sense she was more alive than ever, as the her that was slowly became the “new her” with each fading breath. She wasn’t gone, and the shriveled shell on the bed didn’t define her. It never really did; it just appeared to. Dying just sealed the deal, finally divorcing her eternal identity from the physical confines of flesh and bone (and arthritis).

Mamaw was ready for this, and she had been for some time. In some ways she’d been ready since that day in 1982 when Papaw went on ahead of her. Most days her readiness was dignified and patient, tempered by her love for all of us and her faith in God’s curious wisdom. Other days it was less steady, driven by the frustration of pain and immobility or a deep ache to be with her Cecil. I understand and love her for both. She was faithful and sure; she was tired and fragile. I’m 63 years behind her in this journey, and I get all of that.

But I don’t think she was the only one who was ready. Tonight I talked with my cousin David, and he described a keen awareness in those final moments of Papaw waiting for her, pleased as punch that the three grandsons who could get there were by her side. David didn’t see a ghost or hear any voices; he just knew Papaw, and he knows Papaw was on hand for the big event. I wonder if we are too inclined to discount ideas like that, maybe because we’re skeptical of what we can’t see and maybe because years of powerless religion have convinced us that all the supernatural stuff happened a long time ago.

They tell us a “cloud of witnesses” continually surrounds us, apparently looking on with anticipation as we run the race marked out for us. This moment was the end of Mamaw’s race, but it was a meaningful bend in the course for the rest of us. I think David is right. I think Papaw is in that cloud — he’s probably the designated cloud farmer and janitor — and I think he’s ecstatic to have Estelle join him in keeping an eye on us. I know she is thrilled beyond all imagination to finally be with Cecil and Jesus.

Tonight I was struck by the realization that Mamaw and Rich left us on the same date. It may seem insignificant to everyone else – old folks die and famous musicians seem to have a strange and disproportionate tendency toward fatal accidents. I don’t theorize that there is some deep, divine meaning in the coincidence. I mean, these people never heard of one another. Rich smoked and cursed. Mamaw was a true, old school Southern Baptist who shocked the world when, in her last weeks as her health deteriorated, she answered a group of church folks visiting her in the hospital who asked if they could pray with her with an emphatic, “Hell yes.”

There seems to be no connection between the two but the day they died. Well, that and this: they loved a guy named Jesus desperately, and they lived their lives to follow him as best they knew how. Neither had it all right, this living as a Christian. Rich probably loved his liberty (and nicotine) too much at times. Mamaw may have been a bit too committed to certain religious traditions (like being Southern Baptist). They were both humanly flawed and incomplete. They were both heroically devoted and faithful.

So, strange as it may seem, I wonder if Rich was in that cloud that greeted Mamaw on Monday. Maybe it was his eighth birthday party and he wished for a widow to be rescued into eternity. Maybe Papaw caught him smoking in his corn field and promised not to rat him out if he’d make that wish. And maybe those wishes really come true on the other side. Who knows why September 19 is such a good day to die, but it’s two-for-two in my book.

Whatever the story, Mamaw is home — with a chain smoking vagrant named Rich, a jolly Texas logger and farmer named Cecil, and that guy named Jesus whom she followed to the end.

Mamaw, I’m glad you finally made it, and it was an honor to sit next to you on your way out. Oh, and if you’re “looking on,” go easy on the ones like Rich. I know they seem like ruffians, and maybe you never expected to see them up there, but don’t lobby to get the rules changed or anything. Some of your grand-kids are taking the same route those hoodlums took. We weren’t allowed to tell you that before, but all those secrets are history now, aren’t they?

Mamaw2_1

Estelle Belle Geldard Hatton
1912 – 2005

 

The leader of the free world

On Saturday I wrote about my deep concerns with the president’s choice to not name the particular evils of white nationalism, neo-Nazism, and the alt-right movement. Two days later, he did that. I’ve spent 24 hours reflecting on all of this, sincerely eager to root out my own biases and see the good in Trump’s decision and his words. And the words are good; refusing to acknowledge that would be, for me, obstinate cynicism. Despite my strong reservations about Trump’s character and leadership, I am daily praying for him, hoping for wisdom, goodness, and mercy. So I’m sincerely thankful for something other than a continuation of the void that stretched from Saturday to Monday morning.

