Archive for February 2012

Guest Blogger Frank Viola: Scot McKnight and Beyond Evangelicals   Leave a comment

In this second interview with Frank Viola (this time with Scot McKnight) the discussion continues about the meaning of “Evangelical.”  Obviously, my writings are very much about Evangelicals – who we are and who we ought to be. I offer this discussion then, to further the debate/discussion, and even as information for my Occupy friends, who might want to see a little for themselves what Evangelicals are like in their uncensored version (since this is definitely an “in house” discussion). If your understanding of Evangelicals grows out of what you see in the media, I can only imagine that your estimate is pretty negative. Hopefully, this discussion, and the one that preceded it, will give you an idea that there’s more to us than you’d think based on recent media coverage. (I should mention that I’m still using the term “Evangelical”, and that Mr. Viola has moved “beyond” that.) Here’s the article:

___________________________

Scot McKnight is a New Testament scholar whose work I appreciate. Those of who you who have been reading this blog for awhile are familiar with McKnight.

I reviewed Scot’s book A Community Called Atonement and interviewed him on his One.Life book. In addition, McKnight kindly wrote a glowing review for my book, Jesus Manifesto.

Since McKnight and I bear the same testimony regarding the Lordship of Jesus and the presence of Christ in the Old Testament narrative, I wanted to underscore his latest book with this interview. Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is an excellent contribution on the meaning of the gospel. Scot McKnight

While I wish the book would have discussed “the mystery” of God’s eternal purpose and the indwelling life of Christ – both of which are vital aspects of the gospel in my opinion – McKnight’s new book does a great job beating another drum I’ve been banging for years: That the gospel and personal salvation are not the same thing.  And that the gospel isn’t a “plan” as much as it is a Person.

As many of you know, the way I defy the “echo-chamber” phenomenon rampant in the blogosphere today is by interviewing other authors and bloggers with whom I have both agreements and disagreements. I personally wish more bloggers would do such interviews as I believe it’s healthy for the body of Christ.

Enjoy the interview and get Scot McKnight’s book. Click this link to read the unedited interview:

 

Order The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight in hardcover

Order The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight in Kindle

 

Posted February 29, 2012 by occupyevangelicals in Uncategorized

Guest Blogger Frank Viola: N.T. Wright & Beyond Evangelical   1 comment

I’m pleased to offer a post by Frank Viola. OccupyEvangelicals.org is obviously very much about “Evangelicals.” This article offers a discussion between these two scholars/writer’s about what “Evangelical” should mean today. (I should mention that I’m still using the term “Evangelical”, and that Mr. Viola has moved “beyond” that.) This is of value to my Evangelical readers as we attempt to keep up with the evolving meaning of the label, and wrestle to continue to critique our own movement by Scripture. I offer the article to my “Occupy” readers, as assistance in understanding Evangelicals. It’s admittedly an “inside baseball” type discussion (!), but from it hopefully you will see that the portrayal of “Evangelicals” in the media is often skewed. Here it is:

____________________

Today, I’m featuring N.T. Wright on the blog. This interview fits in nicely with our series on Beyond Evangelical. But first, a little context.

My favorite New Testament scholar of the 20th century was the British scholar F.F. Bruce. Bruce was a “bright and shining light” in 20th century evangelicalism. He was prolific, churning out high quality work year after year. He had the rare ability to write academic books as well as popular (accessible) books. Bruce’s specialty was Jesus and Paul.

F.F. Bruce also understood the importance of chronology in New Testament studies. Consequently, he published a translation of the New Testament that put all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. (Yes – cough — F.F. Bruce was a major inspiration for me. Hence, I credit him in my Untold Story of the New Testament Church.)

In addition, Bruce was a powerful apologist, substantiating the historicity of the Gospels in the face of 20th century liberalism. To top it off, F.F. Bruce was a capable theologian as well as a New Testament exegete (a rare combination).

Enter N.T. Wright. Another British evangelical scholar.

N.T. Wright is the 21st century equivalent to F.F. Bruce. What Bruce did for evangelicalism in the modern world, Wright is doing for evangelicalism in the postmodern world.

Like F.F. Bruce, N.T. Wright is remarkably prolific, he has the rare ability to write academically as well as popularly, he specializes in Jesus and Paul, and he is an effective and compelling apologist. (Wright has brilliantly excoriated the arguments of liberal scholars who traffic in historical Jesus studies.)

Like Bruce, Wright is both a theologian and an exegete, and he wrote his own translation of the New Testament (though not in chronological sequence).

To my mind, N.T. Wright is the new F.F. Bruce.

Meeting N.T. Wright

I had the privilege of spending time with Wright in 2007 when we were both featured speakers at a conference in the (cough) . . . Bahamas. (Yes, it was a notable hardship to accept the invitation. But some people must suffer for the kingdom.)

All jesting aside, Wright and I spent several hours talking about various and sundry topics of mutual interest. During the event, we shared a boat ride that lasted one hour each way. We sat together on both legs of the trip and filled our time schmoozing about the New Testament and theology.

