Reconciliation (part 2): The Beloved Community

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Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraged Christians to build a Beloved Community marked by God’s reconciliation with humankind and peace between one another.

By Joe LaGuardia and Karen Woods

Several weeks ago, Trinity’s associate pastor, Karen Woods, and I wrote an article on the art of reconciliation and truth-telling to improve race relations.  This is the second of two articles.

In the book of Genesis, God created Eden, a place where God and humans communed together (Genesis 2).  There, a man and a woman were equal partners in having dominion over the earth.

In Genesis 3, however, a crafty serpent exploited that one nagging feeling we humans have: That if we step out on our own and be like gods, then we can live independently from God.

By listening to the serpent, Adam and Eve sinned.  Division resulted:  Humans were cast out of the garden, hid from God, and were ashamed of one another.

Part of God’s punishment affirmed that division: men and women would live in a hierarchy from then on (Genesis 3:16).

People experience that division throughout the Bible until, at the appointed time, God sent Jesus the Messiah to die on the cross for Adam and Eve’s (and our) sins.  Jesus’ resurrection and victory over death reversed the disharmony between God and humans, and humans one to another.

In Christ, all barriers fell away.

Jesus said that the greatest commandments was love for God and for neighbor.  Paul argued that “in Christ” divisions do not define people (Galatians 3:28).  Rather, people are brought into harmony with God and with one another.

Paul echoed this miraculous act in Ephesians 2:13-16, which states that Jesus’ blood brings us near to God and breaks down walls of division and hostility between people.  We become a “new humanity” that makes up God’s family.

In Christ, there is no slave or free, male or female, Gentile or Jew.  Christ rebuilds Eden 2.0.

No one cannot guarantee that all people will make a decision to follow Christ in order to benefit from that peace and reconciliation.  But that is between individuals and God.

Our concern relates to those who call Christ “Lord.”  Christians are obliged to live in this new humanity and model a household of God that invites people–regardless of differences–into what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the Beloved Community.”

Jesus created this community before America was discovered, before slavery, before we were born, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Acts Rights of 1965, 1970, 1975, and 1982.

No amount of legislation makes us equal.  Only living into God’s “new humanity” does.  In that sense, Martin L. King, Jr.’s dream was not far from the Jesus’ vision for how the Kingdom of God plays out in every day life.

There is another thing about Jesus’ act of reconciliation: it never ends.

For far too long, we Christians have ignored what Jesus did on the cross, and many churches remain segregated, stagnate, lost, and aloof.   In some cases, churches adhere more to the partisan politics of the state than the reconciling politics of Christ’s cross.

The major thrust of responsibility falls on Christians because the church is to be a space where co-existence and peace flourish.  If Christians do not discuss these important matters of justice, trust, reconciliation, then who will discuss these matters?

Our concluding questions are important ones for our readers to ponder: What would America look like if Christians practiced a true spirit of peace and co-existence in a fully-realized Beloved Community?  How would our churches, faith, and our very lives change if we adhered to the truths set forth in Paul’s second chapter to the churches in Ephesus?

How would we spread that Beloved Community beyond the walls of the church in order to bring about just communities in which racial profiling, economic inequality, and discrimination no longer have strongholds over the institutions our nation holds most dear?

May God bless us with a Christ-centered vision that overcomes the many divides that create hostility.  May God bless us with renewed hope that the Beloved Community is still our inheritance, a blank check ready to be cashed.

 

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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, legacy inspires pause during 2016 election season

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By Joe LaGuardia.  This is a new take on an old blog post; reprinted with revisions from 2010.

With a new Congress taking office, political speeches becoming even more heated, and an 2016 election season already underway, the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., this weekend should give Christians pause as to their place in modern society.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heroes of the faith.  For me, King’s heroism resulted from his ability to stand up against the tidal-wave of public opinion and divisive rhetoric in order to uphold the values and convictions he held so dear.

During King’s day, there were several major impediments to furthering the goals of the Civil Rights movement.  One impediment originated from the many local and national policies that upheld a “separate but equal” status quo.  The other impediment was the subtle, yet loud voice of public opinion opposing greater equality for minorities in society.

Public opinion, usually expressed in opinion polls, is a necessity in politics.  It measures public sentiment; however, what the Civil Rights era proved was that public opinion—especially of the majority—does not necessarily reflect a biblical worldview.

Politicians and pundits rely heavily on public opinion to shape national debates, and sometimes public opinion can change depending on the questions asked.  For instance, a survey may show that a majority of Americans are against “Obamacare,” but may favor the “Affordable Care Act.”  Not many people realize that they are the same thing.

When Dr. King faced majority opinion in opposition to the Civil Rights cause in the mid-1960s, he noted on more than one occasion that Christians rarely walk to the beat of the populist drum.  Nor are they to be fooled by rhetorical loop-d-loops.