And yet: the void. His refusal to be specific for those two days, certainly set against a backdrop of some history I mentioned on Saturday night (and a lot I didn’t), will remain troubling for me and for many others. I won’t belabor the reasons why that mattered so much, but it did. It does. And if you still don’t think it does, I plead with you to spend some time sincerely listening to people of color explaining why it matters. There are many who are as theologically and socially conservative as you who are happy to do so. Don’t just watch CNN or FOX and let the divisions grow deeper. Have a conversation with a real person.

And, of course, since Monday morning we’ve had multiple head-shaking presidential twitter moments that torpedoed most of the patience and trust Trump surely aimed to buoy with his more specific statement. [Literally as I wrote this, Trump walked back to his Saturday language.]

Wait, don’t leave. I promise I’m not going to do a twitter play-by-play. Who has the energy for that at this point?

I mention those tweets because of what they reveal about the striking contrast between Trump’s spirit over the last 24 hours and the spirit of Heather Heyer’s father, Mark. If you haven’t already seen this short video, please pause for three minutes and watch it:

That, folks, is your leader this week.

As I said when I tweeted this video Monday evening: This is other-worldly forgiveness. I’m a father to two daughters. This isn’t natural. It’s supernatural, the power of the cross among us.

Mark Heyer is reminding me that it’s safe to love and forgive, that it’s safe not to hate.

Despite my many years of relative political ambivalence, I think it’s a shame that the President of the United States is not only not modeling that same spirit, but he’s undermining his own words about hate and unity. The difference between what the two men have lost since Saturday is unquantifiable, yet one is angrily focused on his own mistreatment while the other is courageously modeling redeemed humanity.

As Mark Heyer points to the self-sacrificing Jesus of the cross and forgives the white supremacist who murdered his daughter, the president tweets about how he is being picked on by his “truly bad” enemies and then shares with the country a picture of a train emblazoned TRUMP running over a reporter two days after Heather was run over by a car. I mean, good grief, man.

So here’s my confession: it makes me kind of want to hate Trump. Just a little, but it’s there.

See, that’s our cycle. That’s my cycle. Even when it’s love or tolerance or grace we say we value, all it takes is a little hate to make us want to hate. Maybe all it takes is a little them…a little of the other who isn’t like me, who I don’t like, who I don’t understand.

But here is Mark Heyer, undone by the murder of his child yet unmoved by the hate that killed her. Here he is, an old man in a food pantry t-shirt on his front lawn, acting like the leader of the free world.

People need to stop hatin’, and they need to forgive each other. And I include myself in that in forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think of what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Lord, forgive ’em. They don’t know what they’re doin’.

Thank you, Mr. Heyer, for reminding me that as I labor to oppose evil in the world and call the the Church to purity in her allegiance to Jesus, my first audience is me.

Silence is political

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today in Virginia, which is to say in America, various white supremacist groups paraded around advocating for Nazi nonsense. One of them drove into a crowd of people and killed someone. There’s no need for me to report the news. You know.

A few weeks ago I started an essay explaining why, as a pastor who for a decade mostly avoided politics, I decided to start talking and writing publicly about politics in some very particular ways. I’m writing that essay because I think my shift in thinking and behavior merits some explanation for those who haven’t already tuned me out because I’ve gotten “too political”.

But today brings into sharp focus one of my reasons: I simply cannot ignore the experience of people I love who are not white who have been damaged and deeply discouraged by the politics of the last year.

Let me be clear: This is not because I feel guilty.

This is because, in my particular case, I am hearing wise, sane Christians who aren’t white – many of them as theologically conservative as Trump’s white evangelical base, some demonstrably more so – articulate the impact of this political phenomenon on them and their communities. And as a follower of Jesus, I must listen. And as I listen, I’ve been compelled to care about their experience as much as my own.

Today put on display what many outside the white evangelical mainstream have known far longer than I have known it: silence by well-meaning members of the Church who would never march in a Klan rally or use the n-word emboldens those who do and generally communicates indifference or approval.

In this particular case, when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the overwhelming majority of black and other non-white evangelicals said, “What the hell?”