All told: I was pleased to discover that Wright and I had a lot more in common than I expected. For instance, we agreed that Paul was the author of Ephesians, that Galatians was Paul’s first epistle (i.e., the South Galatian theory), and other views that are in the minority among New Testament scholars today. We talked about the eternal purpose, the work of C.H. Dodd, the role of the Old Testament narrative on the New Testament story, etc.

In getting to know Tom (N.T.) Wright, and in reading much of his work, he has become my favorite contemporary New Testament scholar. You can find many of my favorite titles by Bruce and Wright in my Best 100 Christian Books Ever Written and my Best 100 Academic Christian Books & Commentaries pages.

Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting F.F. Bruce. But I am happy to have met and befriended Tom Wright.

With that as a background, what follows is my interview with N.T. Wright on his latest book, Simply Jesus. I own virtually all of Wright’s works in my study, and Simply Jesus has quickly become my favorite “N.T. Wright book.”

Every follower of Jesus should get a copy and read it. Especially those of you who are moving beyond evangelical.

One final note. N.T. Wright is someone who is not afraid to challenge the status quo. In this regard, I both resonate with and support him. And I’ve intentionally played “devil’s advocate” on some of the questions as I wanted Tom to have a safe platform in which to respond to “the gainsayers.”

Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1:9, KJV)

What follows is the uncut, unedited, and unrated version of the interview. :) It’s meaty, so you may want to do this with it. But because of the uniqueness of the interview, I’d encourage you to share it with others by clicking the “share buttons” at the bottom (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, StumbleUpon, etc.). Enjoy!

Click here to read the unedited interview

Click here to order Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright in hardcover

Click here to order Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright in Kindle

10 Things I Wasn’t Taught in Seminary   5 comments

1. Know Thyself.

We had to know the Biblical languages, the breadth of theology, church history, and homiletics. We had to understand the meanings of Heilsgeschichte and Sitz im Leben and the “two horizons. We had to know “peccable” from “impeccable,” and “inerrant” from “infallible”, but we were never forced to understand ourselves. We touched on it in the study of man and sin theoretically, but didn’t approach it the way Socrates would have suggested. I’m talking about family of origin issues, maybe birth order – the kind of stuff that might be measured in the Meyers-Briggs Inventory or the like. What was I bringing to the table? What were my hidden assumptions, needs or motivations? In his book, The Me I Want to Be, John Ortberg says, “You are your own Nemesis, your own biggest problem, because there is a relationship between the best version of you and the worst version of you. What they have in common is that both of them are you.” (His discussion of personality types and “signature sins” starting on page 147 is invaluable in this regard.)  As for me, I was clueless, and it wasn’t on my professors’ radar either. If you don’t understand your own motivations and actions, you’re not only dangerous to yourself, you’re also not likely to be of much help to others. (If you don’t see what I mean, just think about your marriage. You need to know your spouse, and vice versa, but if either or both of you have no self-understanding, you’re headed for trouble.) As Ortberg says, “… no one is more vulnerable than the person who lacks self-awareness.”

2. Prepare for Loneliness.

Many people who go into the pastorate are introverts. We love to have time to ourselves to read, study and pray. It may come as a surprise then, to many solo pastors in small churches (which is most pastors), just how lonely it can be day-to-day. Even though you and your family are definitely members of the church, you may be seen as outsiders for a long time (New England!), or as those who won’t be around long. And even if people accept you, having friends in the church (which I recommend), can be very complicated. You can be surrounded by people but have almost no one you can really talk to. And loneliness can really set you up for other problems. No one told me I would feel so alone. You know that picture of JFK with head bowed, leaning upon his desk in the oval office – it’s that feeling I’m talking about. The scale is smaller but the feeling is still powerful.

3. Be Aware of Sexual Pitfalls.

You’re either the “young buck” or the “mature leader” who has arrived on a white horse to save the needy church. Women in the congregation in problem marriages may look at you and compare you to their husbands – and of course, they surmise, you would be such a better husband. You’re so very spiritual. (Of course, they don’t see you at home, and your wife’s not telling – well, hopefully!) Some women will mistake your pastoral interest for something else, and some might actually have evil motives to begin with. Combine numbers 1 & 2 with this (#3) and you can see how stuff happens. (I’m writing from a man’s point of view. If the pastor is a woman, then everything above is still the same – except “young buck” I guess should be “young doe”, and replace “their husbands” with “their wives.”) People are sexual creatures. They don’t leave these desires at the door – nor do you. Ministry leads to intimacy, and where they’re aren’t procedures and protections in place, that can lead to trouble. As a class of “young bucks”, leaving seminary to save the world, we were much too innocent about all this.

4. Beware the Credit/Blame Game.

A friend had a Baptist church. Another church in the area had some real problems, and people started leaving in large numbers – and attending his church instead. Great! (Not really, but it was hard for everyone not to be pleased about the growth of their church. Of course they credited their pastor.) Later, when the other church finally got back on track, many people left my friend’s church and went back to their former church. No one stopped to really analyze what was happening, but they certainly weren’t happy to see all those solid people leaving, and his time the pastor was blamed. I remember the initial years in my first church where this happened to me. I was new and a lot of new people were showing up. After a few years a lot of those same people started leaving. My good. My bad. In reality though, the truth was that those people were just drifting “church hoppers.” They wouldn’t be at the next place long either. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until years later. When it was happening it hurt me badly. A warning about this inevitable type of event would have been nice.

