Saturday, August 28, 2010

Following a King


Constantinian Christians proudly profess their allegiance to the flag and the cross not realizing that just as the cross was a bloody indictment of the Roman empire, it is a powerful critique of the American empire, and they fail to acknowledge that the cozy relation between their Christian leaders and imperial American rulers may mirror the intimate ties between the religious leaders and imperial Roman rulers who crucified their Savior.
Cornel West, Democracy Matters (2004)

Go to church. Restore America with peace.
A woman from the Glenn Beck rally to the Rev. Al Sharpton marchers, yesterday

47 years ago today, Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to hundreds of thousands of black and white Civil Rights marchers on Washington, calling for them to refuse "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism" offered by the federal government and to work tirelessly and sacrificially to "let freedom ring" for racial minorities all over the United States. As Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin attempted to "reclaim the civil rights movement" yesterday at the Lincoln Memorial and Rev. Al Sharpton agonized over their attempt to "hijack" King, let us turn to MLK's Letter to a Birmingham Jail, penned 4 months earlier on the margins of newspapers smuggled into his cell. Specifically, let us consider King's all-too-relevant convictions about the role of churches in targetting, exposing and diminishing injustice throughout American Society.

When King wrote the Letter in 1963, it was specifically for an audience of 8 "white moderate" pastors who criticized King for coming to disturb the peace of Birmingham in his non-violent fight for political and economic justice for African-Americans. As Civil Rights marchers embrace a creative and civil disobedience, it literally unleashed police dogs and fire hoses, dousing the precious order of Jim Crow Birmingham. In this long letter (he had a lot of time), King addressed a variety of issues that stem from racial injustice, including his frustration with local Christian communities who were indifferent or opposed to the Civil Rights movement, let alone any "social gospel" that sought to eradicate economic oppression and inequality of various sorts. King bears witness that "I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities" summarizing them as "a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo." King was not hatin' on Christians and he was not givin' up on the power of Spirit-led fatih communities dedicated to the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, he was a pastor before and during his role as the preeminent leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His critique comes from a wounded love overflowing in his heart:

In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.

King's ecclesiastical analysis crescendos into a 3-paragraph climax:

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were 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. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators"...They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladitorial contests.

Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far 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 vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevent social club with no meaning for the 20th century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.


King frequently noted that 10 o'clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the American week. He longed to see both white and black churches come together and live out the socio-political way of Jesus--the very teachings and lifestyle of confrontation with the Powers that put him on the cross. King longed for a church that would cut against the grain of American culture and strategically-and-non-violently threaten those who cling to power and wealth in the face of injustice, instead of promoting the status quo.

Gazing at King's vision for church as politically active for the "least of these" and listening to Glenn Beck proclaim that he is reclaiming King's Civil Rights Movement (especially after boldly telling Fox viewers that Obama has a "deep hatred for white people" and white culture) is truly confusing indeed. However, Princeton's Cornel West, in Democracy Matters (2004), puts this political circus in context. He helpfully describes two different brands of American Christianity that actually have their roots in the early decades of the Church and the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine became a "Christian" and baptized the Empire to promote order and unity. Constantinian Christians, according to West, are those who align a personal piety (and eternal salvation in disembodied heaven) with a fierce nationalism. To be "Christian," in the way of Constantine, is to have eternal salvation guaranteed (inviting Jesus into your heart) while being devoted to a personal morality code and the American Dream of imperialism and exceptionalism: God, family and the US of A (and a sports team of your choice). Constantinian Christians are politically velcroed to the status quo (order and unity) at all costs.

Prophetic Christians, on the other hand, embrace Christianity as a socio-political way of life that primarily fights the oppression and marginalization of minority people groups, especially the poor, people of color and women. For prophetic Christians, the "gospel" is a cruciform lifestyle, committed to humility, service and solidarity with society's downtrodden and left-out. Prophetic Christians protest and prod the Powers for policy change of all kinds, from personal habits to federal protections and subsidies.

West explains what has happened to the triumphalist Constantinian Christian strand since King's assasination at the hands of the Powers:

Ironically, the powerful political presence of imperial Christians today is inspired by the success of the democratic Christian-led movement of Martin Luther King Jr. The worldly engagement of King's civil rights movement encouraged Constantinian Christians to become more organized and to partner with the power elites of the American empire. The politicization of Christian fundamentalism was a direct response to King's prophetic Christian legacy. It began as a white backlash against King's heritage in American public life, and it has always had a racist undercurrent--as with Bob Jones University, which until recently barred interracial dating.

The rise of Constantinian Christianity in America went hand in hand with the Republican Party's realignment of American politics--with their use of racially coded issues (busing, crime, affirmative action, welfare) to appeal to southern conservatives and urban white centrists...

The Christian fundamentalists (with big money behind them) lashed out with vicious attacks against the prophetic Christian voices, who were branded "liberal," and worked to discredit the voices of moderation. In McCarthyist fashion, they equated the liberation theology movement, which put a limelight on the plight of the poor, with Soviet Communism. They cast liberal seminaries (especially my beloved Union Theological Seminary in NYC) as sinful havens of freaks, gays, lesbians, black radicals, and guilty white wimps. Such slanderous tactics have largely cowed the Christian Left, nearly erasing it off the public map.


When Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin galvanize tens of thousands in front of the Lincoln Memorial calling for prayer, church attendance and victory in the overseas war on terror (while labeling Obama a "socialist" and a "radical") in order to "restore honor" for America, it all makes sense in light of West's work. We would not have a Beck without a King. However, what is truly insane is that the libertarian Beck, while berating liberation theology and federal government interaction for oppressed groups (Muslims, gays, immigrants, etc), is claiming to be on King's team. Awkward? Presumptuous. Today, let us hold on to King's Dream by remembering the two divergent paths that American Christianity has traveled in the past 47 years: are you in solidarity with King in a Birmingham jail or with the white Constantinian moderate pastors clinging to the status quo? Christians, make your decision and let's get to work or the church, no doubt, "will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevent social club with no meaning." After all, millions are counting on our Christ-ordained vocation to be a conscience and servant to the world.

--Theological Autopilot

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