These Times Call for a Prophetic Church – Rev. Kenneth Wheeler

In a truly stirring address to our reader one of the most august voices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Kenneth Wheeler, weighs in with a passionate reminder of how Jesus call for love and justice animated the very soul of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and by extension must continue to do so today. So on this day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, take in this reflection and ask God where you are to be sent!

Francisco Herrera – PhD student and Interim Editor


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Dr. King and Coretta Scott King being booked for arrest.

Edgar Hoover who was the Director of The F.B.I. during Dr. King’s life called him the most dangerous man in America. He said that because he believed although wrongly that Dr. King had Communist ties. But although Hoover was wrong about Dr. King having communist ties he was right in calling Dr. King dangerous.

He was dangerous because his message was a prophetic message that challenged a Nation’s assumptions about truth and power. Power that defined itself in the misguided notion of white supremacy that would violate and denigrate the personality and humanity of African-American people;

Many of our churches and our Pastors have lost the capacity to be dangerous because we have lost our prophetic voice and we have lost our prophetic voice because we have cleaned Jesus up and made him antiseptic and sterile so that the crosses we wear around our necks are just decoration.

In times like these we need for the church to recapture its reputation for being dangerous.

In times like these we need the church to be a drum major for Justice. In times like these we need a prophetic church – called by God to be God’s mouthpiece, called to declare “thus said the Lord.” Called to speak a Word and let the chips fall where they may, Called to march into the palace of the King and tell him, “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream” (Micah 5:24).

Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah were prophets who functioned in the 8th century BCE in Israel. They were speaking to a social and economic context very much like the times in which we live. There was a huge gap and a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The majority of wealth was concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite while the poor were scraping to get by. And most egregious was an unbridled greed and arrogance that made those in power callous to meting out justice fairly and evenly. And so when we read these words in Isaiah 58 we understand the basis for the harshness of the prophet. He says to them that God will not honor your worship because it is a sham. “You gather into your houses of worship and on your fast days you cover your head with ashes and sackcloth but you refuse to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free” (Isa. 58:4-6). Prophets don’t fleece their people.

Prophets aren’t governed by public opinion polls. By the nature of their call they will often create enemies especially those who are in seats of power. Their prophetic task will mean that they will find themselves alone and alienated from family and friends. Near the end of Dr. King’s life he found himself standing isolated and alone when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam.

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Dr. King marching against the war in Vietnam.

In 1967 Dr. King delivered perhaps one of the most important speeches of his life. Delivered at Riverside Church in New York, it was entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” – and it he made official his opposition to the Vietnam War and the reasons for his opposition. Dr. King was widely criticized for this speech from every corner, including those who had been very close to him during the Civil Rights movement. Some folk would call him a traitor because they saw this speech as an attack against President Lyndon Johnson, who had been deemed as a great friend to the Civil Rights Movement. Time Magazine called the speech demagogic slander, and The Washington Post went so far as to declare that Dr. King had diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.

King’s opposition to the war was rooted first and foremost in his understanding of a faith that saw the sanctity of life all life. War and particularly the Vietnam War and we could add the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and are fundamentally destructive to this divine principle. King saw faith as real and that is why he clung to the principle of non-violence. Non-violence was a practical and pragmatic way to live out the words of Micah 6: . “The Lord has shown us what is good and what does he require of us? But to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

All of life he said was interwoven; inextricably bound. Justice was indivisible. Violence is fundamentally a threat not only to justice but to community. Our commitment must be to justice, to building communities that provide for fairness and economic health that reach across all communities for where justice reigns peace reigns.

Too many young men and women have lost their lives over insignificant things like some insignia that bears the name of some athlete on a shoe or a jersey that somebody wants and would be willing to kill for because we have come to a place in our culture where things have become more important than a human life.

Several years ago I preached on the Southside of Chicago, in a neighborhood of where a week prior a father was in a van changing the diaper of his six month old infant when someone pulled up who obviously knew the father and let out a barrage of bullets – five of them ripping through the body of that baby. Our associations have consequences. The people we hang with if they are dealing in unsavory things have consequences and sometimes the consequences are tragic and ugly.

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When I was a Pastor at Cross Lutheran in downtown Milwaukee, I remember the cold-blooded murder of a mother, gunned-down like a dog as her young teenage year old son watched and then cradled his mother in his arms as she lay dying. Her life was taken for the contents of her purse.

Every time I think about the concealed-carry law I have to wonder what were those lawmakers thinking not only when they proposed it but when they passed it.

Dr. King talked about the need for somebody to exercise common sense. In a climate where our urban centers night after night continue to experience horrific and devastating acts of violence why do we need to put more guns in circulation and risk putting more and more innocent people in harm’s way? More importantly, what does this law teach our children about how they should settle conflict?

Jesus reminds us that if we choose to live by the law of retribution, an eye for an eye the result is blindness.

We’ve become comfortable as a people with the makeshift memorials that dot too many places in our neighborhoods that mark the spot where another one of our children have become the victims of gun violence.

And much of the responsibility for the violence that we witness I believe must be borne by the policies of a nation that have historically disregarded the humanity and dignity of communities of people because their skin color was red, black, or brown.

The sin of racism has perverted our religion, our courts and our body politic. This is the first violence and it is the violence that we must work diligently to eradicate whenever we see it and wherever it raises its ugly head.

I have come to the conclusion and we all need to come to understand that poverty is more than about individual choices and circumstances. To see poverty in this way is to miss the forces and the policies that are made by people outside of the community that often impact the poor in ways that keep them poor.

Hospitals who choose to close their doors and leave a community already desperate for good health care that’s economic violence.

Factories that choose to shut down and move to another region in the country or to move out of the country because they would like to increase their profit margins by paying lower wages and fewer benefits to people who would just be happy to have a job – that’s economic violence.

We close schools in the most challenged communities, in communities that need quality education the most, and who could benefit from having the most creative, seasoned and compassionate educators and we build prisons – that’s violence to the nth degree and we ought to be up in arms about that trigger that somebody is also pulling every day.

