I had a professor in seminary who was the first to reveal to me that sanitized picture of Martin Luther King that we have created in American culture. He was the first to teach me about the “three evils” (not just one!) that Dr. King decried — racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We read his speeches on the Vietnam War. We studied his frustration with white pastors. We learned of his dream of a Poor People’s March on Washington.

This week, a friend posted a quote from King that I’d never heard before. It was from a sermon, and it felt so current and meaningful to our lives today. The quote itself was stunning and challenging — but so was the analysis of the Biblical text that preceded those lines. It’s a must-read.

Instead of my thoughts on this sermon, I much prefer that folks get a chance to read it themselves. It’s my prayer that you, like me, would find it disquieting, challenging, and moved to answer the call to be peacemakers, which requires the courage to disrupt the peace.

Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” a sermon delivered on March 18, 1956 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Full sermon available here.

In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.” Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force—war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force—justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.

I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

1) If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.
2) If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
3) If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
4) If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace. So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.

Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love, yes, the Kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace–a peace embodied with the presence of positive good. The inner peace that comes as a result of doing God’s will.

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh yes. Amen.

  • Bruce Cooke says:

    This sermon was brought to my attention in the early 1970s. I suppose that every generation, since Jesus said those words, has heard this challenge in their own time. The saying is still current and meaningful.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Kate, thank you. Reminds me of my daily mixed-blessing through a Franciscan Benediction: May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live from deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

  • Jessica Groen says:

    Thank you, Kate.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Rev. Kooyman,

    Ralph Abernathy’s book disabused me of MLK’s sanitized history.

    Similar to King’s “three evils” (which are still around, no doubt), I would propose to update the list:

    1. Abortion. It has been genocidal to the AA community.
    2. Welfare Statism. The black family, since the Great Society programs, has been decimated.
    3. Illegal Immigration. This has stolen the value of labor from all US citizens, particularly the poor.

    We live in the most prosperous, least racist society that has ever existed. The economic condition of AA’s over the last 3 years has shown remarkable improvement, thanks to Trump’s (and the Fed’s) economy. But there will always be more work to be done…

    I suggest starting with the three evils I listed. Who’s with me?

  • Pam Adams says:

    I enjoyed reading MLK. He is so in touch with what matters.

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