My goal here is not to shame anyone for their vote, but if we’re sincerely interested in how to love those brothers and sisters well now, it’s fair to know how so many felt about the election and how they view the Church’s response today.

If you think they were overreacting, today proved otherwise.

If you aren’t sure how, take two minutes to go watch David Duke as he proudly wades through a crowd dotted by Nazi and Confederate flags and t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes and happily declares that the crowd is there to “take our country back” and “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”. Go look at how easily white nationalist Richard Spencer used Trump’s particularly non-particular response to today’s events to further lay claim to legitimate power.

These people have been emboldened by the election of Trump because they believe he is promising to give them their (white supremacist) country back, and they are here to take it.

But they’re just the fringe lunatics, right? Trump shouldn’t be unfairly saddled with an association with them, should he?

Well, let’s ask him.

In response to violence incited by assault-rifle carrying white supremacists,

In response to defiant, open advocacy for the kind of evil that a generation of Americans fought a six-year global war to put down,

In response to a man driving his car into a crowd of people and murdering a woman,

In response to those people openly associating their actions with a fulfillment of the promises of the elected President of the United States, Donald Trump tweeted this:

This and the equally generic statements he made later are not just woefully insufficient, they are strategically unspecific. The moment was ripe for Trump to speak simply and clearly: “The racism the so called ‘alt-right’ espouses is evil. I reject it top to bottom. And I reject the support of anyone and everyone who clings to this particular hate.”

His choice to speak more generally cannot be attributed to Trump’s style or a penchant for diplomatic language in response to evil or people he desires to condemn.

It seems unnecessary to document this, but Trump regularly and specifically targets those he clearly rejects with language that is anything but diplomatic. He is historically and notoriously not content to just say, “everyone who does wrong is wrong” when he has some particular wrong or enemy in his crosshairs. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is “very weak” and “disloyal”. Republican Senator Ted Cruz is “bad” and his campaign did “very sleazy and dishonest” things. The “failing New York Times” has a “sick agenda”. The media as a whole is “the enemy of the American people”.

But in response to today’s events, we get a willful refusal to name white supremacists, the alt-right, or any of its leaders or to distance himself from them even as they specifically hail him as a trailblazer for their movement. And this is not new. Trump has long avoided clearly repudiating openly racist groups who support him, a decision that can’t be anything but intentional after so much time. And lest we forget, this movement built its momentum and message on a platform provided by a man Trump chose and has kept as one of his top two advisors.

There really are only two possible explanations for this: either he does not reject the ideology of these groups as evil or he is unwilling to use words to separate himself from them and their support.

Either option is a very big deal.

We have a sitting president unwilling to clearly disavow the ideology, actions, or support of brazen, violent enemies of my brothers and sisters of color. It does not matter why.

I never wanted to get political, but I literally have no choice anymore. If I remain silent about Trump’s complicity in the evil that has plagued us as a people and tormented black Americans for centuries, I am simply choosing another kind of politics – the politics of silence in the face of evil.

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. –Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor

Wounds, yet visible above

woundsIn preparing for my Easter sermon last week, I came across a brief mention by N.T. Wright of what, prior to now, has been for me a very small and overlooked detail of the Easter story: when Jesus appeared to his friends after his resurrection, the wounds from his suffering were still visible.

This matters, not just for an Easter narrative, but for us in understanding our own wounds. Christians are prone to make much of the fact that, upon our deaths, we’ll be healed, rid of all of our current sufferings and ailments. But in our eagerness to dream of freedom from our aging, failing bodiesbodies many of us tend to despise for reasons related more to our human condition than any particular sufferingwe often conclude that we will no longer see or have record of the scars we’re accumulating along the way.

Maybe. But if that isn’t true for Jesus, why would it be true for us? What if there is a good, maybe beautiful, reason for the possibility that we’ll carry signs of our wounds with us beyond the grave? What if this is good news about the trauma and grief we accumulate along the way? 

Wright offers this possibility:

All we can surmise from the picture of Jesus’s resurrection is that just as his wounds were still visible, not now as sources of pain and death, but as signs of his victory, so the Christian’s risen body will bear such marks of his or her loyalty to God’s particular calling as are appropriate, not least where that has involved suffering.

