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Reflecting on MLK Jr. After a Chaotic Year

January 18, 2021

Discipleship Blog Author

Scott Long

Discipleship Pastor

Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I spend time reading, reflecting, and writing to honor his legacy. This year, his example feels all the more meaningful as our country has experienced an avalanche of racial tension and injustice. The year 2020 saw a slew of events that sparked a modern-day civil rights movement. After the killings of Breonna Taylor (March 13) and George Floyd (May 25), thousands of people across America took to the streets and internet to protest. Protests lasted over 130 days, in at least 140 cities, drawing the United States National Guard to 21 states. Major league sports, universities, corporations, the music industry, and the entertainment business are among the many who took united stands publicly to bemoan inequality in our country. The effects of people's outrage were also seen in a record number of voter participation as the American people spoke with their ballots in 2020.

As I read articles and watch videos on Dr. King's battle for civil rights, there are some things I see that I wish we could recapture today.

It takes courage to stand for what's true - Dr. King was compelled by a biblical vision of Justice (Ps. 82:3, Isaiah 1:17) and had the gall to challenge the status quo of social and economic disparities of his day. Taking this stand cost him greatly. His home was bombed. His family was harassed. In 1958 he was attacked and stabbed while on a speaking tour in Harlem. He was arrested 29 times. All of this, of course, before being assassinated on April 4,1968. Despite the cost and the certain fear it caused in his heart, Dr. King spoke truth to power and refused to accept anything less than God's image bearers being treated justly. If the church is going to be salt and light in this cultural moment, we will also have to hold to truth courageously. For some reason, there is a belief that addressing racism, police brutality, or systems that keep certain peoples disadvantaged is somehow other than gospel ministry. To speak of these things is certainly to invite labels like Marxist, anti-police, BLM supporter, social gospel warrior, liberal, or even non-Christian. Personally, as a preacher in this cultural moment, I've been labeled in some of these ways and have been met with my share of "hard conversations" from people who misunderstand my motives. None the less, God cares about the flourishing of all people. (Deut. 10:18) God cares about how we love our neighbors. (Luke 10:25-37) So if it requires being misunderstood or labeled in order to uphold the great commandment, then so be it. Jesus was also misunderstood, and people tried to assassinate him for trying to live for God's kingdom in a culture that rejected it. (Luke 4:16-30) Let's be a spirit-empowered people who are courageous enough to love like Jesus loved.

Knowing the difference between justice and vengeance - Dr. King organized protests and preached messages that were marked by a couple of things. Number one marker was they were nonviolent. If you were to do any form of protest or demonstration with Dr. King, you had to be trained in nonviolent resistance. That training included 6 principles. (1.) One can resist evil without resorting to violence. (2.) Nonviolence seeks to win the "friendship and understanding" of the opponent, not to humiliate him. (3.) Evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. (4.) Those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. (5.) Avoid external violence and internal violence of the spirit. "The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him." (6.) The resister should be motivated by love in the sense of the Greek word agape which means "understanding," or "redeeming good will for all men."

The second marker of his work was it was aimed at making wrongs right, not revenge against the oppressor. He once said this.

"Always be sure you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos."

As the church seeks to experience the already but not yet kingdom of God on earth, we can't confuse justice and vengeance. Justice and vengeance look similar at first, but vengeance is fueled by hate. The Bible tells us that vengeance belongs to God, and the Christian filled with the Holy Spirit ought not to take their own vengeance. (Rom. 12:19, 2 Thess. 1:5-6) Some of the protests mentioned before were hijacked by vengeful people who destroyed property and did violence to innocent police officers who were simply trying to do their jobs. Some of my best friends faced this cruelty unfairly, and this is not the kingdom of God either. Instead, we should seek to hold evil accountable without showing partiality to who commits that evil. Rich or poor, minority or majority, government or clergy; all are to be judged by the standard of God. We should also call people to repent of evil, (without such repentance true unity is just a myth). Upon repentance our desire ought to be reconciliation and fellowship for the glory of God, not pay back. The gospel calls us to be reconcilers instead of activists. The power of Jesus' blood is on full display when those who have every reason to be enemies are actually friends and family.

The church should be leading in this fight - Dr. King's "playbook" for his efforts in the civil rights movement was the Bible. His "teammates" were largely Christian brothers and sisters, and his "huddles" mainly met in church buildings before they acted. They would often meet in a sanctuary, sing a couple hymns, read scripture, hear a short sermon, and then march or protest. The principles mentioned before were based on a Christian ethic and required the power of the Holy Spirit to do when opposed. Dr. King was not the only leader of civil rights movement. Other pastors like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Abraham Woods, and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr. were major leaders as well. It was the Christian church—driven by a deep value of the image of God on every human soul and God's call to lift up the oppressed—that lead the way in this fight.

In our day, it's also going to take the church to bring the change we want to see. The White House won't bring change to the human heart. New policies won't change the human heart. Shifting "power" to minorities won't change the human heart. The blood of Jesus shed for sins and believed on for new life is the only thing that can change the human heart. The church is the only people who have that message and power to live its fruit. The church can't afford to punt this ministry responsibility to the world. I've heard a lot of people lament the work of organizations like "Black Lives Matter" whose methods and ideologies we would biblically disagree with. But my question is, why isn't it the church leading in this fight anyways? Why aren't we the ones showing the world that people matter to God and that every culture or ethnic group deserves equality? Why isn't the church driven by God's love for the world, showing the world how to truly love our neighbors? Why aren't we being the church, removing barriers to Jesus, instead of fighting with each other on social media over what is secular and what is biblical?

I'll tell you what's at stake if we don't. A generation of young people who have watched the church not engage and have decided the church doesn't care or love them and so they no longer want to be part of it. Dr King said this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,

"... 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."

Today young people are leaving the church in droves and hardening their hearts to anything we have to say. In fact, many are being lured into false teachings that have no orthodoxy but at least acknowledge the challenges and hurts that exist in our culture.

In all of this, the gospel witness of the church is at stake. Our ability to see people come to know and follow Jesus is at stake. The world is hurting. People are lost without hope and searching for answers. Let's be the people that Jesus poured out his blood to make us be. A light in the darkness, a city set on a hill. Let's be people who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8) These are the things that will truly unite us as one, and give us weight behind our gospel witness.

Grace and Peace, Scott Long