5. You’ll Be Criticized Mercilessly.

Don’t even get me started on this. I’m really embarrassed that I didn’t see this coming. How could I have been so naive? It’s a truism that if you try to do anything significant, you’ll be criticized. I can only say that I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of it – especially in my first church, the pervasiveness of it, how personal it could be, and so completely unchecked. (By that I mean people felt free to say just anything. They criticized my appearance, my mannerisms, the way I handled my finances. They criticized my wife to my face. No holds barred.)  The stories my pastor friends told me along this line were heartbreaking. Many stories. Many different friends. Many friends, many stories, over many years. My point is that anyone going into ministry should expect it. You will be criticized. Your spouse will be criticized. Your children will be criticized. Don’t worry, as Warren Wiersbe said years ago, “Criticism is the manure that the Lord uses to grow his plants.” – and of course, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Just prepare to grow and become much stronger than you are. (By the way, many of us at some point do some pretty dumb things, so it’s not like we never merit criticism – and we definitely can and should learn from it. But a lot of it will be unfair, unChristian and unhelpful.) Even when you know it’s coming it’s very demoralizing, and again, a warning would have been helpful.

6. Prayer is Your Priority.

I hope the Seminaries are doing better now than when I went in the 80s. At that time, my fellow students and I definitely got the impression that if we could exegete the text with skill and exposit it compellingly – things would go well in ministry. (That means that the church will grow.) Those were the essentials. “Preach the word in season and out.” After about 15 years of ministry and many fads that swept over the Christian community that pointed in other ultimately fruitless directions, I finally came to the end of myself and understood the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: “not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” I learned that to accomplish anything of any lasting value in the church – lots of prayer was necessary (since in prayer we stop trusting in ourselves and depend upon God to do what only He can do anyway.) Not just token prayers. Not just prayers at prayer meeting. Not just the pastor praying. I’m talking about a completely different model than “exegete and exposit.” You have to do that of course, but prayer has to undergird that, permeate it, and precede and follow it – and everything else you do. This how Jesus did ministry. This is how the Apostle Paul did ministry. In Col. 4:2 he tells us to “devote ourselves to prayer.” I wasn’t taught to do that. I noticed no role models in seminary to emulate who were doing that. (Not to say none were.) In Mark 9:29, Jesus explains to his disciples, who have been unable to cast demons out of a boy that “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” Imagine how many other failures may be explained the same way. I wouldn’t want to have to choose between a skilled exegete with good preaching skills, and a man of prayer, but if I did have to choose, it wouldn’t have to think about it at all. Prayer is the way we must do ministry. There is no other way. Sadly, I wasn’t taught this, and I ended up being a very slow learner.

7. It’s Really About the People.

I became a Christian in my last year or so of high school. A friend’s parents encouraged me to go to Bible college. I loved the study and learning there so much that when I graduated I went on to seminary. In seminary, when I had the chance to do a second degree (Th.M..) – an “academic” degree – I didn’t hesitate. When I finished my six years of graduate studies, I applied for and was accepted into a Ph.D. program (which I left almost immediately – long story). My point is that I loved the reading, the study, the discussions and debates – the intellectual stimulation. And not just learning. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the Bible and Theology. At the time I was hoping to teach (and thus the Ph.D. program). Later on, when I was “thrust by the Lord” into the pastoral ministry, it was a shock to my system. It was tough to make the time to study, and people didn’t necessarily understand, appreciate or support my doing that. Even so, I think I studied as much and read as much as most of my peers – but all of us were very busy with administration, meetings and people problems – the constant press of the ministry as it’s understood these days (as opposed to in the day of Jonathan Edwards, for instance). But even though I may have studied or read as much as I could, I still felt my brain dying. I spent most of my time working on how to communicate the most important truth that I already knew to my people in the most effective, memorable, practical, clear way. You learn in the process of doing that, but it’s not the same. What I’m trying to say is, many people get into the ministry for one reason (they love to study and learn), and then find out that “it’s not about that.” It’s really about the people. Now, let me hurry to say that, I’m glad I became a pastor and not a professor. I’m glad I learned to really love and care for God’s people. It seemed that God had “made” a pastor of me, and I was glad, because I was preparing people for life when they went out those doors. It’s a very high calling. Just don’t think that you’re going to sit in your study and break down paragraphs of Greek and Hebrew, while keeping abreast of what the recent “must read” theologians are publishing. More likely, you’ll be overseeing a meeting between your trustee chairman and a young woman – one brought about by the fact that he had asked her why she was the only one in her family “who wasn’t fat.” (True story.) Somehow no one ever told me that these days, the pastoral ministry is often not a very scholarly endeavor. You have to be very intentional about it to avoid this trap, and even then, everything works again you.