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Dr. King  opposed this war on moral grounds, on religious grounds – as a matter of his own faith and how he understood the mission and ministry of Jesus but he would also make a powerful connection between the injustice of that war and any war for that matter that diverts valuable resources from the poorest of the poor in our own Nation.

In his own words: “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men in my own country, I have told them that guns and violence will not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked and rightly so, what about Vietnam [and for 2020 – Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran?] They asked if our own Nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today; my own government. For the sake of these young men, for the sake of my own government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

And we cannot be silent.

Ultimately, the violence that is happening in our own communities with our children killing each other means that there is a work for us to do. We cannot give up on our children. They need us more now than ever. They need for us to care. They need for us to believe in them, to love them, to inspire them to dream. But most of all they need to see in us who are their elders a consistency between the values and morality we preach and teach matching the lives we lead.

On a larger scale we must work to build a community that is filled with quality schools and we must work to ensure that these schools are filled with educators who believe that every child is capable of learning.

We must work tirelessly to put people in offices  who will pay attention to our communities and to those issues that will allow our neighborhoods to flourish and our people to succeed.

I AM CONVINCED THAT IF WE ARE TO STEM THE TIDE OF VIOLENCE IN OUR NEIGHBORHOODS WE MUST BE COMMITTED TO THE DOING OF JUSTICE. Working to bring jobs into this city that will pay a fair and livable wage.

Because there is violence in poverty. This is the first violence. Long and protracted poverty that has become entrenched so deep that it settles into the bones is violence of the worst kind because it scars the soul. It kills one’s dreams.

When I have listened to some of the King tributes in recent years I hear a King that is unrecognizable to me. He has been turned into some kind of fairy tale figure and we end up trivializing his significance in the struggle for justice and human dignity. If his life is to have any real meaning for this age we’ve got to take him out of the monument that we have placed him in, chisel away at that rock until we touch the humanity of who he was-find the soul and the faith that allowed him to lead a movement that challenged a violent and brutal system that everyday made a conscious choice to denigrate a people and squash their personality because of the color of their skin.

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Equally, some of us have made Jesus so divine that we have made him untouchable. But that’s not the Jesus that I read about. My Bible tells me about a Jesus who went to the Temple and turned over tables and drove out those who were using religion to extort monies from the poorest members of the community. My Bible tells me about this same Jesus who came to his hometown and preached a message filled with the imagination of God:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to announce pardon to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind. To set the burdened and the battered free and to announce: that this is God’s time to act.” (Luke 4:14-21)

This is the Jesus that King came to know. This was the work and faith of Jesus that inspired him. But this is the same Jesus that we confess as Lord and Savior. This Jesus the flesh and blood Jesus who ate with sinners, who touched lepers, who healed the sick, who fed the hungry masses, who experienced the disappointment of denial and betrayal by his friends, who so loved the world that he gave his life for that world that we might have life and that life abundant not just in the great bye and bye but abundant life on this side of the grave.

They did not march for naught. They did not march so that we could turn on each other like wild dogs, not able to see each other as the brothers and sisters we are.

They did not suffer the daily humiliation of being called out of their names, of being addressed as “boy,” or “girl,” when they were 40-50-60 and 70 years old by whites who believed that Black people were less than human and not worthy of being addressed by the title of Mr. or Mrs.  No! No! They did not suffer the kind of wounds so that we can humiliate and wound each other by using the “n-word” –   word that still carries with it a kind of vitriol and poison whose primary aim is to destroy and kill; They did not march, go to jail, bleed and die so that we could ever turn on each other and wreak havoc and leave a trail of fathers broken and mothers weeping not because their children have died for something important and noble but because we felt that somebody challenged our manhood ,or disrespected us with a glance or a stare that we took as a threat.

They did not march and struggle and suffer a daily humiliation by those who thought them less than human-not worthy of the freedom of a human being-the dignity of a human being.

We celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today but surely this day is more than just about one man or one man’s life. It is about many people, a movement that grew out of a clear view that people deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.

And when I think about this struggle it was a struggle rooted in love.

Love gives us courage to fight against what is unjust and dark and evil, but it also gives us the courage to fight for our own humanity as well as the humanity of others and finally it gives us courage to act on behalf of the community to build community-a community where there is justice and dignity and opportunities for every individual to reach their full potential. These are difficult days still. There are people still living under the burden of economic oppression. We are losing to many of our young black males to prison – which Professor Michelle Alexander is calling The New Jim Crow. Poverty in this community is a nightmare. People are suffering because justice is scarce. Drugs have become a scourge on our community wreaking havoc not just upon individual lives but upon families.

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God’s ears are attuned to us. He hears our every groan. He hears our every cry.

And he’s calling out with His burning question: Who will go for us? The fullness of the Godhead is united in the question and united in the vision. Who will go?

Isaiah answered ‘Here I am Lord!” Send me.”

May it be so with you and me!

Get your courage up

There are some people counting on you and me to make our faith more than just about words.

Amen.


wheelerBorn in Vicksburg, MS. 1952 raised in Jackson, the Rev. Kenneth Wheeler was educated in the Jackson Public School System. He received B.A. in Religion 1974 from Concordia College Moorhead, MN and his M.Div. 1982 Trinity Lutheran Seminary Columbus, Ohio – and was granted an Honorary Doctorate 2018 from Wartburg Seminary. During his rich ministry life he served 18 years as Assistant to the Bishop, Greater Milwaukee Synod (ELCA) as well as pastoring 16 congregations as a trained intentional interim. In his own words, “I have a passion for justice because I believe that Justice is a Gospel issue. I have been privileged to speak in a number of places across the country on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout my ministry and that continues even in retirement.” These days, he glories in time spent wonderful wife of 44 years, Cloria – along with their three adult sons and five grand-children. In retirement their enjoy travel, reading and spending precious time with his grand-kids.

