Dr. King’s Legacy, Evangelicals, and Occupy Wall Street   Leave a comment

Shortly after the Martin Luther King holiday, the Washington Post ran an article about the African American church’s support for OccupyDC. I would like to comment on a few statements made in the article by some of the pastors quoted there, because I think in a very short space, they covered a lot of important ground.

Rev. Graylan S. Hagler of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast Washington, said  “This is the continuation of the [civil rights] movement. It was the economic movement that King was killed for.” I think what Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton said, clarifies what Pastor Hagler meant by “economic.” Coates said, “When Dr. King was killed, he was . . . fighting for the rights of sanitation workers. It is critically important that we relate our faith to issues of economic justice and systemic inequality.”

Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, who ministers to many in the Maryland suburbs, and co-founded Occupy the Dream with former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis said. “I think the Occupy Wall Street movement has held the legacy of Dr. King and has brought the church back into accountability. … Dr. King would be here today.” Speaking of the church, Rev. Jonathan Weaver, founder of the Collective Banking Group,  said, “Overall, people have reached a level of complacency, and that concerns me. There is a growing sentiment that much more needs to be done well beyond worshiping on Sunday morning and getting people engaged.”

I’ve been comparing OWS to the Civil Rights Movement for some time, so I’m glad to hear these pastors doing it. I’m sure they have a much better understanding than I do, and more credibility. It’s an important point. We may not know what exactly is ahead for OWS – how long it will last, what techniques it will use, how extensive its influence will be – but there is no denying that their concerns about “economic justice and systemic inequality” are those of Dr. King. Someone said to me that “Occupy Wall Street was destined to be a footnote in history … but no more.” Time will tell, but the footnote should at least read that individuals in the 21st century claimed and championed the legacy of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. If all it amounts to is a footnote – and I pray that won’t be the case  –  it won’t be because today’s protestors weren’t true to King’s courageous legacy. It won’t be because they weren’t willing to raise their voices or enlist their bodies in the fight. It won’t be because they didn’t care enough to face down the police and be arrested.

Again, like Doctor King, these pastors relate their OWS activism to their faith. This also is an important point. There is no dichotomy here between faith and works, between the “gospel” and the “social gospel”, between issues of “justice” and “social or economic justice.” Pastor Bryant says that Occupy Wall Street “…has brought the church back into accountability.” I don’t know how he might elaborate on that exactly, but I think he means that OWS is reminding the church about it’s rightful role in the world. I think he means that OWS has created a situation where, if the believing church doesn’t step up and do the right thing, that it will be obvious – and odious. The implication is that the church has forgotten part of God’s call, and that the mostly secular OWS group is not only reminding the church of God’s priorities, but making it very difficult for her to go on doing business as usual. Pastor Weaver speaks of a “level of complacency” in the church, and this is part of that. How can we look at what’s happening in our nation, and be content with just “… worshiping on Sunday morning?”

Only one pastor quoted in the article had objections to the church’s involvement in Occupy. Rev. Joe Watkins, pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, said that churches should stick to their primary mission. “The role of the church is to lead people to Christ and to tell them the good news and to live the good news.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Pastor Watkins that the church is to “lead people to Christ” so that they will “live out the good news.” But his comment begs the question, and raises so many other questions. For instance: What is the “primary mission” of the Church? What is the “good news?” What does it mean to “live the good news?” Can the “primary mission” be reduced to just one or two tasks? Does “living the good news” involve mission work, educational ministries, worship, and an emphasis on prayer in life and ministry? If not, then in my opinion, it’s reductionistic and unbiblical; and if so, then it doesn’t necessarily rule out other Biblical tasks being added to this list – like a concern for social justice – that is, justice. (Can you imagine the God of the Bible making a difference between justice and social or economic justice – a distinction where one mattered to him and the other didn’t? I can’t.) Is the “good news” only about forgiveness for me, and then me telling others how to be forgiven, so they can tell others, and etc.? No more than that? Clearly no, and Pastor Watkins own remarks make this evident. We have to “live out” our faith, he says. Can you imagine Moses, the prophets, Jesus, the Apostles Paul or John, or James (who provocatively measures true religion by care for widows and orphans) – can you imagine any of them suggesting that “living out” our faith didn’t include caring about justice in our world and attempting to do something about injustice? I can’t.

One of the most prominent topics in the Scripture is God’s concern for the poor, and consequently his expectations for his people to be his hands in caring for them. If this is at the heart of the Bible, and so prominent on the heart of God, it must be at the heart of our mission. We are to “lead people to Christ”, and then what? Many things – worship, witness, growth in faith and virtue, discipleship of others, hospitality and caring for those who are disenfranchised, disadvantaged and downtrodden (widows, orphans, foreigners, etc.) There’s really nothing on this list we can leave off – and if we do, at that point we have forgotten our calling.

My point is not that the Evangelical church has to support or become involved with Occupy Wall Street – although I think that could be mutually beneficial. My point is that the church can’t afford to continue in it’s “level of complacency” in this regard. (If you and your church cannot support OWS to address these issues, then what will you do instead?)

Our nation stands at a crossroads. This is the time to act. Of course, injustice is ever-present, but in our nation now, it’s tearing us apart. It’s not only bad for us as individuals (including congregants in your church), but it’s wrong. It’s offensive to God and to his glory. An overstatement? I don’t think so. When someone made in his image is treated like a slave or sharecropper, when the weak and poor are exploited by those who are obscenely rich, when speaking “truth to power” is enough to get you beaten up and locked up by the authorities – then God is not only angered, but his image or glory in those abused individuals is attacked. That’s why Jesus could say, “… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (In the context he’s talking about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the one needing clothes, the prisoner.)

The Evangelical church can do better. In the past it hasn’t always been as it is now. We just need to rouse ourselves, listen for his voice (in his Word and in our world), and follow where he leads. To do otherwise won’t accomplish anything. To do it for Dr. King isn’t good enough. To do it out of guilt isn’t good enough. To do it solely to help the needy isn’t good enough. But to do it in response to God’s great love for  us – a love which we then extend to others –  and ultimately for his reputation – to make him known as the glorious Savior God, that will be a good thing, and only that will be enough.


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