What I want to highlight today is MLK's keen insight into the state of the church and to give my own struggles and perhaps convictions with that same insight.
In his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, King observes:
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are."
What I love about this quote is the accurate assessment that churches tend to be better thermometers than thermostats. However at the same time I am convicted and challenged by his assessment. King, rightly argues in his Birmingham letter that the role of the church is not to be silent on issues of justice but to stand up and fight for the rights of everyone. Where I struggle is how that need to fight balances against other needs that exist for the church. Should a church or a denomination that is struggling with growth issues or financial issues set those aside in favor of issues of justice?
Here are my two thoughts on that: 1) a church cannot help others if it cannot help itself. You would not expect a sick person to donate an organ, instead you would look to a healthy person for such a service. Churches that are struggling with declining numbers and difficult finances do not help anyone if embracing issues of justice creates further conflict for them or distracts them from the things they need to do to recover and be a health part of the Body of Christ. 2) If a church is not willing to stand up for issues of justice, what does it matter if they are healthy or not? It seems to me that justice and compassion for all is a cornerstone of the church that Christ founded, how can we call ourselves a healthy church, or really even a church if we do not concern ourselves with these issues.
Unfortunately as a pastor I can see a great many issues of justice that divide congregations: issues around sexuality, poverty, and immigration raise serious challenges and disagreements as to how we as a church are to respond. Can the resulting conflict as you try and work for justice do more harm than good? How is the church called to be a bastion of change and seek justice while also respecting its own internal differences and its own internal issues?
All that being said, I am grateful for all the work that MLK did and on this day I remember not only his work and legacy but also the work of the countless people, well-known and obscure, who helped to bring his dream closer to reality.