The Power of King and Comunity – Dr. Marvin E. Wickware

IMG_4512Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is upon us, and with it communities across the United States will be discussing the legacy of this – arguably the prophetic voice of the 20th century United States. My new colleague, and Assistant Professor of Church and Society and Ethics, Dr. Marvin E. Wickware has some rather insightful commentary as we get ready for Black History Month. Instead of simply looking upon, Dr. King’s legacy via his specific words and deeds, Prof. Wickware encourages the reader instead to keen in more on the life and times and peoples that comprised his prophetic formation, and then let those conditions influence us as much as does the legacy of the great man. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968

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to see a video of the full speech, click here

The night before Martin King was executed by one of white supremacy’s more blunt instruments—the lone white male shooter—he gave the speech that ends with the above lines. From time to time, I listen to King’s proclamation, to the sound of his voice on the eve of his death, and it gives me chills. It makes my heart race. When I’m peaceful enough, it makes me weep.

There was power in King’s commitment, and particularly in his ability to communicate that commitment to others, drawing them into his quest for the Promised Land. That power—passed down to King from ancestors who fought for freedom and loved one another through the struggle—has reverberated through the generations. Even today, King’s mere name has the power to inspire, to justify action and inaction alike.

This power—the power we witness in King’s voice, in his life, and in how he faced his death—is morally ambivalent, as is all power. It can be used for good or for evil.

In this short reflection on a prophet’s power, I want to point out two mistakes US Americans often make as we consider that power (whether in late January or whenever King’s name is invoked), and suggest a better way we might remember King.

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First mistake: using King’s power to assert our innocence.

We live in a time in which it could not be clearer that white supremacy is in the very bones of this nation, not only as the guiding principle of its many historical horrors, but also as an enduring corrosive poison in our body politic. But when we consider King, too often our instinct is to distance ourselves from responsibility for the reality of white supremacy. Whether we proclaim that we’re on the right side and point to our fidelity to King’s memory as proof, or cite King’s work in order to obscure contemporary racial injustice, it is a simple matter for us to use King’s power to assert our innocence.

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Second mistake: separating King’s power from the power of his community.

Perhaps we recognize that King’s prophetic power stands in judgment over our society, rather than acting as if King was simply perfecting a society founded by slaveowners and the destroyers of indigenous civilizations. Perhaps we are aware of our participation in white supremacist systems of violence and exploitation. Perhaps we have moved past the desire for innocence, and instead seek justice.

In looking to Martin King for guidance in that search for justice, there is a temptation to see him as a great leader whose work was to accomplish the deliverance of his people through his personal charisma and willpower. And, making that mistake in looking at the past, we might look to today’s prominent leaders—figures like William Barber—to take on the mantle of deliverer, or despair at the failure of such leaders to unite the nation in a single movement.

In reality, though, whatever power King displayed as a leader was dependent on the strength of the communities he led. Everyday acts of care and connection sustained the movement across the country. And as in the churches upon which the movement relied for much of its strength, the work of women was largely responsible for the power that has been too closely identified with a prominent man: in this case, Martin King.

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Black History Month 2019

As we move past King’s birthday toward February, I have a brief proposal. If Black History Month is something that matters to you—better yet, if you consistently seek to draw on the power that has been revealed in black history—learn from these two mistakes.

If you recognize within yourself or your community the tendency to cling to innocence, look to black history in search of judgment. For the white folks who are reading this, I’m not suggesting that you should wallow in white guilt. Rather, I’m suggesting that black history can offer something other than a defense of the status quo or a cathartic indulgence in guilt. Learn from the black history in your community. Look at the ways in which white supremacy has structured your life, your church, your school, your town or city. Look at how white supremacy has been defied or denied.

If you, instead, you or your community have overlooking the role of community in black history, turn to it in search of wisdom. Don’t settle for running through the major black figures, tossing in a couple women for good measure, maybe even looking for someone a little obscure. Instead, study one of the local communities that empowered and sustained the movement. Learn from their practices of care and connection. Ask what is needed in your life, your church, your school, your town or city.

There’s no doubt that Martin King was a prophet who tapped into—and passed on—great power. It’s up to us to show wisdom in drawing on that power today.

 


wickware picMarvin E. Wickware Jr. joined the LSTC faculty in July 2018. Wickware describes his research and writing as a way for him to work out the problems he has encountered while teaching and living in community with others. His experiences as a black man working in the predominantly white institutions of Duke Divinity School and a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation led to his dissertation topic of racial reconciliation in U.S. churches. He demonstrates that black and white U.S. Christians are enemies and explores the possibilities of love in light of that reality. His research draws on feminist theory and black studies and in his teaching he works to connect an understanding of theoretical and theological perspectives to the church’s engagement with pressing political and social issues.

Wickware is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and his involvement in church leadership and community organizing in Durham, N.C., enriched his teaching and research.

Op-Ed on Martin Luther King, Jr. – Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Trinity United Church of Christ

Dr TAs we leave January, going from the month where we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into Black History Month, we have a special reflection on Dr. King’s legacy penned by one of Chicago’s own. The Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, closes out this month’s series of blog posts, he leaves us with a crystal clear reminder: Do not de-radicalize King. This message has special significance today, the day of President Donald Trumps first State of the Union Address. The impact that Dr. King had on this country as a justice seeker and a Christian are undeniable, but if we today merely raise hossanahs to King’s name without the same courageous commitment to fighting all social ills, we are merely loud gongs and clanging symbols – especially if we do so despite the obvious presence of evil in our midst. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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Once   again,   as   a   nation,   we   stand   on   the   precipice   of   contradiction   and   conflict.      

This month, across the   nation,   in   various   communities,   and   across   the   City   of   Chicago,  organizations   attempted   to   celebrate   the   legacy   of   Dr.   Martin   Luther   King, Jr.,   and    the   freedom   struggle,   called   by   some,   the   Civil   Rights   Movement.     I use   the   term    “attempted”   because   most   celebrations   will   deradicalize   Dr.   King, into   a   feel-­good    rhetorical   eunuch   who   offers   no   challenge   to   America’s  open   wound   of   racial    animus   and   the   brutality   of poverty.  Dr.   King’s name   will   flow   from   the   lips   of   infantile   political   pundits,   who   offer   horrific myths  about   “manure-­‐holes”   and   ethnicity   while   simultaneously   uttering    the   name  of   a   genuine   prophet   and   morally   courageous   revolutionary   named,  Martin   Luther,   Jr.,   who   was   birthed   into   a nation   that   negated   his personhood.

