Civil Righteousness

One way… One law… One weapon…

Minneapolis Minnesota

Please note that references in parentheses (-) refer to books of the Bible unless otherwise specified.

The World on the Brink

Earth: twentieth century. Obviously, not the best of times. Often, the worst of times. When Dickens’ historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, coined exploration of that theme, the “solution” then was bloody violent revolution. That spirit of violent force drives so much of western culture, we barely seem to notice or question this anymore. But there came a day when a different movement emerged to lead a society into the transforming hope of… love.

Every day, each of us and all of us together make history. Admittedly, current affairs often flood us with signs of times dominated by fear and hatefulness. But people before us experienced this, too – and lived to see hope happen. We can draw deep inspiration from such miraculous legacies. Jesus sometimes concluded his teachings with a seemingly cryptic but profound call: “Let those with ears to hear, hear” (listen). I think this also applies to history: if we listen, history also whispers hope.

Miracles at the Speed of Change

Amidst the tumultuous American 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (named for the 16th century reformer of faith and society), and the American Civil Rights movement, proclaimed a vision of God’s love – in the full scope of its wide hope. This is the gospel of the God Yahweh, who is here to deliver us with loving justice, the same yesterday, tomorrow – and today (Exodus 3; Hebrews 13). So this gospel declares with Moses and the Hebrew prophets, to all would-be over-lording powers then and now: “Set my people free.” (Exodus 1-19; see Amos; Isaiah 9, 11, 58, 61). This is the gospel of Jesus Messiah, the Servant of Yahweh, whose mission of compassionate justice promises healing for broken people and sick cultures (Isaiah 42, 61; Matthew 12; Luke 4). In a short time, this movement of loving justice changed an American society entrenched by racism. It happens!

And we can easily underestimate the magnitude of this marvel, with all that was at stake in this scenario. After exploring the Civil Rights movement and its stories in one of my classes on foundations for faith, ethics, and personal vocation, one young white woman expressed her anger that these 1960’s horrors and inspirations constitute our recent history, but so many of us don’t even learn this in our schools! What? She’s right: this is a time to learn, again if need be – so let’s rewind the film a moment.

Legalized systemic racism openly barred “Blacks” from equal participation in southern American society. Racism, then as today, often boiled beneath the surface more virulently in other parts of the country. People like one calling himself a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) – a self-appointed band of white-blooded “true” Americans hell-bent on putting racism into practice – claimed to be acting out a calling from Christ. In a long history, staunch pillars of white societies were known to spend a weeknight lynching a black man, leaving him strung up on a tree (like the Christ), and taking the Lord’s Supper in vain in white “religious” services on Sunday morning – all as if nothing is wrong with this world.1 I am reminded of one description of American affairs today: “The inability to be morally offended.”2

But, for then and now, the spiritual vision driving the American Civil Rights movement offers powerful Jesus-filled and biblically-charged potential. As echoed by the Dr. King national monument, this movement went back to Jesus and the scriptural prophets, to proclaim their promise of renewal for society through God’s justice and love. And this vision is still an opportunity to reform the vast landscape of American society and religion today!

 

Let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

“The days are coming,” declares Yahweh:
“New wine will drip from the mountains
and flow from all the hills.”

“Here is my servant… I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”

“The Spirit of Yahweh is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor…, to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor.”

– Amos; Isaiah 42, 61; Matthew 12; Luke 4 (see NIV)

 A Voice from the Mountaintop

 “I Have a Dream,” King’s speech to crowds of various races in his nation’s capital, invites us all into a day when we can sing together, “Thank God Almighty, we are [all] free at last.” This hope appeals to the American founding documents, and to the highest possible source: the promise of freedom to all people created by God. Here is the root for all rights of equal dignity: the scriptural revelation that every person is created in the very image of God (Genesis 1). So “Let us not quench our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” And let us embrace the “fierce urgency of the now… [to] let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5). Let us serve with Jesus, Yahweh’s servant bringing God’s healing justice to the cultures (Isaiah 40-66; Matthew 12; Luke 4).

 “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King’s last proclamation just before he was assassinated in Memphis, challenges us to live God’s vision of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22) as our hope now for a new Memphis. King explores when he would want to live if he could choose any time in history. He chooses the now. Yes, this is “a strange statement… because this world is all messed up.” Sound familiar? King counters with a faith I pray we will embrace today, “I see God working in this period.” And all of this is to support public-servant sanitation workers in Memphis, struggling under unjust governmental abuses, who simply seek basic life-blessings of God’s new-city vision. So this sermon calls us to ask the right question of Jesus’ “good Samaritan”: not what will happen to me if I do not protect myself?; but, what will happen to the suffering if I do not help them?

The Weapon of Love

Now it might have been “normal” amidst the prolific violence of the time for African Americans to strike back by violent means. But the faith of this movement followed Jesus’ alternative of non-violent love in the face of this world’s darkness. As with Jesus, and other followers of his teaching of love such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mahatma Gandhi, this path cost King and many others (including some white justice-activists) their own lives. But through the cost, this movement marched into a new legacy. Their testimony demonstrates that Jesus’ vision of compassionate justice can renew a culture in break-through ways. We have a long way to go still into freedom in American society in this century. The miracle of Civil Rights tells us this has happened, it can happen – it will happen again, with the promise that peace and justice will kiss with the hope that is within us (Psalm 85; I Peter 3).

This hope envisions a new society that will be better for all – a map that all religions, factions, and politics would be wise to follow today. These teachings are scandalous, including by some of today’s “progressive” standards. They assert: the white man is not the enemy – injustice is the enemy! This movement sketches in vivid action a different way, not for one race or faction alone, and not for the previously oppressed to become oppressors, but for a new society in which everyone (even peace-and-justice-loving white people) can be at home, in which all live side-by-side in genuine peace and love.5

Jesus teaches, God’s way of life for humanity (Torah) is loving God and loving all people. Bottom line, there is one “law,” one way: everything depends on love (Matthew 7, 22). The Apostle Paul declares, we can be and have everything else in the world, but if we are not love, we are nothing (I Corinthians 13). Amidst times of horrifying bloody violence, with religious and political factions seeking to make nations “great” by raw power, over all by iron-fisted ferocity, constantly a razor’s edge from backing that up with brutal force, and crossing the line in forms terrifyingly synonymous with concentration camps (including in America with fear of “strangers” in the land), servants for civil righteousness, following Jesus, can champion his one weapon for changing the world: God’s love. 

 

For learning wisdom from this history:
“Sermon On the Mount” – Jesus, Matthew’s Gospel, 5-7
Speech – M. L. King, Jr., “I have a Dream”
Feature film – Selma
Radical book – D. Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship

Readers are also encouraged to explore other posts in this series: Culture Contact.

1
For example, you can read telling case-study stories of the signs of these times in Charles Marsh’s honest book, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights.
     2 I clearly remember this striking quote from a multi-partisan PBS television discussion, but could not at present track down the particular source details.
     3 King’s dynamic “Dream” speech is freely available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARvrvJV4th4.
     4 This gritty-faith sermon can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixfwGLxRJU8.
     5 See the works of M. L. King, in A Testimony of Hope, J. M. Washington, ed.

 

God so loved the world… God is love!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…
and the tree of life…
at the middle of the great street of the city…
and the leaves of the tree
are for the healing of the cultures. 

John 3; 1 John 4; Revelation 21, 22

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