Neutering the Gospel

The other day I was listening to a report on NPR that was focused on The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of his most iconic presentations, “I Have a Dream.” Throughout the entire report, well done as it was, the speaker kept referring to King’s presentations as “Speeches” instead of “Sermons.” Additionally, King was mentioned only using Doctor, and not Reverend. This is nothing new; King is usually presented in this way; as the social justice/political leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His work, and the work of so many brave souls of his generation and the generations before, led to laws that worked to remedy systemic racism. And if you don’t believe that systemic racism is real, the fact that laws had to be created to fix it should be your first clue that you are wrong.

King was and is an icon in many ways; as a social justice leader, as an African American person, and as a preacher. The problem for me is this; he is rarely spoken of as a preacher, even though that position is what led him to lead the movement. His identity as a Christian has, for much of American society, been set aside. In fact, the central truth that the Civil Rights Movement was a movement of the Holy Spirit is constantly being left out of the story. Without the black church, little would have changed. I say black church because the white church was largely absent (and often opposed it) from the struggle to address the racism that has permeated our country since before it became a country. King didn’t give speeches – he preached the Gospel! His inspiration was Jesus, but he was also inspired by people of other faiths, notably Gandhi.

The job of the church has and will always be to speak truth to power. In fact, all faith communities are called to speak out when there is injustice. In America, this has been a rocky road; we clergy fear being accused of being political, so we rarely step up. When we do (yes – I am guilty of challenging powers that oppress), we can be fired or moved to another church. People will hold back their money and we will be forced out. And to be clear, we should never be partisan (like so many Evangelical clergy were during the last president’s term). We are called to support justice and equality and equity; not because we want to, but because that is our mandate and our calling. History tells us that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not want to step up and take on the burden of leadership. He, like Moses, tried to walk away from the fray. He knew that much of white America would turn on him – some would try to kill him and his family – he would be thrown into jail. King knew that his cushy position as the pastor of a large congregation would change, and the work of transforming America would cause him and his loved one pain. But he did it anyway. And he wasn’t alone. Millions of people took risks to force America to change, and the battle isn’t over.

One’s faith is not supposed to be used to control people or create laws that discriminate. Faith is meant to lift up the common good; that’s why the Apostle Paul wrote “when one rejoices, all rejoice; when one suffers, all suffer.” Only the most immature people of faith would believe that people like King shouldn’t have spoken up from a faith perspective, and many of those people are saying the same today. If our faith doesn’t exist to make everyone’s lives better, then our faith isn’t about God – it’s about the individual. Loving our neighbor as we love our self cannot be separated from loving God. And when there is injustice, we are called to act. Don’t be fooled – God is watching.

Prayer – O God of change and glory, give us the courage to right the wrongs we see around us. Help us to challenge the powerful when they use their wealth and status to take advantage of those without those privileges. Heal us. Amen.

Today’s art is a political cartoon from 1953. There is no artist listed.