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One week ago today I was in Atlanta to record a Day1 radio program. The recording wrapped up before noon and although I was meeting a friend for dinner that evening in Decatur, I had a free afternoon and so took the chance to walk the half mile from my hotel to the Civil and Human Rights Center and its museum in the heart of Atlanta. The museum is a fine tribute to the civil rights movement with many Martin Luther King, Jr., artifacts and a strong timeline of the movement that brought us the civil rights acts of the 1960s that have led to greater freedoms for all even if we remain a society so riven by so many divisions and so much suspicion and hatred. Still, when you enter the museum and see what America was like as recently as the 1940s and the 1950s, you realize how far we have come since the days when whites and blacks could not use the same bathroom, could not drink from the same drinking fountain, could not sit at the same lunch counter. The displays that replicate the Jim Crow era are striking. It was, all things being equal, so very recent.
One of the first displays I encountered from the period of the 1950s was a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. An audio device allows museum visitors to listen to the sermon he delivered there on November 4, 1956. In the sermon he delivered there that day, King had the pluck and the courage to read what he imagined might be a letter from Saint Paul to the American church. With tongue firmly implanted in cheek, King claimed that he had somehow received this late epistle 1,900 years after Paul’s last published letter and if it seemed strange it had taken him some weeks to reveal it, well, people had to understand that the letter had been written in Greek and it had taken him some weeks of careful scholarly labor to translate it into English as best he could. (You can read and, even better, you can HEAR, the whole sermon here).
In King’s telling of it, Paul noted that the American people had come far on science and on knowledge and on so many things. But what about the things that really matter? Have we made progress here? “You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development. But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress . . . You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”
Before the sermon was finished, King riffed on the Paul of 1 Corinthians 13. “So American Christians, you may master the intricacies of the English language. You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech. But even if you ‘speak with the tongues of man and angels, and have not love, you are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.’ You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding all mysteries. You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that men never dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love.”
The meaning was clear. But in case not, earlier in the sermon King cited Paul as saying, “There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus Name’ and ‘Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind,’ you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is.”
It’s been two weeks since the election. Since then I have read numerous posts that have asserted something I believe to be true: although many racists have been encouraged by and even felt a new fire lit under them by the election of Donald Trump (see a story like this one), the vast majority of people who cast a ballot for Trump or even who have felt fine about his election are not that way. I am willing to believe that and I am sure without much effort I could confirm that among some family and friends.
But if the Apostle Paul could write to us today, he would suggest that if love really does trump hate, then it will show in how we react to whatever may come. I am more than willing to give time for things to play out but so far President-elect Trump’s appointments give me pause as to what will happen to the very civil rights advances we made in the 1960s that you can review at a museum like the one I visited in Atlanta last week. Openly racist and misogynistic people have been appointed to the new administration and there is no denying this.
So let’s stand with love, let’s stand with those who are vulnerable because of the color of their skin, because of their status in this country, because of their sexual orientation, because of their religion. Let’s stand with the alien who is within our gates. To my family and friends who have either been silent on my Facebook posts or who have critiqued my posts, I invite you that when I post something that stands up for minorities and the vulnerable, don’t be silent just because it involves Trump. Click Like. When I am overly partisan, you can ignore it or critique me but there is nothing partisan about love, about standing up for the vulnerable, about wanting fair treatment for all, about the right to vote, about the right to be heard. (Or not to make this all about me, post your own stuff to stand with those who feel alone and I will click Like or Love.) Stand with me when I note that international students at my Seminary are afraid, that the students in our Hispanic Ministry Certificate Program feel afraid. Don’t tell them they need not be–it’s honestly too early to tell. I am hoping and praying for the best and will be thrilled if it comes to pass. And it may. President-elect Trump is nothing if not surprising. Meanwhile, let’s recognize the honest fear out there and realize that the Gospel is bigger and better than all of this and so are we as Jesus’ disciples, whatever party we come from.
When I listened to the recording of the King sermon online, I heard something not on the museum audio: the hymn the congregation sang after the sermon. It is a hymn we have all sung many times: “Take My Life and Let It Be.” As in “consecrated, Lord, to thee . . . take my hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love.” This is what we need today. From all Christians in this land.
Paul sends his love. But his expectations for us as followers of Jesus are on the high side.