January 20, 2011

The Context of the King Legacy

I am just old enough to remember where I was when the news reports mentioned (first) that Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis. A quick follow up mentioned his death. I grew up in a household where King's speeches were listened to on vinyl records and his books lived on my father's bookshelves.

My family often talked about King in those first years after his death. We marveled at his courage--both physical and moral. As a child, I wondered why there was so much anger and animosity at his dream of a race-barrier free society. Was there really a compelling reason why busses, water fountains, parks-playgrounds, and other spaces had to be segregated?

Later, as an adult, I questioned the silence demonstrated by so many churches during the early years of the civil rights movement, particularly in the South. Why didn't pastors, Sunday School teachers, church officers, and others in the more traditional, conservative (Bible believing?) churches see something unjust, unfair, and ungodly in the violently enforced segregation that kept African Americans from trying on hats and shoes in many Southern (and some Northern) stores? Why didn't many white church members care that my father, a World War II veteran and the son of a World War I veteran, couldn't register to vote or use the State Archives building in Montgomery, Alabama?

Why does the church so often become worldly in ways that support the status quo?

Years ago, during a conversation on this topic, someone told me the early church didn't go around protesting the unfairness of the Roman caesars, that the church only cared about preaching the gospel and getting people saved from hell. I don't know if this is completely true, because the early church cared for the sick, was known for love and generousity, and earned the animus of the caesars because early Christians declared there is no god but Christ.

There is no god but Christ.

And if there is no God but Christ, those of us who make this affirmation by calling ourselves Christian can never accept the evil inclinations of an unredeemed society. We cannot say those who challenge those inclinations are "trouble makers" and "rabble rousers." We cannot afford to believe that because today's prejudice doesn't hurt me that prejudice isn't hurtful. We cannot afford to act as if salvation insulates us from caring about what happens around us.

I listened (very briefly) to a speaker say he didn't care about global warming or the AIDS explosion or the lack of clean drinking water in many parts of the world because he knew Jesus was coming again soon.

I believe Jesus is coming again --possibly soon--, but I don't want to live in a cave when He gets here. If I love God, God's people, and God's creation, I have to care about why millions of people don't have clean water and why the environment is changing so quickly and so radically.

There is no God but Christ. Because that statement is true, I know that all of us will live somewhere in eternity forever. We are created in His image, and what happens to all of us is important. It is important now, and important in eternity.

To me, this is the context of King's legacy. Because I have been redeemed, I should not act, think, or speak like everyone else around me. Because God's power lives in and through me, I should have the courage and the Spirit-inspired conviction to say "this is right" or "this is wrong." Because there is no god but Christ, the church not have to absorb and be absorbed by the world.

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