What we do now with our lives and our bodies and what we bear in this life—yes, even in our bodies—is not just how we fill the space until the end. We are not just toiling to make the best of things, to mitigate the damage, to hold on, to pass the time. Even in our most crushing disappointments, defeats, and failures, we are building a lasting reality.

None of our suffering is in vain. None of it is wasted or worthless. All of it is seen, and it will be fulfilled and completed in God’s future.

Is life still painful at times? Absolutely, sometimes beyond what we can bear ourselves. Paul says that as long as we are alive, we are “carrying around in our bodies the reality of the brutal death and suffering of Jesus.” So any suggestion that we should be free of the pain is wishing in the dark. But he also tells us why: “…so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” And that is the best of all trades; in the death of our efforts to insulate our lives and our comfort, we find the life that is really life.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; bewildered, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

Everything we build, even when we have no idea we’re building anything at all, and even in our deepest sadness and suffering, will have a place in the eternal Kingdom. Our hardest days won’t merely be memories. They will be markings of Resurrection victory over brokenness and loss and even death.

Blessed are the peacemakers (or how to spot God’s kids)

In the fall I began leading our church community through the Sermon on the Mount, the longest recorded teaching of Jesus. We have been moving deliberately through the introduction to the sermon, a collection of blessings known as the beatitudes. What follows is an adapted transcript of my sermon on Jesus’s words about peacemakers. Since it originated as a sermon, I’ve retained some repetition and methods of emphasis that are more natural to speaking than writing. Imagine you’re hearing me preach it…or be thankful that you’re not.


peacemakers

Jesus begins the most famous sermon of his life by declaring that an assorted band of misfits and weaklings are the ones who are truly blessed: the poor and empty, the sad and broken, the quiet and unimpressive, the desperate for God’s help, the merciful, the ones who are unattached to power or money. It’s a strong start for a new preacher soon to claim to be King of the world, don’t you think?

Next he adds this:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Before exploring what he means by peacemakers, I want to give some attention to the substance of this particular blessing – being known as God’s children – because I think its attachment here is crucial.

Being a child of God is the very core of our identity, which John addresses clearly in a couple of places:

But to all who received him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.   -John 1:12-13

John says that the primary transformation in the identity of those who believe in Jesus is they become children of God.

Later he writes:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.   -1 John 3:1

Here he highlights that God’s love results in us being called children of God, using the same language Jesus uses in Matthew 5.

So both being a child of God and being called a child of God are of primary importance to people who believe we are God’s and that Jesus reveals to us both how to live and why we are living.

When we believe in Jesus, he gives us the power to become children of God, which is about both a change in our identity and a capacity for living into that identity. That gift is God’s great show of love for us.

This blessing from Jesus for peacemakers (they will be called children of God) is tied to our core identity as people of faith.

We’ve been through a similar discussion a lot over the years, so I’m not going to belabor this point, but let’s again be clear that Jesus is not saying “you earn becoming a child of God by being a peacemaker.”

The Gospel is about God’s extravagant love for us such that Jesus died for us while we were still sinning. We are made in God’s image, that image in us is cracked and broken, and God repairs the brokenness through Jesus. That and that alone makes us God’s children. As John says, it’s a gift he gives us because he loves us.

However, Jesus clearly makes a statement here that the peacemakers will be called children of God. So what does he mean?

As we discussed in the previous beatitudes, we don’t receive God’s mercy because we’ve been merciful; we embrace a life of mercy because we understand that we were given mercy when we most needed it. We don’t see God because we make our hearts pure enough; the gift of faith enables us to take our eyes off of everything else we tend to look to for security and peace and life and fix them on Jesus, and in him we see God.

Jesus is making a similar kind of statement here. You don’t become God’s child because you make enough peace to earn your way into the family. This isn’t a mantra for some sort of bizarro mafia. In the mob, you have to make enough of the right kind of havoc to become part of the family. This isn’t the peaceful version of that.

No, because God has loved us so much – because he has given us the power to become children of God – we receive that gift. And as always with Jesus, the gift of being God’s child isn’t meant for selfish gain, but for becoming part of God’s family and participating in the work of the family.