One of King’s most moving sermons, “Transformed Nonconformist,” claimed that Christians are citizens of two worlds but ultimately answer to the heavenly realm. He said that conformity to public opinion can sometimes lead Christians away from Christ.

He opined, “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.”

For King, conformity to public opinion was simply another form of slavery: “Any Christian who blindly accepts the opinions of the majority and in fear and timidity follows a path of expediency and social approval is a mental and spiritual slave.”

He also recognized that churches can also fall prey to conformity if they do not critically assess how God might be bringing about aspects of His Kingdom on earth through reflection and dialogue.  Sometimes God’s way of doing things looks very different than what a crowd might advocate.

Churches that simply fall in line with the rest of America without a sense of moral discernment and prayer can easily blur the line between prophetic engagement and partisanship.  The church that does not embody God’s reign looks no different than a political action committee.

King’s sermon rings with a certain poignancy: “Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion…Have we ministers of Jesus Christ sacrificed the truth on the altar of self-interest and, like Pilate, yielded our convictions to the demands of the crowd?”

Going against public opinion for its own stake was not what King was all about; rather, he challenged his audience to consider how convictions shape civil discourse. In other words, King never went rogue; his convictions were born out of a strong and consistent sense of righteousness.  In spite of public opinion, which changes from day to day, King kept in mind the bigger picture of God’s unfolding history.

I do not doubt that opinion polls are extremely useful in many situations; nevertheless, they are not necessarily designed to determine what Christians are to believe about public policy. Aside from making great strides in social justice for African Americans, this profound lesson is—in my mind—one of the greatest contributions that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement as a whole made to American society.  Let us keep King’s vision ever before us as the next election season unfolds.

Letter from Birmingham Jail still challenges Church even after 50 years

Birmingham JailThis April marks the 50th anniversary of one of best treatises written during the Civil Rights movement: Martin Luther King, Jr’s letter from the Birmingham jail.  Although Dr. King wrote it on slips of newspaper while leaning against the wall and had it copy-edited a few weeks later, this shining jewel of an epistle still resonates today.

In the spring of 1963 the Birmingham bus boycott was in full affect.  America was in a state of unrest; a young Civil Rights movement teetered between violent outrage and Dr. King’s non-violent disobedience.  The movement warred with the white establishment, government, and local agitators.  Hundreds marched in the streets; many were thrown in jail.

While Dr. King was in jail for yet another protest, white clergy sent Dr. King a letter imploring Civil Rights leaders to cease civil disobedience, violent or otherwise.  Civil Rights and equality, they argued, would be won by different means, be it in the court system or through legislation.

Dr. King’s letter protested against that line of thought.  He believed that the black community had waited long enough, that the blank check of freedom guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence was long overdue for depositing.

In a scathing attack of this philosophy, he wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride towards freedom is not the White Citizens 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 an absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

I get goosebumps every time I read that.  For Dr. King, white clergy (and their churches) made up just one more cog in a broken system of injustice. They served as another layer of systemic dysfunction.

In a sermon entitled, “Transformed Nonconformist,” Dr. King explained that clergy and churches have hindered progress throughout history: “The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimony to the fact that the church has harkened more to the authority of the world than to the authority of God.”

Many times, churches and clergy are still guilty of failing to “let justice roll down like the waters” (Amos 5:24): Even now, clergy can promote hate-speech and prejudice.  Churches ignore economic policies that neglect the poor.  Clergy turn a blind eye to legislation that systematizes–and in many ways sensationalizes–violence, war, and disparity.

Yet, it is the church that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement–and many other social justice movements–in the past.  Women’s suffrage, the pro-life movement, and the abolition of slavery are all products of the church.  My own home church in Florida wasn’t perfect, but we still empowered poor women and women on the margins by protesting abortion clinics, funding pro-life clinics, and providing much needed solace to one-time prostitutes and adult entertainers throughout Broward County.

For all of the injustice churches have promoted throughout history, good and righteousness are still very much a part of the church’s fabric.  Even Peter, upon whom Jesus built the church, needed to learn how to minister effectively despite his own prejudices and sin (see Acts 10:9-16).  For all its oddity and failure, a church filled with sinners trying to find their way is still Christ’s church.

Of course, each church has its own political flavor, and I am in no position to answer Dr. King’s challenge–I too stand guilty of Dr. King’s charge that, “The ultimate tragedy is not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people.”

But the Easter season is a good time to consider God’s justice for this time and place.  We can debate politics and the Bible all we want; but, at day’s end, we cannot sit idly by in an ever-changing world in which the marginalized continue to get pushed to the margins, and the privileged continue to gain more prestige.  Let Easter justice roll down, O Lord, let Easter justice roll down; and give us the courage to find our way.