A Few Thoughts on Dr. King's Practical Theology and the Beloved Community

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Isaiah 49:1-7
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
  the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

It is truly an honor to worship with you again, saints of Mt. Gilead. I always enjoy coming out here and worshiping with you, and offering a few thoughts. As I was preparing for this week’s sermon, I realized that this weekend was Martin Luther King weekend, and hence, a good opportunity to preach a bit about Dr. King, his legacy, and the importance of his insights for the Christian witness. I know it may seem odd for me, a boy who grew up in a Southern Baptist Church to preach about Dr. King to you, a small white Baptist congregation in rural North Carolina. Dr. King and his legacy are often viewed through the lens of African American identity, and the racial issues that sadly continue to haunt our country to this day. I am deeply saddened that racial issues continue to plague us here in the rural south, especially during the eleven o’clock Sunday hour, which, as Dr. King reminded us, is the most segregated hour of the week. However, as a Christian and theologian, Dr. King is an important witness for us all.

I never heard much about Dr. King growing up in my Southern Baptist Church at home in Louisville, KY. My home church was viewed as one of the seminary churches for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I had heard lore growing up of how one of the ethics professors there, Henlee Barnette, had invited Dr. King for a visit to Southern in the 60's, and had advocated for the racial integration of the Southern Baptist Church. In spite of that, however, I never really learned much about Dr. King either in school, or in church, even though Mrs. Barnette was my eighth grade English teacher (go 210!).

t was after college and before seminary, when I was an ecumenical volunteer in Germany, that I would begin to read Dr. King’s writing. After college, I served (and studied) for five years as an ecumenical volunteer with churches in former East Berlin. I have to say I would not have understood or appreciated Dr. King’s contribution to theology, if it were not for my service in Berlin. You see, I was working ecumenically with congregations in the East with pastors who had helped to organize the non-violent candlelight protest movement that culminated in bringing down the Berlin wall. These pastors had developed their theology by studying the writings of Gandhi and King. I have to say, they were probably a bit disappointed with the white Southern boy who ended up in their congregations working for Peace, Justice, and the Integrity of the Creation—but had never really even learned the significance of Dr. King and his legacy. You see, it took living in former East Berlin to discover that King is not only a hero for black folk, but probably the most significant internationally recognized American theologian of the 20th century. He was a model for many of the ideals (and unfortunately as we are learning more about a few of his indiscretions, some of the vices) of American society. What is important is that we remember him not as a saint or savior—he was neither—but a theologian who responded to the injustice and turmoil of his generation with action that is rooted in a deep and complex understanding of the cross, while expressing a radically Christian vision for community. So as we remember Dr. King, let’s grapple today with his ideas, thinking about how we might apply them in our lives and our communities. I would like to share four of those ideas with you today.

The first that I think is important for us to grapple with is the sense of urgency of the present moment. Dr. King consistently and repeatedly argued with those who responded to his ideas that the social change he envisioned would require time and patience. For Dr. King, justice delayed was justice denied. His social action mirrored the apocalyptic eschatological practice of Jesus and his earliest disciples. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is breaking into the present moment. It requires an urgent response. We cannot wait for social change to work out on its own. The great paradox of instituting a national holiday in favor of Dr. King is that in making him an eternal icon, we may be robbing him of his most powerful weapon. As the prophet affirms, “He made my mouth like a sharp sword.” The prophet’s engagement with contemporary realities is sharp and threatening. If real change is demanded now, the person demanding that change is viewed as a dangerous entity who may take down structures and institutions that have been built upon generations of injustice and greed. As we age, we may tire and become comfortable. We become fat and happy and try to protect what we know, rather than embrace that which is new. Change can be stressful and challenging. Yet, at the core of Jesus’ Kingdom message is a demand for radical change now. As we look upon our lives, are there any areas where radical and immediate change might set us free from bad and lazy habits, and enable us to embrace experiences, and practices that are life-giving?

