Friday, January 22, 2016

Martin Luther King Jr. Knew God’s Synthesis of Love and Justice

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.   When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.  Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.  – Unknown Author

In our socially, economically, and spiritually troubled culture, many have taken up the banner of “social justice” to make a difference.  Moved with deep emotion and compassion, they press for justice on behalf of the poor and minorities.  Others carry the “social justice” banner simply for political or economic gain.  Regardless of their intentions, all will do well to remember the elements of Christian love and righteousness that were at the forefront of the civil rights movement of the last century.  Otherwise, well meaning movements will generate a lot of steam and even explosions, while virtues of the human heart are no longer present to bring lasting unity and peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Supporters
This week, we celebrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose leadership based on Christian love and forgiveness did much to bring into reality the biblical teaching that “all men are created equal.”  Dr. King awakened us to the true meaning of the words from our Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, “…one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The following excerpt of Dr. King’s book, Strength to Love, reveals how he framed his vision for “liberty and justice for all” within a Christian, Gospel framework:

At times we need to know that the Lord is a God of justice. When slumbering giants of injustice emerge in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of power who can cut them down like the grass and leave them withering like the Greek herb. When our most tireless efforts fail to stop the surging sweep of oppression, we need to know that in this universe is a God whose matchless strength is a fit contrast to the sordid weakness of man. But there are also times when we need to know that God possesses love and mercy. When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice that will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.

Without his faith in God’s “synthesis of love and justice,” Martin Luther King Jr. would have accomplished little more than a humanistic attempt at “social justice."  Instead of peaceful demonstrations, he would have simply stoked the fires of anger and produced lawless crowds that trampled on justice while pursuing “what seemed right in their own eyes."  Such a non-biblical worldview of justice brings out self-appointed activists who dismiss God completely or follow a one-dimensional "god of justice" and "power."  When this false god sees “slumbering giants of injustice,” he will "cut them down like grass", and "leave them withering."  Last year, we saw in Ferguson and Baltimore that a godless view of justice merely stirs angry, violent protests and actually contributes to the undoing of what Dr. King and his followers gained.  

Thankfully, Dr. King followed his vision of God’s “synthesis of love and justice” and led hundreds of thousands to follow him in non-violent marches that eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Baptist pastor’s dream was that God’s love and justice “will lead us through life's dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment."  It follows that any efforts for social justice must be civil and peaceable, and led by those who understand that true social justice is only possible when, in the words of Jesus, people “know the truth, and the truth will make you free (John 8: 32)."

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr., let us join him and other Christian leaders of the past whose priority was to "preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1: 23-24)." May God grant us the eyes and mind of Christ, full of truth, mercy, love, and compassion toward our neighbor, whether rich or poor, powerful or destitute?  For, if we do not know Christ, we are "dead in [our] trespasses and sins,” and our greatest need is to be raised from the dead by faith (Ephesians 2: 8-9).  This spiritual resurrection as "new creatures in Christ" is only possible by the "washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.(Titus 3:5)."  As “new creatures” in Christ, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do what Jesus would do in the midst of injustice.  We can study His life in the Gospels to nurture the “mind of Christ” within us, especially important in today’s divided culture.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the coverage of the nonviolent protests led by Dr. King was possible through newspapers, radio, and the fledgling stages of broadcast television.  Those who opposed his efforts used the power of the pen as well as radio and TV; and, some used stones, bricks, and other violent methods.  Now, we still have these same tools plus the additional technology of social media. 

Internet and social media allow a more rapid spread of news and commentary than in Dr. King’s time.  But when Christian virtue does not govern the minds and hearts of those who use social media to promote social justice or any other political message, these technologies become the purveyors of miscommunication, division, anger, and violence.  

I apologize to anyone who thinks I am equating “social justice” with the riotous displays in places like Ferguson and Baltimore.  I am sure many programs are producing good results with social justice in mind, even among those who would not identify with Christianity.  However, I do believe that social justice efforts without values based on genuine love for God and for neighbor risk creating a mindset that can lead to resentment of authority, preoccupation with material wealth, and focus on class distinctions that stir envy, anger, and even violence.  Meanwhile, the importance of individual responsibility, spiritual regeneration, and God’s purposes for each human being is diminished.

Today, more than ever we need leaders like Martin Luther King whose faith in a God of love and justice enabled them to change the world.  In this presidential election year, may God raise up men and women who will lead our nation, churches, schools, and communities based on the Spirit’s fruit in their lives; namely, love for God and neighbor, plus joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Galatians 5: 22-23).  Surely, God will answer our prayers as we humble ourselves and pray and seek [His] face and turn from [our] wicked ways, then [God] will hear from heaven, will forgive [our]  sin and will heal [our]  land (2 Chronicles 7: 14).

I respectfully dedicate this article to a former Cedarville University student and friend, Bill McBrayer, who pointed me to the Facebook page cited below.

Dr. King’s quote from Strength to Love was posted in the Facebook account of The Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College, Carol Stream, IL. January 18, 2016

Your Comments Welcomed:  I have not been too specific regarding programs and approaches that attempt to promote social justice.  If you know of such programs, with either secular or religious affiliations, or with either centralized versus a local grass roots approach it would be helpful to read your description of their degree of success.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this all the way to the end! Very good insight, John. You are right on when you say God needs to be first before "real" justice can can be carried out. Our World needs God, plain and simple. Thanks for writing this article. I look forward to reading more of your blog! Just in case you don't remember me, I'm a member and the SDMI coordinator at Southeast church at Steve and Mindy's church! Have a blessed day!

John Silvius said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thank you for reading my article. I appreciate your encouraging words, and also your encouraging part as one of the leaders of the ministry at SE Church of the Nazarene. May God bless and keep you and yours. John