MLK and dry-as-dust religion

mlk women's march4

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

The power of our words

mlk spotlight

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words.

He spoke so beautifully and prophetically about his dream of a world in which everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. He challenged society to live up to its founding words of equality, liberty and justice for all.

His enduring words reengage us, reorient us and reenergize us in the daily struggle to decide our values and live up to them.

Words matter because they always take on flesh in some form.

Words have the power to inspire us, touch us, and transform us for better or worse, depending upon which words we choose to allow inside of us. They can bring us more peace, love and justice, or they can increase our levels of division, fear and hatred.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded how easy it is to get sucked into the pool of hateful words.

A man immersed in racist words shot people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Words can inject poison into our veins, or they can be a healing antidote. They can bring illuminating hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts.

Words have power

MLK showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways using nonviolent language. He reminded us that love involves recognizing each person as a child of God and respecting their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us.

We can’t return a slur or insult with one of our own. We can’t demean anyone or support those who demean others.

Our aim is never to harm any person, but to challenge their way of thinking and to defend those whom they are hurting. We must disagree and resist without being hateful.

This weekend is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:

First, it’s so very tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. But when we do that, we’re giving power to the hateful words. We can’t go down that path.

Second, we can harm people with our silence as well as our words. Refusing to stand up against injustice – swallowing our words in the face of something that’s wrong – makes us complicit in the injustice.

Last, we must hold not only ourselves but also our leaders accountable for their words.

Silence can harm too

Religious, political and social leaders all have a “bully pulpit.” Their words are amplified throughout our society and will either elevate it or debase it. Leaders shape attitudes and inspire actions with their spoken and typed words.

When anyone in a leadership role uses language that marginalizes, demonizes or demeans, we must push back strongly, withhold our support, and hold them accountable.

This weekend reminds us how words can lead us forward or hold us back. They can promote goodness or spread darkness. They can inspire a dream or encourage destruction.

The enduring challenge is to choose our words carefully, speak them prophetically and live them courageously.

A headlight and a voice

headlight3

In the ‘60s, I attended a church that had very little to say about my world. I heard sermons about heaven, but hardly a word from the pulpit about what was happening on Earth.

And a lot was happening.

The Civil Rights Movement was forcing us to have a challenging conversation about equality. So was the women’s rights movement. With cities shrouded in fog and a river catching fire, the environmental movement questioned what we’re doing to God’s creation.

The “sexual revolution” asked whether intimacy is about more than propagating the species. The Vietnam war raised so many troubling questions about the use of power and military might.

With church so hesitant to wade into the subjects of the day, my generation began drifting away and looking for other places that were engaged in discussions about how we treat one another and our planet.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was challenging church to get its act together, get engaged and stop ignoring what was happening right outside its doors.

King told his congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” And the people in the pews who knew oppression first-hand said amen.

Dry-as-dust religion

As the Civil Rights Movement grew and many white churches either ignored or encouraged the deep injustices in our society, King challenged them directly. He lamented that the church was so often a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “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 20th Century.

“Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the Church has turned into outright disgust.”

He was prophetic. Millions of people – especially young people – have turned away in disgust at what they’ve seen and heard in organized religion. And who can blame them?

I’m disgusted by much of what’s going on, too. Sexual predators protected and applauded. Women marginalized. Racism ignored and encouraged. Gay and transgender people condemned. People of other faiths attacked. Mulligans granted for unacceptable conduct in exchange for political favor.

But I also know from experience that so many people today yearn for real faith communities — and they do exist.

People want places where they can gather and be transformed by God-filled words about loving each other, healing the broken, caring for the poor and the stranger, and nurturing creation.

They want places where they can raise important questions without being dismissed as lacking faith. They want places where people help one another heal by entering each other’s pain and guiding them through it, not just reciting a prayer for them.

They want places that speak to their world and get engaged in those many important conversations that started in the ‘50s and ‘60s and continue today.

MLK mentioned how “so often, the Church in our struggle has been a tail light rather than a headlight. The Church has so often been an echo rather than a voice.”

Hope and possibility

Many people want faith communities that are prophetic rather than merely partisan. They want a voice reminding everyone that we are all equally beloved children of God and must be treated that way in all respects.

And especially now, people want places that remind them of the reasons for hope.

Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement, says, “Christianity is, really, when you take away all the pomp and circumstance, it’s about hope and possibility.”

People need to be shown hope and possibility. They need to be reminded that God always gets the last word, even now. It’s always been that way.

Pharaoh thought he could enslave the Jewish people forever. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

Caesar and his religious minions thought they could kill Jesus, bury his spirit and end his kingdom-of-God-on-earth movement. They were wrong. God had other ideas.

A white man thought he could fire a shot toward a balcony of the Lorraine Motel and kill Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, end his movement and erase his words. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

The political, social and religious leaders of our day who promote division, supremacy and discrimination think they have the power to prevail. They’re wrong, too.

God has other ideas.

So, let’s go work together with God on those other ideas. Let’s be a headlight that shows people a different way. Let’s be a voice that leads people in a different direction.

Choose your dream

Lorraine Motel

A section of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis recalls the lunch counter protests. An old video shows young black people sitting at a counter, being denied service.

A crowd of white people has formed to watch. Young white men begin pushing the protesters. One flings a bottle of sugar on them. Others drag protesters off their stools and begin beating them.