8. Find Peer Support.

I helped to start a group where local believing pastors from a number of denominations met weekly to share, pray and eat together. Over the years more than one of the guys in the group told me that he would have probably left the ministry if it wasn’t for the group. (See #s 2 & 5 above.) Whether it’s weekly meetings, monthly gatherings, or regional denominational meetings, forming some relationships where you can share with others who do what you do is essential. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find one or two friends among the bigger group that you can be completely honest with about anything. I have a pastor friend like that now. We’ve both been through everything and seen it all. We’re committed to each other. We love each other. Nothing one can share will make the other one blink – and we can trust each other in terms of confidentiality. You’re going to need this. Trust me. Start working on finding such people from day one – and be such a person to others. Nobody told me to do that, but I figured it out pretty fast for myself, just so I could survive.

9. God Cares About Social Justice.

My wife is a lifelong Democrat. She was born in NYC in a very poor neighborhood. I was born in the suburbs in Ohio, in what, as I look back now, was a somewhat privileged middle class situation. Until somewhat recently, I was a Republican. It’s funny how differently two people can see things! Just tonight she was telling me that she has never understood why, when Republicans talk about Christian values, they’re usually only talking about abortion and homosexual marriage, etc. Where is the concern for the mother’s who don’t abort, for instance, she asked me, and who now find themselves in the ranks of the poor? I didn’t really have a good explanation. I don’t understand it either. I believe it was Martin Luther King Jr. that said there is no distinction between justice and social justice. The Bible is all over justice issues – especially care for the poor. It’s hard to believe you could have one course in OT Major Prophets and another in OT Minor Prophets, and not get into God’s heart for, and demand for, justice – not only in the lives of his people, but in their land (toward others), and ultimately, in His world. Somehow though, I don’t remember this even coming up in relation to any contemporary questions or events. (And I was in college in the Vietnam era.) In the prophets we focused on “prophecy.” In the prophets we struggled to deal with all the minutia. We learned not to believe in Deutero-Isaiah. We figured out the Millennium. Somehow though, we missed what is definitely one of  the biggest emphases of the Bible. (Perhaps that approach was left to the “liberal” schools of our day. That’s the only explanation I can come up with looking back.)

10. Be Aware of the Drop Out/Burn Out/Kicked Out Rate.

If you’re not familiar with the book Finishing Well, you need to become familiar with it. Spoiler alert: it’s thesis is that only one in ten who start in full-time ministry “finish well.” I joined a fairly large church in Queens several years ago. At one point, when I was inquiring about some kind of ministry involvement, I was told “We have more M.Divs. in the congregation than we do on the staff.” – and they had a big staff!  I already mentioned the weekly group of pastors that I helped start years ago. Of the three founding members, only one is still in ministry. I’ve seen so many pastors succumb in one way or another, and if you’ve been in ministry very long, so have you. It’s an epidemic. It’s terrible on so many levels. The thing is, we weren’t told. It’s not enough to have a chapel message every few years on the importance of “guarding your heart” – not when the rate of success (just “finishing”) is 10%! If you’re in ministry you need to be aware of this reality. If you’re new to ministry, the next time you’re in a gathering of pastors, just look around and imagine 90% of them eventually sidelined  – by lust, greet, bitterness, power trips, people traps, etc. Imagine 90% of your pastor friends as “failures” before it’s all said and done. Will you be one of the 10%? Hard to say, but if you’re not aware of this problem, you’re already in trouble.

I will close with this, for the sake of (almost) full disclosure. If my professors would have tried to tell me many of these things, I’m not sure I would have listened. I was foolishly sure of myself and my abilities (exegesis, exposition, theology). I felt sure that a needy and appreciative world was waiting. And, in my particular case, I wasn’t even thinking about pastoral ministry until I was out of school altogether. That obviously affected the way I listened. Even so, I wish they had tried. I really do. Maybe I would have done better.

I share these opinions with you, not to be critical of my professors or the seminaries of that day, and also not to stir up any kind of controversy. I share with you out of a heart of love for you who are servants of God, to encourage you to guard your heart, to devote yourselves to prayer, to walk and minister in the power of the Spirit, to immerse yourself in the Word, to make yourself accountable to others – all that you might be “delivered from the evil one.” A 10% lifetime success rate is not acceptable. You want more than that, and God has more for you than that.

Guest Blogger Eugene Cho: A Conversation About Prayer with President Barack Obama   Leave a comment

I’m pleased and honored to have guest blogger Eugene Cho share with you this month. Sometimes someone else just says it so much better than I could. Thanks Eugene.

_____

Unless it’s Justin Bieber, I don’t get star-struck but I have to admit, it was pretty cool to meet President Barack Obama yesterday. During his visit to Seattle on Friday, February 16 (and this weekend), I had the opportunity and privilege to attend one of the events he was speaking at. Specifically, it was an event at Boeing Everett to celebrate the work of American workers, Boeing, and the culmination of the work of the Dreamliner 787.

Light to the World.

As you know. I don’t run in these circles.  Sitting in a special section with dignitaries and politicians including mayors, various council members, business bigwigs and the Washington governor was awkward to say the least.  How I got invited to this event is a little unclear but over the past couple years, I’ve been building relationships with the White House via their Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It’s also from a commitment I’ve had – as a Christian, a pastor, and a leader – to be a light to the World and not just merely light to the Light. Translation: As we serve and love the church, we must also look outward and engage the larger culture. Folks notice and when opportunities arise, they sometimes ask for input and involvement or just merely your presence and that’s what happened.