In   this   moment   where   civic   and political   decency   have   been   recaptured   by  Confederate   ghosts   who   haunt   the words   of   the   president   of   the   United States, we    need   to   salvage   the   true legacy   of   Dr.   Martin   Luther   King,   Jr.,   the power  of   Fannie    Lou   Hamer   and the   brilliance   of   Bayard   Rustin.     The   truth   of   the  legacy,   and   the    impact   of the   above   individuals,   is   the   fact   that King,   Hamer,  and   Rustin   sought   to  disrupt   the   political   and   economic   structure   of   America,  based   on   a   moral vision    drawn   from   the   Abrahamic   tradition,   and   connected  to   the   spiritual work   of   the    anti-­‐colonialism   movement   of   India,   led   by   Mohandas   K. Gandhi.  

Dr.   King,   a   Baptist   preacher,   raised   in   the   Black   theological   tradition   of   resistance,    service,   and   commitment,   set   the   tone   —   nationally   —   for   Black   Southern   resistance    to   disable   vulgar   forms   of   blatant   acts   of   White supremacy.

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Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Fannie   Lou   Hamer,   a    former   sharecropper-­‐turned-­‐activist,   and non-­‐traditional   teacher,   came   from   the    same   theological   tradition   as   Martin Luther   King,   Jr.,   but   was   raised   in   the   web   of    poverty   and   sexism;   plus the  frigid   actions   of   racism   in   Mississippi.     Hamer   became    the   guiding   light   for merging   faith,   gender,   and   class   as   an   intersection.

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Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Bayard   Rustin,   who   was   Quaker,   gay,   and   a   believer   in   the   power   of   people organizing   for   change,   became   the   organizing   mentor   and   teacher   for   Dr. King   and    Fannie   Lou   Hamer   throughout   the   movement.     Each   person,   Black and   faithful,   yet    raised   in   different   circumstances   dared   to   offer   a   vision,  not   of   “making   this   country    great   again,”   but   stating,   without   equivocation:

“America   cannot   be   a   city   on   the   hill    without   treating   those   who   have been scarred   by   this   nation’s   racial   glaucoma   with    dignity   and   offering   a   new economic   and   social   vision   for   the   democratic   experiment    we   call America.”

The   rhetoric   of   Donald   Trump   demonstrates   a   deep   moral   fracture   and   flaw   in   our    nation.     The   language   of   privilege   and   undergirding   tone   of   dismissal floats   in   the   air    of   civic   conversation.     In   times   such   as   this,   we   need   not celebration   and    commemoration   of   men   and   women   who   lived   valiantly,   but we   need   to   be    disturbed   and   re-­‐energized;   not   by   the   “safe”   King,   created by   certain   persons   to    tone   down   his   radical   legacy,   but   we   need   the   radical King,   the   radical,   Hamer,   and    the   radical   Rustin.     We   do   not   need   simple slogans,   but   we   must   arm   ourselves    moral   courage,   outrage,   and   a   vision for a   nation   where   the   debilitating   effects   of    poverty,   racial   hierarchy,   and gender   marginalization   are   actively   banished   from    public   policy   and   political discourse.

I   am   not   interested   in   singing   songs   or   stating   what   “we   used   to   do.”

I   am   interested    in   fighting   and   drawing   strength   and   lessons   from   the   ancestors   of   our   struggle   and    planning   a   better   future   for   my   children.

As we celebrate King this month,   I   hope   you   will   do   more   than   remember, but join   the   fight   to   resist   policies   that   dehumanize   those   who   are   incarcerated, and    incarcerate   families   of   the   incarcerated.          Resist   words   dipped   in   fear, designed   to   demonize   “dreamers;”   brilliant   children raised in this country brought to America by parents looking for a better life.

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Resist   economic   policies   designed   to   cripple   the   poor   and   further   enrich   the  wealthy.

Resist   alleged   “bar   stool   talk,”   that   is   nothing   more   than   vile speech,   anointed by   the    racist   demons   of   this   world.        

We   need   the   legacy of   King,   the   power   of   Hamer,   the   brilliance   of   Rustin,   and   most   of  all, in the city of Chicago, we need you.

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100-Most-Powerful-029-Otis-Moss-IIIA native of Cleveland, Ohio, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III is an honors graduate of Morehouse College who earned a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and a Doctor of Ministry from Chicago Theological Seminary. A product of being invited to give Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale in 2014, his very popular book, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair, has become a staple among many Christian preachers in recent years – demonstrating a homiletic blueprint for prophetic preaching in the 21st century. Currently, he is the senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, and he is happily married to his college sweetheart, the former Monica Brown of Orlando, Florida, a Spelman College and Columbia University graduate. They are the proud parents of two creative and humorous children, Elijah Wynton and Makayla Elon.

I Will Not Be Silent – Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

fontThe Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being remembered today – on this, the national holiday that bears his name – and among his many gifts that I hope to lift up today, that of ‘truth-teller’ is one of the big ones. In a day when thirty-year-old men stalking teenage girls isn’t sexual abuse, where racism isn’t racism, and where a sitting president of the United States makes an average of 5.6 “false statements” a day, it would do us well to remember the power of telling the truth – of standing up when others want to silence you. These are the thoughts I share with you, our readers, this week – and I hope they give you some comfort and fire in these days of ours. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven gives a dramatic description of a dreamer—

Deep into the darkness peering, long

I stood there, wondering, fearing

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal

Dared to dream before.

         Mortals we are, and dreamers we are encouraged to be; but to what end?  Hear a story about a dreamer from Genesis 37:

Now Joseph had a dream…. [He said to his brothers] behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf arose and stood upright; and behold your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.”  His brothers said t him, “Are you indeed to reign over us?  Or are you indeed to have dominion over us?  So they hated him yet more for his dreams and his words….