Some white people in the crowd laugh and cheer. Others just watch – it’s difficult to make out their expressions from the grainy images. You can’t tell if they’re horrified or supportive.

In any case, none of them intervenes.

As I watched the video, I wondered: If my white face was in that crowd, how would I have reacted? Would I have intervened? Or would I have just watched and felt bad for the protesters?

Honestly, I probably would have just watched. I would have been too intimidated to speak up in a crowd. And that’s both my problem and my challenge.

I don’t have to play “what-if” and wonder what I might have done then; the challenge is how I react today.

Which dream am I living?

The National Civil Rights Museum is part of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life for his dream 50 years ago tomorrow. The many videos and displays remind us that people were forced to choose sides in the civil rights struggle.

Some chose to push back against injustice. Others tried to protect the status quo. Many thought they could just be spectators, watching without getting involved.

That’s not possible, then or now.

King was deeply disappointed with the many white moderates who refused to choose. His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white clergy who wanted him to abandon the march for justice.

King notes that some white moderates agreed with the dream but weren’t willing to embrace it or sacrifice for it. He considered them the “great stumbling block” in to the quest for equality – more than even the overt racists.

The dream is participatory. By refusing to get involved, they were siding with the KKK and the other racists who wanted to block the dream from becoming more real.

King spoke so often and so eloquently about his dream, which is based upon Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Like Jesus, he worked to make the world more of a place where the needy are cared for, the suffering are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God in all respects.

It’s never been a widely popular dream.

Merely watching isn’t an option

Many people dream of a world where people like them enjoy privilege. Those who are different from them — different color, different religion, different nationality, different sex, different sexual preference – are relegated to second-class status. They work hard to preserve a system that favors the rich and the powerful and the privileged.

Each of us must choose which of the dreams will animate our lives. This is no time for standing back and watching.

Moderation isn’t an option.

MLK’s dream endures, but it becomes rooted in our world only to the extent that we are willing to work for it and sacrifice for it – to carry a cross for it.

We’re the ones entrusted with making sure that people are considered not by the color of their skin or any other superficial measure, but by their character and heart.

We’re the ones who are given the sacred work of making sure our divine diversity is respected and encouraged.

We’re the ones who must build a table where all God’s children can sit together and eat in a spirit of mutual acceptance and love.

We’re the ones

Our society has come a long way since King’s assassination on the hotel balcony. There’s much work to be done. Those who have a different dream are out there right now advocating for it – white supremacists speaking up, the KKK and neo-Nazis marching boldly, leaders lauding them as very fine people.

What do we say? Which dream do we choose? How will we sacrifice for it?

Merely watching isn’t an acceptable option.

What’s the message about hate?

A blank sign in front of Ardmore Baptist church. Photo Pete Bannan

At a local rally against racism, speakers encouraged us to contact government leaders and urge them to speak out unequivocally against the hate parading in our streets.

What about our pastors? Shouldn’t we be asking them to do the same? And if they’re not, shouldn’t we be asking them why?

This applies whether you’re a churchgoer or not. The pulpit is a powerful platform that can be used to promote love or hate or indifference. It’s a huge part of this entire discussion.

If you attend a church, pay close attention to what’s being said and how it’s said. If you don’t participate in a faith community, pay attention to the message coming from various clergy, especially those who have a big pulpit because of their ties to the White House.

What are they telling everyone?

One of the many jarring aspects of the Civil Rights movement is how so many white churches endorsed and encouraged hatred. Some clergy condemned the marches for equality, while others tacitly supported white supremacists by refusing to talk about what was happening in the streets just outside their doors.

Some church leaders were segregationists who used cherry-picked Bible verses to try to justify their racism. Others were sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, but afraid to speak out because they might be ostracized.

Silent behind stained glass

Also, they knew they could become targets of the racists who lynched civil rights leaders and bombed not only black churches but the homes of black clergy. They could be next. They might end up having to carry that cross, too, and they were reluctant to do so.

Some white church leaders settled for addressing hate in muted terms that wouldn’t offend the white supremacists sitting in their pews. In fact, the pastors’ refusal to criticize racism directly was seen as an endorsement from God.

Of course, not all white clergy and churches cowered. A great many had the courage of their faith to stand up and lock arms in the fight for equality. They were willing to pay the price for preaching the gospel that everyone must be treated as an equally beloved child of God.

Many are doing so as well today, but many others are not.

One of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s most famous works is his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which was prompted by public opposition from eight white clergymen. The Rev. King was discouraged by the way so many white church leaders refused to join the movement for love and justice.

“I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies,” he wrote. “Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders. All too often many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

So, what about your faith community?

Has your pastor addressed the events of Charlottesville directly? Did they say that the racism and white supremacy are evil and contrary to everything that Jesus taught and lived?

Pulling a Pilate

Or did they reference the events with a brief, generalized prayer for the nation and move on? Did they talk about Charlottesville as some other place, implying that racism doesn’t need to be addressed right here as well?

Did your pastor pull a Pilate and try to wash their hands of the responsibility for addressing this deep sinfulness in our society? Or did they address it head-on?

Jesus’ God-filled life and teachings are direct, unequivocal, challenging and unpopular, both then and now. He didn’t hesitate to speak up for love and speak out against injustice, even when it cost him many followers.

What about your pastor? Are they speaking up against hate? If they are, make sure that you thank them for their prophetic courage.

If they’re not, this is the perfect time to ask them why.