Because of this theology and ecclesiology to be a light to the world, I’ve tried to obviously love and serve my church but to also engage both local issues and national issues – including the messy business of politics.

Why Politics Matter

I care about politics not because I obsess over politics.

Rather, politics is important to me because it involves policies and policies, ultimately, impact people. We have no choice: we must be engaged in our civic responsibilities and affairs.

I am a staunch independent when it comes to political parties and urge Christians to not be played, swayed, and seduced by the powers to be. For this reason, I’ve tried to urge others to be cautious of the politicization and manipulation of Jesus, Christians, and religion.

But back to the story.

After the larger event to feature the Dreamliner 787 and listen to President Obama’s speech, a small group of folks were invited to a more intimate gathering (more like meet & greet) with the President. I was told I was going to be invited but I had no idea what to expect.

A conversation about Prayer

In my mind, I had envisioned the opportunity to share some convictions of my heart that would dramatically impact President Obama and alter the trajectory of his leadership, presidency, and country. Go big or go home, right?

Unfortunately, the opportunity for a long conversation wasn’t to be. Had I had that opportunity, I was hoping to talk policies, justice, human dignity, womb to tomb, Linsanity, family, marriage, compare pictures of our kids, and challenge him to a one-on-one basketball game.

Rather, it was a few minutes amongst a small group. When folks were introduced at this smaller gathering, they all had “important” titles. I was simply introduced by “Eugene Cho” and I’m certain many were asking, “Who is this and why is he here?” In fact, President Obama, himself, had a puzzled look as he said, “Hello Eugene.” So, I had to introduce myself to him and explained to him that I was a pastor here in Seattle and involved with some other work. We chit-chatted briefly about stuff  but there is something I very specifically remember and I don’t know if I’ll ever forget this portion of our conversation.

I shared with President Obama that I occasionally but regularly prayed for him and this is how he responded:

“Thank you, Eugene. I really appreciate that. Can you also please pray for my wife and children? Pray for their protection.”

His demeanor changed. Perhaps, this is just me. Perhaps, I’m reading and analyzing too much into all the non-verbal cues but then again, I’m a pastor and after 21 years of doing ministry, you develop a “pastoral sense” and I genuinely sensed his gratitude for prayer and his request for prayer for his family.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our short conversation – and a sense of the burden and weight of his job and the ‘calling’ of the Presidency. In many ways, we ought to commend the courage of all those who step into leadership – on any level – including the highest level. We can criticize all we want about our current presidential candidates but we must commend them for their courage to place themselves in such vulnerable positions.

On a more micro level, I too have experienced harsh pushbacks and criticism in my leadership as a pastor. Several years ago because of a controversial blog post I wrote (and a subsequent public spat with a cultural figure in Seattle), we had a rock thrown into our church building, phone call threats to my home, and anonymous hate email. It was a scary time and after assessing the potential danger to my family, I called the police to explain and seek advice, deleted our home phone line, and removed all pictures and names of our kids from the interwebs.

Now, imagine that. Multiply that 100,000,000 and then, consider that every day. Imagine this not just for yourself but for your spouse and for your children.

You see, it doesn’t matter what your political leanings, affiliations, and affections may be. I’m always amazed by those who so often quote 1 Timothy 2:1-4 as an encouragement to pray for our leaders but we hesitate when it’s someone we disagree with and instead start quoting Psalm 109:8

“May his days be few; and let another take his office.” 

This of course was the recent (and nebulous) encouragement of Kansas GOP House Speaker Michael O’Neal to his supporters. As you can imagine, a great deal of brouhaha erupted because that verse (if you read onto the next verse) is literally about “may his days be few.” It’s about death…

And then there are those absolutely crazy stories like that of Pastor Wiley Drake who shared and continues to share very publicly that he is praying for the death of the president of the United States. Wow. Dude…

An endorsement for prayer

This post isn’t an endorsement for President Obama or a political party. As an active pastor of a congregation, I believe it to be wise not to make endorsements but rather, I’ll talk about issues – particularly from the framework of my Christian faith.

However, I am making an endorsement on this blog post and it is an endorsement for prayer and specifically, prayer for President Obama, First Lady Michelle, and his daughters – Malia and Sasha.

As we shook hands and shared this brief conversation, I was reminded that despite President Obama being arguably “the most powerful man in the world” – beneath it all was simply another broken and fallen man with doubts and fears – just like me and all of us. All in desperately need of the grace of God. All in need of the comfort and strength through prayer. Our brief conversation reminded me of the words I heard from President Obama himself when I attended the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast (Feb. 3) in Washington DC:

“And like all of us, my faith journey has had its twists and turns. It hasn’t always been a straight line. I have thanked God for the joys of parenthood and Michelle’s willingness to put up with me. In the wake of failures and disappointments, I’ve questioned what God had in store for me and been reminded that God’s plans for us may not always match our own short-sighted desires.