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.  And his father said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them…Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring me word again…So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them…They saw him afar off, …They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us him.

The writer of Genesis beautifully describes the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.  Joseph is destined to play a special role in God’s history.  When he shares his dream with his brothers, they are outraged and he is condemned.  Mortals we are, and dreamers we are encouraged to be, but to what end?

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The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures were sometimes dreamers. Indeed, they were also proclaimers of God’s word and truth.  It is a rare moment when forces in history press together causing a person who is both dreamer of diving dreams and proclaimer of divine truth to emerge as leader. Such persons are of a holy substance; we call them “persons of all seasons.” I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a person—He was a “person of his time” who spoke to the immediate issues of the 1960s and a “person for all seasons” who spoke in such a way that his words ring true today and will continue to ring true in the future because he taught us about human relationships, and God’s love. He taught us about humanity’s death wish and our desire to pursue war-making instead of peace-making.

Both of today’s scripture lessons provide a launching pad for reflection on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In Isaiah 62 the prophet proclaims boldly the coming day of Zion, which will be signaled by Zion receiving a new name.  The prophet declares, “I will not keep silent; I will not rest” until that day comes.  “I will not keep silent,” the prophet cries out “until Zion is given a new name—a name that will reveal that a transformation has taken place between god and the people of Zion. Until a spirit of wholeness—shalom is with the people.” Zion will no longer be called Forsaken and the land no longer called Desolate.  The prophet declares God shall name you, and you will be called: “My delight is in her”; you, O Zion shall be called, “the Lord delights in you.”  God shall rejoice over you.  “I will not be silent,” says the prophet “until the salvation of Zion is at hand.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. like Isaiah of long ago cried out, “I will not be silent.”  Born the grandson of a sharecropper and the son of a pastor who lived in America’s south, Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up under the Jim Crow system (the separation of races).  He thought that he would like to be a lawyer when he grew up in order to help change the south’s unjust laws.  However, he changed his mind when he went away to Morehouse College, and met two ministers who showed him that ministry could and should address things like segregation, hunger, and social sickness.

King went to Crozer Seminary and after graduation became the pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955 something happened in Montgomery that changed King’s entire life. An African American woman, Rosa Parks, taking a bus home from work was seated just behind the “white section” on a bus.  By law, whites sat up front, blacks in the back.  Several white people go on the bus.  There were no more seats for them in the “white” section. So the bus driver ordered Mrs. Parks, and three other blacks to give up their seats.  The three other blacks obeyed the driver.  Mrs. Parks said, “No.”  Simply put Rosa Parks’ demonstrated “outrageous, audacious, bodacious and courageous behavior for a Black woman of her day.

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She spoke truth to power; she gave voice to the voiceless.

Rosa Parks was arrested immediately and the news of her arrest spread quickly.  A meeting was quickly called to organize a protest and Martin Luther King was chosen as the leader.  He did not want the job but he said, “History has thrust something on me which I cannot turn away.” Like the Old Testament prophet Isaiah proclaimed that Zion would have new name in recognition of its transformation, King likewise proclaimed that America would reveal a transformation within the people and within the infrastructure of our society.  The new name for America came to him in a dream.  He said, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. still have tremendous impact on us even today, but as the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates dreamers and proclaimers of God’s truth suffer.

We all know that Jesus lived the life of a servant. He suffered and God was glorified. It was as though Jesus proclaimed through is life and ministry, the same words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “I will not be silent. I will bring glory to my God.”  The New Testament lesson tells of Jesus’ first miracle—turning water into wine at a wedding celebration in the city of Cana. Since this is the first miracle where Jesus reveals himself as having power over nature, his act rings out: “I will not be silent. I am the son of the Most Holy God.”

This act is not a miracle to amaze; instead it is a sign where God is revealed to a few people.  In fact, Jesus manifests his glory to those who already believe—his disciples.  This miracle of Jesus turning water into wine is such a simple act—an act where god is revealed and honored.

As I reflect upon the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there must have been so many events that seemed like miracles to him.  Events that gave assurance that God was present; assurance that made him continue to proclaim, “I will not be silent.”

King’s commitment to non-violence began when he read a composition by Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau believed that a person had the right to disobey any law that was evil or unjust. Once Thoreau would not pay his taxes as a protest against slavery and he was put in jail.  A friend came to visit him and asked, “Why are you in jail?”  Thoreau responded, “Why are your out of jail?’

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Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

King was also greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi.  In the effort to win freedom from British rule, Gandhi told his followers to meet hate with love; to win freedom there must be suffering, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom” Gandhi told his followers, “But it must be our blood.”

King’s use of Gandhi’s technique also meant that he was following the way of Jesus Christ.  King told the people: “love rather than hate.”  Be ready to suffer violence but do not react in violence.”  When King took his movement to Birmingham, Alabama, where Bull Connor and the toughest code of segregation existed—nonviolent resistance as a strategy got tested.  The police used clubs and police dogs.

I heard Andrew Young tell about the march in Birmingham at the Riverside Church in New York City.  He said: “Then Connor ordered his men to turn on the powerful fire hoses.  But the marchers were not afraid.  Slowly we began to move forward.  The police couldn’t believe it.  They fell back without turning on the hoses.  The marchers passed them unharmed.  It was as though God had once again parted the Red Sea.”

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The Wedding at Cana

As the sign of Cana was performed without very many people’s knowledge, so this event took place without very many people acknowledging it as God’s work.  The first miracle at Cana caused the disciples to have faith in Jesus; likewise, the miracle at Birmingham caused the marchers to have faith that with God on their side, and with King’s leadership grounded in God’s love, their lives would be transformed.  Many people heard King but did not recognize that God was working through him.  It was God who gave King the dreams and the courage to declare that his dreams could become reality.  King would not keep silent as long as injustice afflicted the human family. He taught us that equality is essential to all members of the human family and that peace is the harmony of our dreams and our reality, which is the essence of shalom, or wholeness.

