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.

Advent Calendar

Rowan Williamsnight

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

 

 

Remembering that it happened once

Wendell Berrybarn

Remembering that it happened once,

We cannot turn away the thought,

As we go out, cold, to our barns

Toward the long night’s end, that we

Ourselves are living in the world

It happened in when it first happened,

That we ourselves, opening a stall

(A latch thrown open countless times

Before), might find them breathing there,

Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,

The mother kneeling over Him,

The husband standing in belief

He scarcely can believe, in light

That lights them from no source we see,

An April morning’s light, the air

Around them joyful as a choir.

We stand with one hand on the door,

Looking into another world

That is this world, the pale daylight

Coming just as before, our chores

To do, the cattle all awake,

Our own frozen breath hanging

In front of us; and we are here

As we have never been before,

Sighted as not before, our place

Holy, although we knew it not.

 

[photo: Leif Enger, another of my favorite writers]

How to vote

how-to-vote

A few words before you vote tomorrow…or, if you’ve already voted, before you plant yourself in front of the teevee and pray to the God you do or don’t believe in…or, if you don’t plan to vote, before you climb into your storm shelter until sometime next week:

Do only what your spirit – your conscience – tells you is right.

Dozens of people have come to me in lament or confusion or anger or bewilderment or excitement (yes, a few) about what they’ll do tomorrow. And I do have opinions about the candidates and the situation, some of which I’ve shared rather openly.

But my only advice now is this: go to bed Tuesday night with a clear conscience.

Whatever you do, whatever you don’t do, resist the pressure to do what they tell you you must do. And they are those who you trust least and those who you trust most who hasten to tell you that what they will do is what you must do.

I don’t mean don’t listen to others. One of my clearest conclusions in the wake of this season is that we are terrible, terrible listeners.

So listen. Listen to be challenged, to be changed, and to be a more gracious and empathetic human.

And then do what you believe is right, no matter how obvious or unfamiliar it seems … no matter what you fear anyone else might think about what you do. Don’t do it defiantly. Do it humbly. Do it eager to continue learning about what you’ve done, about who we are, and about where we’re headed. Do it hoping for a better way for all of us.

I understand many aren’t sure what is right. That’s ok. Do your best, and DON’T do something that sits sideways in your soul. You owe no duty to any man or government that would compel you to say “yes” to anyone or anything you can’t in good conscience say “yes” to – and I include in that statement the possibility that some will be unable in good conscience to say “yes” to anyone.

In a conversation with a government official, Saint Paul the apostle said these words: “For that reason I make it my settled aim to always have a clear conscience before God and all people.”

You might get it wrong tomorrow. Lots of people will. It’s ok to get it wrong. Just don’t get it wrong because you’re afraid or because anyone’s opinion – mine included – cajoled, shamed, or bullied you toward doing anything that does not seem right to you.

Shut off the noise. Defy the fear. And make it your settled aim to go to bed tomorrow with a clear conscience before God and all people.


I still have a pile of thoughts about what I’ve seen and learned – and what I still haven’t figured out – during this strange act of the American story. At one time I thought I would complete a final passage before everyone votes, but it no longer seems helpful to add more noise to the crescendo of election-eve opinion. Someday soon, I’ll share some of that as a post-script of sorts.

A pre-election Sabbath meditation – for the believer and the skeptic

In just under three days’ time, the citizens of the United States will finish electing a new president. If my capacity to read public sentiment is even average, then most Americans are less excited than we have ever been about what was once the pinnacle expression of our collective identity. I recall being seventeen-and-a-half and wishing with all my little patriotic heart that I could cast a vote on November 3, 1992.

Today I join many in my generation – and in generations above and below mine – who grew up believing in America but who are struggling to muster even the slightest positive feeling or thought about exercising this treasured freedom. We once used the term “civic duty” with reverence; now it describes an obligation that seems stripped of the sacred.

So as an American and a man and a pastor, I offer to believers and skeptics alike this pre-election Sabbath mediation – not from above the fray, but from the midst of it:

This is not the end.

Whether you believe with all your heart in the USA or you’ve had your heart and faith so broken by chaos and corrupt character that you haven’t an ounce of faith left in your body, a better day than 8 November 2016 is coming.

Whether it’s still a grand ol’ flag to you or you’ve ceased to see the valor in the stars and stripes, the final chapter is not to be written this week.

Whether you place your hand proudly over your beating heart to emphatically answer “Yes!” to the question, “Oh say can you see…?” or you solemnly sympathize with those who drop to a knee to spill the secret that, “no, some of us cannot see…,” the innate human hunger for freedom that inspires both will not be extinguished by Hillary Clinton, by Donald Trump, by the anthem-singers, or by the kneeling protestors.

Whether you are convinced that voting for an R- or D- is an objective good even if the name next to it ain’t so good this time around or you find absolutely no comfort in party platforms if the name after the hyphen is so tarnished that you can no longer make any sense of the letter before it, good parties will not save us and bad names will not damn us.

Whether you are a fervent believer – a patriot to the core – or a bewildered skeptic – unsure that nationalistic faith can ever deliver – take heart!