And let me tell you, these past two years, they have deepened my faith. The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray. Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”

Agree or disagree. Like or dislike. Republican or Democrat. Tea Party or Coffee Party. It doesn’t matter. Lift a prayer for President Obama and his family. Lift a prayer for this fellow brother-in-Christ. Pray for strength, conviction, and courage. Pray for safety and peace.

My Postscript:  You may also be interested in this interview between Christianity Today and President Obama from January 2008.

Is the Church Impotent to Help the Poor–Really?   Leave a comment

After I read Mark Galli’s article on fighting poverty I had a sense of unease that wouldn’t go away – an unease that only increased with further readings. This post is my response to his article, and an attempt to contribute to the critically important discussion on Christians and the poor.

I’d like to begin with the provocative list of assumptions and arguments made by Mr. Galli:
1) Government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions play the most significant role of all in fighting poverty, not the church. (“The government is by far the best institution to raise the poor’s standard of living.”)
2) The church is “ineffective” or “impotent” when it comes to fighting massive poverty or helping the poor.
3) We can sometimes improve social conditions, but ending poverty can never happen, and will never happen.
4) Poverty will never and can never be ended because of the nature of man.
5) A Christian approach to helping the poor should not be only or mostly “pragmatic.” To focus on making “a difference in the world” is a sinful, misguided, eg0-driven enterprise.
6) What is important about the Church’s “antipoverty efforts”, most of all, is it’s witness to “Jesus’ final antipoverty program.”
7) The church’s “irreplaceable calling” is to give witness (as in #6), and to care for poor individuals “in our midst.” (We are “… to show forth the good news – in deeds of justice and mercy, and most importantly, in gospel words.” [my emphasis]

The Role of Macroeconomics
As the article demonstrates, macroeconomic forces have powerfully worked to decrease extreme poverty in our world. This is seen in the last thirty years in the developing world, especially in China and India. Mr. Galli doesn’t mention it, but macroeconomic forces have also powerfully worked in the U.S. (and Western Europe) during pretty much the same period of time, but in instead to increase poverty (as those who were formerly reasonably financially secure have slid down and out of the middle class.) And, although I’m no economist, it seems to me that the same forces – globalization and outsourcing of jobs – are what account for these movements both out of and into poverty. I don’t mean to equate extreme poverty in the developing world with the poverty of those formerly in the middle class in the U.S.! I’m simply comparing the opposing trends. (Mr. Galli doesn’t even mention today’s tough economic times in the U.S. and in the E.U. – especially in Greece. He only states that “if you’re concerned about poverty, these are indeed the best of times.” ) We can hardly put our trust and hope in macroeconomics to eliminate poverty when macroeconomic forces can lead to less poverty in one place and, at the same time, more poverty in another.

The author’s argument is also based on a historical snapshot covering a relatively short period of time. He demonstrates that macroeconomics has really made a difference, but then turns it into a principle when he asserts that macroeconomics really “makes” a difference. If macroeconomics has always been the most significant force in eliminating poverty, and always will be, that still needs to be demonstrated. It’s not proven in this article. Mr. Galli admits this when he points to “recent economic developments” as the basis of his argument.

In many times and places in the past (and now again), economic prosperity in a nation has been enjoyed by only a few individuals at the top – individuals who had no interest in letting it “trickle down” (the author’s term) to those below. The author doesn’t discuss whether in India and China, the gains that have been brought on by macroeconomics were shared equitably. Were the extremely poor simply rescued from that state, but helped very little otherwise as others were enriched, or was the transformation more of the “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats type?” No matter, it seems to me that we must conclude that macroeconomics is an impersonal, unpredictably fickle savior. We can be thankful for such forces when they are positive and helpful, but we can hardly put our faith in them as the Answer. (And even then, to say macroeconomics is what works best is merely “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” language. It tells us only what happens, but not what should happen, or what anyone should do or can do to encourage it. Hopefully “sheer economic growth” will benefit the poor wherever it occurs, but is our job merely to sit on the sidelines, waiting in hope to see where such growth will occur next, marveling at its causes, and giving thanks when things go well? If “Government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions play the most significant role of all in fighting poverty.”, then we better either place skilled Christians into these places of influence or “occupy” the people who are in these positions now (or both!), to see that they use this transcendent power wisely and equitably. (That’s obviously a separate discussion.)

The Impotence and Insignificance of the Church

I’ve already suggested that the overall sense of Mr. Galli’s article is that the poor are substantially helped to rise above poverty, not by the church’s anti-poverty initiatives or her lobbying of governments, or by “Christian activism”, but by the forces of macroeconomics. He says, “When huge poverty reduction strides have been made, it has been due not to every person doing their little part, but to government economists and bureaucrats making top-down macroeconomic decisions. Doing our little part makes very little difference when it comes to large-scale poverty.” and thus, “… it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.”