Mortals we are and dreamers we are encouraged to be; but to what end?  Here comes the dreamer. Come now let us kill him.  The assassin’s bullet that killed King in 1968 stilled the voice of truth but not the truth itself.  Like any prophet sent by God, King said things that many did not, and still do not, want to hear.  As Christians we are called to live the fullness of the gospel for the entire world.  The following words from King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” challenge us as a people of faith to live the fullness of the gospel.  As we hear these words let us reflect upon those places in the world where people are suffering, suffering especially because of war:

Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.  This is the calling of the children of God, and our brothers and sisters wait eagerly for our response.  Shall we say the odds are too great?  Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?  Will our message be that the focus of American life militates against their arrival as full women and men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?  The choice is our, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

(Beyond Vietnam – April 4, 1967 – click here for full audio and here for a transcript).

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King Memorial in Washington D. C.

The proclamation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday as a national holiday is a challenge to us all as we reflect on our contemporary Christian journey.

King had a dream. 

Will you share it? 

He had a dream. 

Will you live it? 

Amen.


Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.

 

 

The First MLK Parade in Lexington, VA – Rev. Lyndon Sayers

thomas110_1027092.jpgSo what do you do when your community is in a strong-hold of “Confederate American Pride”? What is it like to be a white pastor in a community where the Ku Klux Klan disseminates promotional material and hate mail? You found a parade honoring the legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s what. The pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Lexington, Virginia – Lyndon Sayers – gives us a brief account of what happened when progressive leaders in the community decided to make a strong stand for welcome and inclusivity in their community. I think this is an example of  Public Church ministerial leadership that we talk about at LSTC. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”


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From the steps of The Church of the Beatitudes – Tabgha, Israel.

Through my seminary training and serving as a pastor in my first call, I knew that the Beatitudes are a hermeneutical key for understanding not only the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, but also Jesus’ ministry and witness to God’s kingdom. Until recently many of my examples for proclaiming this gospel were things I had read or heard second-hand, not immediately connected to the people and place where I live. Things began to change as I listened to stories from members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color who live here in Rockbridge County and Lexington, Virginia.

Some of us received a sharp learning curve when KKK recruitment flyers began showing up on our neighbors’ doorsteps one morning in the spring of 2016. We realized our postcard perfect college town was in need of a different narrative. People of color had known this for a long time, but for many of us white folks living in Lexington, we had falsely assumed that our town was largely the welcoming place it appeared to those of us not dealing with daily discrimination. Even after the KKK flyers arrived in all their grainy hatefulness, many white folks continued insisting our town is a safe place. These same neighbors never considered how unsafe people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, among others, were already made to feel living here.

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Anti-KKK Rally In Lexington, KY – Monday, March 21, 2016 (Photo credit, Amy Knadler).

Our anti-KKK rally brought out nearly three hundred residents, advocating for a different vision of who we are as a community. It also led to the creation of the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE). After the rally we hosted similar events throughout the spring and summer, but one issue we kept coming back to was the MLK weekend in January. This is the one weekend in Lexington in which many of our residents feel too uncomfortable to enter public spaces in our downtown. Virginia remains a holdout for celebrating Lee-Jackson Day the Friday prior to MLK Day. Several Southern states no longer observe this as a state holiday and some municipalities within Virginia have stopped doing so as well. The effect of this juxtaposition of holidays has been for Lee-Jackson celebrations co-opting the weekend, casting Jim Crow’s shadow over MLK celebrations.

In response our anti-racism group applied for a parade permit on the same day and time that a Lee-Jackson parade had been held on the Saturday morning of the MLK weekend for the past seventeen years. After months of confusion about the city’s receipt of our parade permit and surrounding process, Lexington City Council approved unanimously to grant us a parade permit for our Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Parade this past January 15. The Sons of Confederate Veterans were granted a parade permit for their Lee-Jackson parade on Sunday afternoon the following day.

The angry reaction that followed our receiving the parade permit served as an opportunity to reinterpret the Beatitudes in a different light. It was no longer possible to interpret Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with the poor, meek, peacemakers, the persecuted, those who mourn, merely in an abstract sense. Jesus’ call for us to follow him, advocating for justice, and witnessing to his love needs an incarnational theology. This Jesus, fully human, is here among us calling us to recognize brown, black, queer, female, gender non-conforming, and disabled bodies that are not welcome to take up space in our churches and neighborhoods.

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MLK Poster, original woodblock print created by Amira Hegazy of Statement Letterpress.

I could safely ignore or at least downplay these lived realities of others without any repercussions to me. This privilege and fear to speak out is amplified serving as a pastor in a predominantly white Lutheran church in which I know that shirking my gospel responsibility to proclaim Jesus’ love more fully will not only not punish me, but even reward me for not rocking the boat.

I anticipated receiving some push-back within my congregation for speaking out and playing a public role in helping organize the MLK parade, trusting I would also receive support from leaders and members, which I did. Nevertheless I don’t think any of us as parade organizers anticipated the degree of the backlash. Neo-Confederate groups we had never heard of from North Carolina and beyond began weighing in on our local parade. There was an irony that they as outsiders to our community criticized us for not being from here.

Before long both another parade organizer, who is also a church member, and I were doxxed with our names, photos, home addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information shared repeatedly on-line. Community members began asking us for guarantees for their safety should they participate in the parade, which neither the police nor we could promise. Individuals and community groups who had previously pledged their support to march in our parade began backing out, citing fears of potential violence.

It didn’t help that seeming white allies were undermining our efforts saying things like, “Well, I like the idea of a MLK parade, but the way you went about it was all wrong” or “I support what you are doing, but you know that date has been traditionally reserved for the Lee-Jackson parade. Why are you poking the bear?”

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Flag raised by Virginia Flaggers in protest of Lexington’s MLK Parade.