This is not the end.

I offer such hope as a professing skeptic, unpersuaded of the virtue of a vote for either candidate this week, and all but void of belief that either party can make America great again. But I am not afraid. I hope because our ability to live a rich and meaningful life does not rest on the greatness of America.

No matter how much you believe in America – past, present, or future – she will let you down. She will break your heart. She will do bad things and elect bad leaders and empower bad judges. She will try to ensure freedom and fail; she will decide to restrict freedom and succeed. America also will do all kinds of incomparable good, yes, but she will never prove a reliable anchor for anyone’s soul.

So rest. On this Sabbath before the 2016 election, rest, and do not be afraid.

This week we will work – work to offer what we can to make America better…or to keep it from getting as bad as we think it could…or to to shield ourselves from the whole blasted mess.

But today we rest. We rest, assured that imperfect America can’t give us liberty and lasting joy, but she can’t take it either. Whether led by the noblest or most deplorable among us, America is our geography and our history and our collective labor, but America is not our source or our end. We are created with care, made for wholeness, and freely offered a grace of redemption and life that no man, woman, or nation can take.

 
Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
  our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
  when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
  for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

sunset

“Character counts,” they said

I really, really wish the people who for my entire life have insisted character matters, even and especially among our leaders, would stop sharing their rationalizations for the utterly repugnant behavior of the candidate they’re supporting or planning to support. I sincerely don’t begrudge or look down on anyone voting for whomever they choose, but this is not about my opinion on who people are voting for. It’s about the minimization and defense of the kind of stuff you’d discipline your kids for or fire an employee for or oust a teacher or principal for. There’s a difference between soberly voting as you decide you should vote and joining a public apologetic for unrepentant ugliness. Be released – you don’t have to defend that garbage. Just vote.

But please stop telling us we aren’t electing a preacher in chief. I’m aware. (I’m a preacher, and I’d be less likely than most to vote for one.) But we weren’t electing a preacher in any of the previous elections or administrations when you (and sometimes I) lamented and lambasted the immoral attitudes and activities of candidates you (and I) opposed. We said then that integrity mattered, politics be damned, remember?

Please stop telling us that no one is perfect, as if that applies to your candidate but not the other. As if none of us have the intelligence or discernment to know the difference between imperfection and belligerent contempt for decency.

If you’re done with all of that – if power and money and whatever else are the measures that actually count now instead of character and respectability – just say so. Cash it in. But be clear about it. Don’t play the game and minimize the childish nonsense, irresponsibility, and disregard for “lesser” people, and then circle back to preaching about character when it seems convenient again. It will be a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal. And our ears are already bleeding.

On Trump reportedly getting saved

Last week, James Dobson let us know that Donald Trump recently professed a newfound faith in Jesus. I’m not sure what Dobson’s intention was in making this public, but I’d like to suggest something to Christians who are inclined to immediately react in one direction or the other – to either scoff at this as a certain political ploy or to see it as some sort of new evidence that a vote for Trump might be a good idea for Christians after all. My suggestion: whatever you think of Trump or Dobson, it is ok to be measured, compassionate, nuanced, and discerning in your response.

At a personal level, we can set aside cynicism, assume the best, and embrace the man who professes faith. Really. We can. I’ve seen many people come to faith who I was prone to suspect as insincere, and that suspicion was at least as much about me as about them. This is no different. I mean, this is the goal, right? To see women and men have their lives changed by the good news – even and especially the ones who we think least likely? Time will demonstrate whether or not someone has truly given his life away; our cynicism and sarcasm simply aren’t necessary to speed that process along (a truth I forget or ignore far too often).

At a political level, I think it is wise to ask what meaning we are supposed to attach to Dobson’s announcement. First, this reveals that Trump’s prior claim to being “a great Christian” was either insincere or mistaken; it seems reasonable for Mr. Trump to clarify now by telling us which. (I know…it was kind of funny either way, but it apparently wasn’t true.) Second, this means he is a brand new believer, and Christians almost unanimously agree that a new faith would not qualify one for leadership in a context where credibility or authority is somehow derived from or enhanced by that faith. So we will be suspicious if professing Christians who long have held that position begin offering some sort of enhanced political endorsement of Trump based on this newfound faith, and I think that suspicion is based on discernment, not cynicism. And finally, we are 7.5 years into the tenure of a president whose long-standing and clear profession of faith in Jesus has meant nothing to most folks on the right in terms of his qualification to lead. It isn’t necessary to get into one’s opinion about Obama or his faith; it is sufficient to note that we have from certain quarters an established precedent that a professed faith alone is not a reason for Christians to rally behind a candidate. If we now get a different message from those quarters, something is amiss. And it’s ok to say so.

Wise as serpents. Innocent as doves. A man’s declaration of faith is no time to ridicule him personally. A candidate whose life and words are dramatically and defiantly askew of the model of Jesus suddenly claiming the faith of much of his desired constituency (and a scurry of surrogates suggesting this is a game-changer for that constituency) is certainly a time for questions and discernment.

Both are possible.