The second major thought of Dr. King’s can be summarized in his phrase, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is the theology of Israel’s prophets. Justice and truth are universal. This is what makes Dr. King, in certain ways, truly a post-Christendom theologian. The prophets of Israel long proclaimed that God’s justice could be meted out and recognized by all nations. As the prophet Isaiah expresses it in today's text, 

Thus says the Lord,the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Dr. King took this notion and applied it to our society, a society that today is increasingly made up of people from a huge assortment of faith backgrounds and cultures. Dr. King’s movement made calling out injustice, however, not just the task of prophets, but a participatory task for people from all walks of life. Liberal Jews from New York marched together with Catholic priests and nuns. African American Baptist deaconesses marched alongside white mainline seminary professors. Young white radical college drop-outs marched alongside elderly African American ministers. All could participate in shining a light on injustice and making truth be known to all clearly. How might all of us today participate in truth telling, calling out injustice where we see it, and sharing in solidarity with those whose spirits, minds, and bodies continue to be broken by social injustices motivated by fear, greed, hate, and exploitation?

The third theological contribution Dr. King offered was the idea of the redemptive power of suffering. In Christian theology, we talk about the theory of atonement, how Christ’s death and resurrection enables believers to be redeemed. You can think of Dr. King’s theology as a practical theology of the cross. His non-violence movements were designed to uncover the truth, reveal the injustice, and enact redemptive social change through what one might call large-scale and participatory atonement. Marchers would take upon themselves nonviolently the violence unleashed by authorities anxious to maintain the status quo. They would be beaten, attacked by dogs, have fire hoses turned upon them and be teargassed, as they marched. Those who participated in sit-ins at lunch counters would be spat upon, be called vicious names, and be beaten, jailed or worse. 

The idea is that just as Christ’s suffering on the cross reveals God’s love, so also the nonviolent protester who met violence with patience, discipline, and love would reveal the systems of oppression for what they were--and bring about life-giving social change. It allowed those who participated in the movement to engage a practical theology of cruciform suffering with life-giving grace. This one may be a little more difficult to practice without a social movement and proper training in the principles of non-violence. Nevertheless, there may be areas in our lives in which suffering for or with another, near or far, may bring about redemptive joy. This, I think, can be a centerpiece for our prayer lives. When we share our concerns with others, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we take the prayer concern of another into the silence of prayer, we may share in their burdens, if only for those moments we articulate them to God. In so doing, in a small way, we participate in social change a little bit each day. We see God bringing about the resurrection of our bodies and lives each day, as we place ourselves in the posture of prayer.

Finally, for our society and our world, Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community is a tremendous vision and ideal. We are richer the more diverse we are. Everyone, regardless of race, gender, orientation, ability, religion, nation, language, ethnicity, everyone is God’s child and we are all part of God’s Beloved Community. When we take the time to invest in community, to listen across the barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc. that separate us, when we truly let down our guard and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to others, we discover something of the wonder of God’s Beloved Community. 

The other day, a dear friend of mine gave me a wonderful gift. When I was in Charlotte on Thursday, I needed to swing by and pick up some documents at a church whose pastor is a friend and former colleague of mine. When I stepped into the church, I was greeted by name by a Hispanic man whom I had never met before in my life. He took me into the room where a very diverse group of elementary school children in a neighborhood after-school program were working on their homework. This group of children of African America, Latin American, Asian and Euro-American ethnicity were all spread out sitting around round tables, each working on his or her homework, helping and chatting with their neighbors. With a cue from the-after school director, the children all in one voice shouted out “Welcome Dr. Hume!” I practically broke down in tears. When I asked them whether they were doing their homework, they all answered in one voice, and with joy, “Yes.” When I asked whether the next activity was play time or games, the director shared with me, “No, Dr. Hume after homework, we will be getting out our violins, and trumpets, and other instruments to practice." You see this is one of the after-school programs sponsored by the Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Art’s league to do after-school arts activities. I didn’t get to stick around for that because I had to pick up those documents and rush back to campus for meetings. But for a moment, that moment when those sweet children greeted me, I was reminded of the Beloved Community. You see folks, Dr. King’s dream is coming alive in little pockets all across the nation. Maybe you too can experience pockets of God’s Beloved Kingdom not far from you and in unexpected ways, whether in an after-school program, a school, or even in a community Vacation Bible School. You see, God is calling us now to embrace the Beloved Community, with acts of love, sacrifice, and solidarity to truth and justice. Are you ready to experience the Beloved Community in your life?


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