And the work of God’s family is – not as an afterthought or secondary goal, but as a primary purpose – the work of God’s family is peacemaking.

Colossians 1:15-20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Take note that this is primary doctrine about Jesus, not secondary teaching.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

And now we, the Church, are brought into it. We are caught up in what’s true about Jesus here.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” – pay attention, Paul says, because here is what happens when ALL the fullness of God comes into humanity:

God reconciles all things to himself.

How? By making peace.

And how does he make peace? Through the laying down of his own life.

So let’s take note of three truths:

  • This is God’s nature and his work among us – the making of peace by way of self-sacrifice.
  • Jesus is the head of the Church, the Church exists to follow and be like him in the world, so we are all bound to his way of self-denying peacemaking.
  • Not only is this our model – we’re going to follow this way which will turn us into peacemakers – but this is the fuel for all peace we will make. In other words, our efforts toward peacemaking won’t merely be mimicry; they will be supernaturally empowered by the work of Jesus on the cross.

Paul again, this time in Philippians 2:1-11:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

If you have any contact with or benefit from Jesus at all, embrace and perpetuate the way of peace. Moreover:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

If you follow Jesus, peace and power come not through conquering or winning – not through any of the means the world and its systems tell you are necessary for peace and power – but through service and sacrifice.

Listen, for us to believe that Jesus overcame and is overcoming all the darkness and disorder in the world by way of the cross … to know that “He completely humbled himself, therefore God exalted him and gave him the name above every name” [exaltation and empowerment were born out of humility and sacrifice] … to hear Jesus and the Scriptures call us into that way as the purpose of our lives, the road to true peace, and only means by which God’s goodness and order will enter the world…

For us to hear and believe all of that and still accept and even cling to the ways of the world in which power, money, and violence are assumed to be necessary for creating order and establishing peace is an absurdity of the highest order.

For us to hear and believe all of that and to then reject or resist making peace in the world and in our own immediate spaces, relationships, and community by laying down our lives – believing we have the weight and supernatural peace-making power of the cross behind us – is to miss the point of being a child of God.

You are not God’s child, John says, because you’re his biological descendant or through your will – not because you decided you really wanted to be a child of God. You’re a child of God because God loved you enough that he gave himself away for you, and instead of waiting for you to be behave or be peaceful, he became the way of peace for you.

And no one and no structure in this world will be reconciled any differently.

You cannot acquire enough power for yourself and we cannot acquire enough power for – and I think this message is crucial –

We cannot acquire enough power for the Church or Christianity to impose peace – real peace, God’s peace – on the world.

We cannot accumulate enough of the world’s goods or ascend high enough in the world’s power systems to bring people into proper order or make them good.

That will only happen through the peacemaking of the cross, and now that you’ve become part of the family, you are alive to participate in the family business – making peace by giving your life away where and when peace is needed.

John again:

Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.   -1 John 2:4-6

We don’t get to opt out. We’re his kids. We’re alive because he made us alive, and we exist to embrace him and his way.

So what does that look like in action?

I think when we bump up against these reminders, we tend to shift into peace-keeping mode. We assume this means we’re supposed to avoid disagreement or arguments, bottle up our questions and frustrations, resist change, talk people down, and generally try maintain a status quo that is, if we’re honest, most peaceful to me or to us.

But there’s both a human problem and a Jesus problem with that notion. The human problem is that we can’t maintain a kept peace. As I try to keep the peace, eventually my frustrations or someone else’s will boil over, the illusion of peace will disappear, weariness will set in, and we’ll give up on the idea that peace is even possible.

The Jesus problem is that he didn’t come to keep the peace. He made peace, and His peacemaking was disruptive – both to the religious system that tried to keep peace by way of power for their own good and to the hearts of men and women who insisted real human peace was their freedom to do whatever made them happy, whether or not their lives were reconciled with God’s purposes for human flourishing.

Peacemaking is not peace-keeping. In fact, peacemaking is often disruptive, especially as we enter into the way of Jesus, which is to make peace by giving ourselves away. That sometimes will lead us into a moment or movement whose purpose is to create peace for a person or a people who are being deprived of peace, not by God’s ways, but by the world’s ways.

