When the news reached our house, the street lights had just begun to flicker; this was the universal urban signal that all well-parented children should put down their balls and jump ropes and quickly return home. I rambunctiously entered the house, sweating and ripe, like any seven-year-old in the pre-video game era. I expected to be greeted with Mom’s usual business and Dad’s normal immersion in some book or project. Instead, I saw the two of them sitting in the living room with the bright lights on, a rare occurrence when guests were not present. I had never seen them together like this, with equally somber stares, bathed in melancholy. Before I could ask what was going on, they announced, “They killed Martin Luther King.”
In those days, on the streets of my neighborhood, the fiery Black Power polemics of H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey P. Newton had raptured righteously indignant activists and their seven-year-old admirers alike. Martin Luther King Jr. was unsuitable for white teachers at my school, as he had not been thoroughly sanitized yet. And he was too theologically liberal to be mentioned in the pulpit of my church. The most I knew of him was that we shared a middle name. But on that night, as mournful tears streamed down and riotous fires flared up in a newly shaped America, I was awakened—born again.
A Safe Fondness
50 years after my conversion, I mourn Dr. King. I lament his murder, of course. But I also lament the death of his core doctrine of peace that called everyone to agitation, resistance, and direct action in the face of injustice. Today, much like Jesus, King is spoken of within comfortable sanctuaries, lecture halls, and studios. His birthday has become a community service day, featuring executives in sponsored t-shirts, descending into ghettos to plant a tree, paint a wall, or pick up a few improperly discarded bottles. Ministers conjure erudite prose encouraging renewed zeal for King’s dream of fairness, unity, and equality. School kids learn about a special man who gave his life for the sake of freedom. We crave inspiration from his fabled speeches, bathing ourselves under their prophetic flow.
Yet, our society has managed to isolate King to a few inspiring but comfortable lines of his “I Have a Dream” speech. The safety of that isolation allows us to elevate him as a figure tame enough to be embraced by executives, ministers, school kids, and those thirsty for inspiration, but maybe not ready for risky confrontation.
Such isolation hides us from King’s fear of a capitalist machine that puts profits over people, rendering “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism incapable of being conquered.” Within the comforts of our isolation, we pat ourselves on the back for our egalitarian points of view, although they rarely lead to peaceful agitation, resistance, or direct action against the likes of orchestrated poverty, gun worship, the creation of a new American serfdom, and the old familiar spirit of American racism.
People try to make Jesus safe too, but it’s hard to do so when reading “The Sermon on the Mount” or the “Olivet Discourse,” for example. He is peaceful, to be sure. But he also calls his disciples to observe the active nature of their peaceful calling, one that lives into the tension-packed agony that comes with bearing the cross. He commands them to proceed in the manner that his Father had sent him—to be incarnate in and amongst the problems of the world. There can be no illusion of comfortable isolation.
Agitation & Peace
To non-violently move toward the sins of the world is, at its core, an act of agitation, resistance, and direct action. It lead people like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. to suffer the pains of holes in their bodies. Non-violent resistance exposes the very violent depths of sin—it makes sin feel very insecure. That is rarely safe for the cruciform agitators.
The incarnation gives us a desire for peace, justice, righteousness, and love. It calls us out of isolation and the prosaic rhetoric and prefabricated doctrines of safely cloistering ourselves. Instead, it pushes us toward the broken-hearted and marginalized. It places us among sanitation workers, the suffering and abused poor, unarmed victims of police violence, and the wide assortment of those denied human rights. I’m thankful that along with the tension-packed agonies of the cross comes a Holy Spirit that leads us to the mountaintop.
Jesus is waiting to free us from the supposed safety of isolation within our closed-in rooms. He stands before us, waiting to exhale the Spirit into us. May God grant us the grace to inhale.