In his discussion, Mr. Galli doesn’t maintain a clear distinction between “fighting poverty” and what could more simply be called “helping the poor.” (To be fair, he implies a distinction between the two he qualified some poverty as  “huge” or “large-scale”, but the distinction blurs when he deems the church’s efforts in both endeavors as – “impotent” and “insignificant.”) Perhaps I’ve misunderstood him, but I don’t think so, since in the end his main prescription for the church is mostly about making neither macro or micro efforts, not “fighting poverty” or “helping the poor”, but mostly about something else.

I see this failure to maintain a distinction between “fighting poverty” and “helping the poor” as a problem which skews the discussion. “Fighting poverty” targets a problem and can be measured by results. “Helping the poor”,  can convey a more personal activity – the poor are people, after all. I would agree that you can give significant help to the poor and not necessarily accomplish much in fighting poverty. You could bring groceries to your disabled, recently unemployed neighbor who is a single mom. It probably would be ironic to refer to it as fighting poverty, but there would be no doubt that you had helped the poor.

It’s true, the church often lacks clout when it comes to influencing politics, and historically it probably hasn’t often been the driving force in macroeconomic development. But to say that the church has been impotent when it comes to helping the poor is obviously not true. Every time the church helps the poor, it helps the poor! And when it helps the poor, it is neither “impotent” or “insignificant.” Just ask your neighbor who now has something to eat whether what you did was “insignificant.” Your neighbor was hungry and now she’s not! You have given more than a “cup of cold water” in Jesus’ name, and loved your neighbor as yourself. (Remember the story of the boy and the starfish? That’s what I’m talking about.) It’s not only macro-results, but micr0-results which are important. Helping an individual is always important and significant, even if it doesn’t show up in a trend or a statistic.

The Impossibility of Ending Poverty

Mr. Galli reminds us that Christians will sometimes speak of “defeating poverty” or “ending extreme poverty.” But, he says (and in spite of all the surprising and encouraging statistics he mentions about what has been happening in the developing world) that can never happen:

“… it is a stretch to suggest we can end any sort of poverty. I asked a number of Christian economists about this, and all agreed: No, we can’t. When I asked why, every one of them said, ‘Original sin.’ Until the coming of the kingdom of God, greed, sloth, oppression, corruption, and the like—all of which breed poverty—will persist.” He continues, “… we can indeed improve social conditions in some regards. But the human capacity for sin is relentless and will find ways to subvert even our most stellar progress.” [my emphasis] His example of slavery illustrates what the author means in this regard:

“… it is much better to live in a time when every nation on the planet has outlawed slavery. But as experts today acknowledge, slavery (defined as people enduring forced labor, including sex) is still endemic worldwide. There are more slaves today (estimates range from 12 million to 27 million) than ever. By contrast, even at the apex of American slavery, the United States counted only 4 million slaves.” This illustrates what Galli means when he says it’s impossible to end poverty. He means we’ll never succeed in doing that – and what’s more, apparently were doomed to live with widespread slavery (and who knows what else) on our planet as well. It’s like pulling dandelions. You do your best to improve your lawn, but it’s futile, and you’ll probably only make it worse.

In my opinion, there are several problems in the argument at this point. One having to do with “original sin”, and the other having to do with making a logical leap. If by “Original sin”, the author means the Christian assessment of man’s nature (I assume he means the Calvinistic concept of “total” or “radical” depravity.), then there is nothing in that doctrine that proves his point. Men and women are created in the image of God, and therefore have potential for greatness in many ways. They also have sinned and fallen, so that, while still bearing God’s image, they reflect it in a dramatically marred way – and have the potential for great sin against God and inhumanity to man. Radical depravity doesn’t mean though, that a person can do nothing good. It means that everything a fallen person does, even his most noble and selfless acts, is still touched by his depravity. Just think of Charles Schultz’s character “Pig Pen” who can’t make a move without making a mess. Everything a man does will have the fingerprints of depravity on it, but that doesn’t mean he can do nothing of great value. (“Pig Pen” still makes for a great, often wise friend.) It’s true that our race will always be characterized by greed, sloth, oppression and corruption, but it will also always be characterized by generosity, love and the desire on the part of many to help others. Obviously, we must wait until God’s Kingdom comes in fullness for any kind of utopia on earth. But to say that something quite short of that – the ending of “extreme poverty” – is impossible in this age, is not only begging the question, but minimizing what the God of heaven is able, and perhaps willing, to do through his people (and others). And yes, I know that Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” I just don’t think that his words must mean that the immense global issues of extreme poverty are unavoidable. That’s making the text walk on all fours.

Secondly, and to reiterate from above, to say that because of sin, there will always be “poverty” (Jesus says as much.), and not only that, but that because of sin, there will always be “extreme poverty”, is two different things. The latter simply asserts an opinion. There is no way to demonstrate the truth of such a statement. This is important because of the fatalism involved with Mr. Galli’s interpretation. (The author’s fatalism is manifest when he suggests that “… the church in fact cannot defeat poverty, and … the church’s efforts make an insignificant dent in macropoverty….”) [The emphasis is mine.] We’ve already seen that these sweeping generalizations are based on a very small sampling of time, and remain to be demonstrated before they become gospel.