Case in point: Last Monday was Martin Luther King day. Dr. King and his movement were disruptive, but he was a peacemaker. The argument that his kind of disruption wasn’t creating peace was made by people who already had the peace they wanted in way the world was ordered that time.

But me having the peace I want does not mean that the need for peacemaking has come to an end.

See, as those comfortable with their own peace accused Dr. King and the movement of being unreasonable and impatient and disruptive, black men, women, and children were being treated like animals. And there was nothing peaceful about that.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross to keep the peace of those conditions. He didn’t shed his blood to create a peaceable society where humans made in his image are treated as subhuman.

Jesus’s peace is a reconciling peace, and the work of the civil rights movement was bringing that reconciliation to earth as it is in Heaven.

And Dr. King and so many women and men around him aimed to make peace the way Jesus made it – by prophetically speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth while being willing to suffer alongside those who were suffering, believing that the power in that suffering was the very power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel God’s peace through sacrifice.

That is one of the enduring gifts of the civil rights movement to the Church and the world, I believe: it showed us that laying down our lives does not mean losing God’s truth or Way and taking on the way of the world.

I could go on for weeks about what this peacemaking looks like in the day-to-day, but for time and simplicity’s sake, I want to offer a couple of overarching biblical guides with a question or two (or three) for you to consider for each.

My request is that you hear these scriptures and questions as for you and not as challenges for the people you disagree with or about whom you think “I’ll be at peace with them when they…” This is for you.

James 1:19-20, 22:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

Questions: What is my guiding instinct with people I don’t understand: critical words? Anger? Or listening?

How and with whom can I actively become a disciple in the way of Jesus to be slow to speak (including my inner monologue) and quick to listen?

Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Questions: If it’s true that I don’t have to respond to people and powers I disagree with or fear with with self-protection or by overpowering them, who do I need to learn to see differently and what will it look like for me to be Christ’s ambassador of reconciliation to or for them?

Please don’t duck the difficult answers.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are very conservative and voted for Donald Trump.

For some of you answering these questions will turn your attention toward people who are really liberal who insist Trump is #notmypresident.

And without getting into a whole ‘nother sermon about what the Bible says about race and refugees and poverty, for most if not all of us, some part of answering these questions ought to turn our attention toward people who have different color skin than us or who have a lot less money than us or who came to our country fleeing oppression or poverty in some other part of the world.

Perhaps we can simplify the questions a bit and ask:

Who is not at peace in my community and my world?

What do I believe heaven looks like for those people?

How can I spend my life joining God in bringing that reality of His kingdom in heaven to earth for them?

I think understanding these two things – in Christ everything old has become new and now God is making his cross-shaped appeal through us – is the crux of living the Christian life, probably always, but certainly in our moment.

Paul says “he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”

You aren’t alive – not at any moment – for yourself or for any cause other than the cause of Christ.

And the cause of Christ is the reconciling of the world to God, which is now happening through his children, the peacemakers.

You can choose to have it said about you at the end of your life that you were a good Democrat or a good Republican – a good liberal or good conservative or libertarian – and you can offer all kinds of legal and economic and social reasons why you stood on that side with integrity.

But Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians aren’t the ones who are called the children of God; peacemakers are. And woe to us if we are known as the best, most consistent and well-intentioned [insert cause label here] and not as peacemaking children of God.

The point isn’t that being any of those things is wrong.

The point is this: no cause but the cause of Christ – anchored in the work of Jesus on the cross and the Kingdom that cross creates – is worth your identity.

When Jesus said the peacemakers “will be called” the children of God, none of us know for sure how much he meant “called by God” and how much he meant “called by the onlooking world God intends to reconcile.”

But I am certain that in our day and age, the world is not going to look at a group of policy-makers or power-acquirers or wealth-protectors and say, “Oh look, God’s children! Yeah, I see it. I see Jesus in their way.”

The world is going to see the nature of God in the peacemakers. Not the peace-keepers who just try to get everyone to get along without bugging each other. But the peacemakers – the ones who shrug off all our other labels and concerns that aren’t deeply rooted in enabling God to make his appeal of “Look at Jesus!” through us.