At one point the Virginia Flaggers, a Neo-Confederate group based around Richmond, seized upon the division concerning the parade date and submitted a parade permit in bad faith, requesting to parade with Confederate regalia on the Monday of MLK Day. They attempted to hold MLK Day hostage, asking us to swap the Monday for the Saturday. We rejected the offer, not only on principle, but the Saturday was preferable since more people were able to participate on that day. Following this publicity stunt, they withdrew their parade permit. Instead they held a flag-raising event concurrent with our parade, erecting an 80-foot flag pole with a 20×30 foot Confederate flag next to a gun and pawn shop just outside of town. This would be the third such hate flag the Virginia Flaggers had raised along the entrance corridors leading to Lexington.

When parade day finally came none of us knew what to expect. Would people turn out or would they be too afraid? We instructed all our participants to adhere strictly to our rules of non-violence and non-engagement should any flaggers show up in counter-protest. In the end nearly a thousand residents and neighbors from nearby communities turned out for the parade. People came with homemade signs, rainbow flags, American flags. There were children, the elderly, and everyone in-between. It was a source of indescribable joy that we as a community, joined together, could take up space in our own downtown on the very day so many of us had feared in the past.

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Marchers with the front parade banner.

Together we articulated another vision of being community.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The very ones who have been dispossessed of the earth in this life will receive the earth as their home when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness. I look forward to living out glimpses of this community one parade and community celebration at a time. Much like church festivals, the festival comes alive through its being celebrated. The body of Christ nourishes, restores, and gives comfort in the sharing of the meal. Sins are forgiven and absolution is granted in the praying of the confession, gathering around the baptismal waters. As Lutherans we often forget the work of the Holy Spirit – how the Spirit enlivens and is at work in our flesh, joining our bodies to the one body of Christ, rooted in grace, mercy, and love.

Today I give pause when proclaiming Jesus’ gospel rooted in the Beatitudes. I imagine how the Spirit is at work building the coming kingdom here today. I remember how the ones Jesus blesses are especially in need of being centered and heard, while those of us more privileged need to step back. I think of my African American neighbors and what it means to live in a world that rejects their bodies and right to life.

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How do we as a church witness to Jesus’ promise that the meek will inherit the earth together with all people on the margins and intersections? To be sure many of these folks are not so meek, but amazingly bold and courageous, often offering free labor to those of us slow to catch on to the Spirit’s work. Together we are called to trust Jesus’ promise of a kingdom that is coming to life in our midst and not merely a spiritualized kingdom, indefinitely deferred. Let us as a church summon the courage and confidence to witness to the pain of those who have endured centuries of systemic injustice and pain. Let us witness to the beauty, justice, and joy of Jesus’ coming kingdom. I cannot wait for our next MLK parade, another glimpse of the kingdom, following Jesus by taking up space together with all our neighbors.


11904075_10154184239615616_7408041539713473524_n.jpgLyndon Sayers is a Lutheran pastor from Canada in his first call serving Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Lexington, Virginia. He also serves as a leader with LGBTQIA+ Rockbridge Alliance and Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE) in Rockbridge County. Lyndon doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but tries asking the questions like “can you hold the pickles?” Often he can be found wandering the streets of Lexington, talking to strangers, and listening to funky beats.

Christ-Centered Concreteness: The Christian Activism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. – Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams, McCormick Theological Seminary

Picture 002The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – two names which resound deeply among many Christians across the globe. Both were preachers, eager to bring their people into firmer alignment with God. Both were thinkers, always up-to-date on the ways that Christianity interacted with the social sciences, politics, and the day-to-day lives of their people. And both were martyrs – one for fighting tireless against the institutions and attitudes of white supremacy in the United States, the other for his effort to assassinate one of the greatest tyrants the world had ever known. Reggie Williams puts these two men side by side in this week’s post, and gives us a chance to see how we can learn from their powerful witness – a fitting way to begin this week, honoring Dr. King’s life, legacy, and work.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


Years ago, I attended a large two-day evangelical men’s conference in Oakland, California. One particular conference speaker left a strong impression as he enthusiastically argued a point about the obvious correlation between Christian men and virtue. He told us to imagine walking through a dimly lit alley late at night, to see “a group of guys” approaching us at a distance. “Would it make a difference for your peace of mind,” he said, “if you knew that the men approaching you at night in that dark alley were coming from a bar, or from a Bible study?” The answer was apparently obvious,  “Of course it would make a difference!” the speaker said. “You’d certainly feel better if you knew they were coming from a Bible Study!” According to the conference speaker, it’s self-evident that Christians aren’t dangerous; they are virtuous, caring people.

The speaker framed a picture of Christian men that conference attendees were certain was real. He stoked their zeal to believe that Christian men were a better brand of human being. The story inspired attendees to feel great about themselves, and to claim their divinely ordained leadership roles. But it was a story that was swimming in rhetoric, and it was hiding something. Who was this “we” he was referring to, who would feel safe as non-descript, ubiquitous Christian men approached?

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther king Jr. were Christian pastors and theologians who expose the lie within the rhetoric of intrinsic Christian virtue. They were pastors who advocated a Christian life that privileged justice as the way of Jesus, not individual virtue or morality. Within their social contexts they faced violent opposition from “virtuous” people who identified chiefly as Christian. Bonhoeffer’s major opponents were members of the German Christians movement who engaged in violence towards people who were not idealized Aryan, hetero, Germans. His opponents sought to make Germany great again by enabling Adolf Hitler as head of the church and the country.[1] In America, Martin Luther King Jr. was spokesperson for the modern civil right’s movement that was operationalized by black churches. Participants in the civil rights movement practiced non-cooperation with the political, economic, and social structures that have historically been organized and maintained by white supremacy. The resistance that Bonhoeffer and King met from Christians illustrates that the mere label “Christian” does not indicate that one is, or intends to be, virtuous, or concerned about the well being of others. Nor does it identify that one is following the way of Jesus. What matter’s most is our actual understanding of the way of Jesus.

The influence that Bonhoeffer and King placed on the Sermon on the Mount helped both of them to see justice as core to the way of Jesus. King’s advocacy of social justice drew directly from it, connecting what he admired of Gandhi, with  “love ethic” he saw in the Sermon on the Mount, to provide the necessary guidance to confront evil in society.[2] Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Hitler’s evil and his brave opposition against him was influenced by his read of the Sermon. In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argued that the Sermon on the Mount represents concrete commandments that Jesus expects followers to follow, concretely.

