Martin Luther King, Jr., sought not only to change society, but to reform religion as well. From the start, he challenged people of faith to recognize the demands of their faith and live them courageously.
He challenges us today.
He reminds us that we can’t call ourselves people of faith if we lack interest in how people are being treated. We can’t be indifferent to the suffering of others and claim that we’re living by the admonition to love one another.
King understood that people of faith are not only obligated to transform their societies through the power of love, they’re in a unique position to do so.
As a young pastor in Montgomery — in the heart of Klan country — MLK noted that so many churches were talking about heaven but ignoring the injustices right outside their doors. He said any religion that’s not concerned with how God’s children are being treated is “a dry-as-dust religion.”
The Civil Rights Movement got its flashpoint when Sunday school teacher Rosa Parks decided faith impelled her to resist an unjust transportation system. Black church leaders used the moment to push for equality for all God’s children.
Many white churches resisted. Years later, when he was imprisoned for a march in Birmingham, MLK wrote his famous letter pushing back against white clergy urging him to be silent and go away.
King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that any church which fails to bring God’s values to bear on conditions in our world “will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning” for contemporary times.
Irrelevant social clubs
King observes how young people in particular were drifting away, their disappointment turning into disgust for what was being passed off as church in so many instances.
He was prophetic.
A half-century later, millions have left churches that feel dry as dust, searching instead for authentic faith communities. They seek the places that are rooted in love and follow the historical summons to care for the needy, welcome the stranger, embrace the refugee, heal the sick, and challenge systems that harm God’s children.
They’ve given up on churches that are fixated on sex and indifferent to injustice. They want nothing to do with places that are invested in liturgy but lacking in love.
Breathe new life into dust
Love is the foundation of all living religion, and it isn’t a feeling or an ideal. It’s a commitment to treat others as ourselves and stand with those who are marginalized.
When we’re animated by such faith, we follow wherever it leads us, even when the path is unpopular, unsettling, uncharted and unsafe.
If our lives aren’t enlivened by such love, then they’re dry as dust. MLK reminds us that when we refuse to stand up for what is right, our lives have essentially ended. If our lives stand for nothing more than self-interest, it’s as though we’re not even here.
This summons to people of faith extends to us today.
Love — the real thing — can breathe new life into any life, society or religion that has become dry as dust. Love and love alone has the power to resurrect.
“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
— from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963