If that group of people can rise up and be known for speaking into this world God’s ways and God’s truth…

If that group of people can be known for suffering alongside those who are suffering and demonstrating that the power in that suffering is the reconciling, redeeming, life- and identity-changing power of the cross, which is always at work to fuel and empower the creating of God’s peace…

Then I think they – we, with God’s help – will be known as God’s children, both by the onlooking world and by God himself.

Isaiah said it this way:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
-Isaiah 58:6-8

Little black boys and black girls…little white boys and white girls

I’ve been fascinated by the life and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since the fifth grade. Over the years I’ve watched, listened to, taken classes about, and repeatedly shared his sermons and speeches and letters. I’m no expert on either, but I’ve developed a deep appreciation and affection for both Dr. King and the movement he shaped and led alongside so many other brave men and women.

So MLK Day is always a mixed bag for me. I’m thankful for any opportunity for Dr. King’s powerful words to reverberate again through our culture. I’m also reminded of how much of the struggle remains almost fifty years after his murder.

As a 41 year-old white man, I don’t always know how to think and speak and write about issues of race, ethnicity, power, privilege, and justice. My struggle is not a function of not having thoughts or opinions; it is a function of an understanding of the limitations of those thoughts and opinions and the limitations of my own experience.

So I’ve tried (and often failed, then tried again) to listen more than I speak or write. This, I’m convinced, is key to any individual or collective progress in these important areas. We must decide to be people who listen first, listen second, listen third, and then speak when our listening has given birth to empathy and wisdom.

Amy and I also have tried to help our kids see the world through the eyes of people who experienced and still experience challenges and struggles our three haven’t and never will face. We’ve tried to raise them not to be “colorblind,” but to actually see, understand, and appreciate difference.

I’d like to share just a bit of the fruit of that, and I know in doing so I risk a couple of things. I risk looking like the white guy who thinks he’s done something heroic by giving his kids a bit of exposure to black history. I also risk being the parent who wants you to see how enlightened and amazing his kids are. I don’t know how to avoid either of those perceptions, but I’ll just ask for your grace and trust that neither of those motives are in my heart.

And I want to share in spite of those risks because I want to remember and to remind you that it matters that we do this. It matters that we tell our kids about our own failures and change and growth. It’s important that they know that there is sin and shame and pain and blood in their history, but that they are not bound by any of it.

I want to share in spite of those risks because I want to remember and remind you that they’re listening. They’re listening and they’re becoming.

My 14 year-old son Aiden’s thoughts on MLK Day:

I came home from a reading and discussion of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and when I opened our front door, I heard his voice echoing from the living room. Amy and the kids were watching “I Have a Dream” as we always do on this day. Ella watched it three times in a row and drew the scene.

 

So much of Dr. King’s dream is still a dream, but not all of it. Some if it has come true and is coming true. I’m praying that our kids and your kidsthat you and I will continue to be the “coming true” as much as it’s up to us.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail (to me, to you)

king-jailIn April of 1963, twelve years before I was born, Dr. King wrote me a letter. That is to say he wrote a letter to white moderates and white clergy who either opposed the movement or were uncertain about how to respond to it and to him. He wrote that letter from jail to (mostly) white men who would offer theoretical support for civil rights but criticize King’s assertive, entirely non-violent means of working for those rights to become reality. Every time I read the letter, I see myself in it. I see myself in the white moderates he addresses who did not like hate or oppression but who lacked the understanding and sometimes courage to support the movement to undo them. I see myself in King’s hope for a better day and better way, and I pray I’ll have insight and guts to be a small part of bringing those to pass. I pray I’ll believe that this part of God’s Kingdom coming on earth is more important than comfort or money or familiarity and that my kids will believe that more than I do. 

Today, I pray you’ll read Dr. King’s letter to me and you. 


16 April 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

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. 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.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

Martin Luther King, Jr.

CHRISTMAS MEDITATION: Love Alone

Gian Carlo Menottisun

The Child we seek
doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone
he will build his kingdom.
His piercéd hand will hold no scepter,
his haloed head will wear no crown;
his might will not be built
on your toil.
Swifter than lightning
he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life
and receive our death,
and the keys to his city
belong to the poor.