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Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

He argued that the Sermon is not a set of high ideals meant to demonstrate how impossible it is to please God, which often leads to a form of “cheap grace” that enables Christians to practice a confident defiance of God. Bonhoeffer interpreted the incarnation as a moment that fundamentally changed reality, and helped guide faithfulness. In the incarnation Christ took “the world up into himself … [thus] establish[ing] an ontological coherence”[3] of God’s reality with the reality of the world and the reunion of God with the world.[4] The reunion that occurred between God and creation in the incarnate One was accomplished in Christ, and became the new reality. Thus to behave responsibly is to act in accordance with the Christ-centered reality brought about by the incarnation. Responsible action is “the entire response, in accord with reality, to the claim of God and my neighbor” as demonstrated by the reunion of God and creation in the incarnation. [5]

With Bonhoeffer, Christianity is not described by a personal relationship with God, evidenced by adherence to a lifestyle of family values or virtues: responsible Christian action is active acceptance of “the responsibility which has been established in Christ.”[6] Bonhoeffer’s use of Stellvertretung translated as vicarious representative action, or, empathetic incarnational representative, describes Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on Christ’s acting in solidarity with others. Stellvertretung is who Jesus is and what Jesus does; Jesus’ vicarious representative action “restores communion between God and [humanity] and Christ becomes God’s sacrifice in my place.[7] Stellvertretung also describes what Jesus expects of us. We recognize and interact with Jesus in social encounters with others. Indeed, we always, only interact with others through Christ, since Christ has become vicarious representation for all of humanity before God, and before one another. Without Christ, the only freedom we know is no freedom at all. It is freedom from one another, with our heart turned inward on itself. Christ, who is for us, enables our release from the bondage of the heart turned inwards, to be free for God and one another.  This understanding of the person and work of God establishes our understanding of the person and work of Jesus, not in abstract doctrine, but in social interaction with one another.

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King’s Christology also emphasized Jesus’ being in relationship.[8] King advocated nonviolent resistance to social evil, emphasizing the value of redemptive suffering for changing the hearts of both victim and perpetrator.[9] He saw the power of God in the universe actively siding with justice—on the side of love and restoration, not hate and destruction. He often claimed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[10] King understood God to be just and loving: “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power.”[11] The “benign power” has advocates and opponents: those who actively participate in the Christ-informed drama of neighbor love, or those who ultimately fail as they oppose it.

Thus for both men, Christ-liken-ess did not consist of intangible high ideals, but of our active faithfulness to God demonstrated by our pursuit of justice.

 

There is an interesting correlation between their interpretations of the incarnate One, and the structure of the moral and loving universe. With both of them, Christians are meant to obey the call of God on our lives in daily praxis, pushing back against social evil, and guided by Christ-centered claims that promote community. Those claims may require us to contradict what may be accepted as popular moral norms, possibly defying political structures that have legalized injustice. Following Christ makes the moral arc of the universe more than an ideal; it is not a what, but a “who.” He is the incarnate Stellvertretung (for Bonhoeffer), and he is “love-correcting-what-would-work-against-love (for MLK).”[12] Christian discipleship is oriented towards praxis, becomes the moral standard in the universe, and the incarnate One determines good and bad, right and wrong incarnationally, in concrete daily social encounters, as we collectively participate with God in Christ, in the concreteness of daily life.

christian-service-100When disciples observed Christ’s behavior in context, law-breaking and norm-defying behavior is not sin; he who is performing the work of delivering love is the standard and the norm. He does the things that seem to the onlooker to be sin, yet he is consistently enacting neighbor love; he is Word and concomitantly the standard of judgment and the final judge. He is the lawbreaker, judging our social standards, disrupting practices of injustice and political oppression for the sake of justice, restoration, and a new relationship between God, humanity, and the Beloved Community. It is humiliated and sinful flesh that he carries, but it is he, the standard by which all standards are measured, and the one who is the final judge who carries it. [13] The incarnate One is the en-fleshed moral arc of the universe that is bent towards justice, when we take both arguments into account.

Christian obedience is not determined by the appearance of a moral or virtuous individual life, but by embodied faithfulness to the incarnate One. The Word made flesh is the concrete guidance that mediates our social interaction and inspiration for resistance to injustice.  His “way” as articulated in scripture and mediated in community, will always be in favor of neighbor love demonstrated as justice, sometimes in opposition to popular norms, but always in favor of the oppressed. Hence, in that dimly lit alleyway, we should not be so comforted by the label of Christian, or that they read their Bible. What we’d want to know is do they know the One who embodies love and justice?

 


ReggieWilliams-Crop.jpegThe Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams before becoming Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in 2012, he received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller in 2006 and a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Westmont College in 1995. Dr. Williams’ research interests are primarily focused on Christological hermeneutics, and Christian morality. He has a particular interest in how the Western-world understanding of Christianity has been calibrated to a false ideal that corresponds with racialized interpretations of humanity, morality, and Jesus. His current projects include an analysis of the developments within Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics, as a result of his experience in the Harlem Renaissance, 1930-31. Reggie lives in Flossmoor, Illinois with his wife Stacy. They are the proud parents of a son, Darion, and a daughter, Simone.

Citations:

[1] See Reggie L. Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, Tx: Baylor University Press, forthcoming)

[2] Martin Luther King and Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr (New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books, 1998), p. 23.

[3] See quote from Eberhard Bethge in Larry L. Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), p. 16.

[4] See Bonhoeffer and Bethge p. 222 in Rasmussen p. 37

[5] DBWE 6:280

[6] Ibid

[7] Rasmussen, p. 38.

[8] Roberts.

[9] Martin Luther King and James Melvin Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr, 1st ed. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 41.

[10] King and Washington, p. 252.

[11] Martin Luther King, Strength to Love, 1st Fortress Press ed. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 153.

[12] Cone, p. 62.

[13] Bonhoeffer, p. 106.