Focusing on Making a Difference in the Word is Sinful and Pointless
Mr. Galli suggests that a “uniquely Christian approach to poverty” will not be “pragmatic.” At one point in passing, he says that “impact is indeed one important criterion for how we invest ourselves”, but otherwise, he most forcibly and consistently argues that it shouldn’t matter to us whether our Christian activism and efforts to help the poor are ineffective or impotent. (In the end, this doesn’t seem to me to be mostly a warning against the real pitfalls of pragmatic thinking, which he clearly names. Instead, it seems like a corollary of his position on the impotence of the church. If we’re doomed to failure in most, or perhaps all that we touch, then we certainly can’t afford to focus on results!) What should matter to us, he says,  is “simple obedience to Jesus.” Our sinful egos might motivate us to try to do something “significant” or to make “… a difference in the world … so that we can go to bed at night feeling good about ourselves.” What we need to realize is that our efforts can only be insignificant, and that “… our selfcenteredness has sabotaged our ability to make any fundamentally sound contribution to our lives or to others’. This God speaks to us the frank word that not only do we not make a difference in the world, day to day we threaten to make the world worse by our sin.” [my emphasis]

I have to say that this is the most jaundiced Christian view of redeemed humanity that I’ve ever read, and as I’ve already argued, I think it’s theologically indefensible. I’m not certain what the motivation for such a view would be, but it certainly eviscerates what I think is an appropriate sense of human responsibility. What if we were to interview some Christian activists from the past – starting with John Calvin? Think about his story. Would he subscribe to this author’s view? Or would Martin Luther King, Jr, or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther, or William Wilberforce? The list could be endless. This is truly a “unique” approach, but in my opinion, falls short of a “Christian” approach. As his people, we are God’s hands and feet. If the all-powerful God of heaven, has determined to use his church to in some ways bring about his will on earth, then how can we say it can only be ineffective, insignificant or impotent? This is a maddening theology if there ever was one.

The Church’s Job is Witnessing to Jesus’ Coming Anti-poverty Program

In Mr. Galli’s view, the efforts of the church are not about making a difference in our world. As we’ve seen, we will only muck that up because of our sin and selfcenteredness. The efforts of the church on behalf of the poor, we are told, are really about witnessing to what God will do later, when Jesus returns. And thus, “… the church’s most characteristic antipoverty efforts are those that are utterly personal” – like child-sponsorship, which is “not only a proven strategy for making a difference” he says, but one which “works.” (It’s surprising to me at this point to hear the author talk about a “proven strategy for making a difference” – and one which works! It seems out of place after everything else he has said. (Perhaps this means that he himself is too sensible and hopeful to embrace his own view of the “church’s irreplaceable calling” –

The Church’s Irreplaceable Calling

The author ends by saying (and again in spite of all that he’s said that may seem to indicate to the contrary) that as the church of Jesus Christ, “We still have our irreplaceable calling”, which he says, “… begins with responding to the divine and gracious call” to follow Jesus. What troubles me about Mr. Galli’s definition of what it means to follow Jesus in this regard is that it rests upon his view of the church as a powerless, impotent society of well-intentioned bunglers. It arbitrarily limits what the God of heaven and earth is able or willing to do in this age (when the Kingdom is “not yet”), and absolves the believer from the need to respond to the call of Jesus with any kind of vision or courage as it applies to the poor. People are marching in the street to protest injustice and advocate for the rights of the poor (among other things). Are Christians just to sit on the sidelines, settling into their padded pews on Sunday, and supporting an orphan in Somalia so they can feel significant at the end of the day? (And I’m not suggesting that many of the protestors are not Christians, because they are.) Are we only responsible for the poor individual that God “providentially puts in our midst?” That seems like such a small calling to me, and so inconsistent with the commands to love our neighbor and to do good to all people. It also seems like the kind of Christianity that asks so little from God’s people that it receives almost nothing from God’s people. It’s not when Christians practice activism and make great efforts to help the poor that they are insignificant, but when they don’t. Just ask many of those protestors, or listen to young people in the twittersphere. They already believe that the church of Jesus Christ is insignificant and impotent. They’ll tell you that as a Christian you have no credibility with them or others. All I can ask is, please don’t tell these critics that, according to your faith, trying to help would be sinful (self-centered), and pointless, but that they should still be encouraged because in the eschaton things will be different. (I think this is reminiscent of the offer of “pie in the sky when I die.”, and definitely not what Christians are told to do in the book of James and elsewhere.)

Jesus wants us to make a difference – like salt does, and like light does in the darkness. He wants unbelievers to see what we do, and glorify our father in heaven. I think I can promise you that this “unique Christian” approach will not lead to that.

Mr. Galli and I are both evangelicals, so we probably have a lot more in common than a reading of our two articles would suggest. He wants the best for the poor. He wants the church to be as effective as possible. And he wants the good news of the Kingdom to be made known. I wholeheartedly share these concerns, but I differ with him on the way he has explained all of it. I’ve taken the time to write this response, because many who claim to speak for God today seem, not only cold-hearted towards the poor, but insulting and demeaning towards them. (I’m not including Mr. Galli! I’m really thinking about, for instance, what I’ve been hearing lately from GOP hopefuls.) Perhaps we all need to remember, like I did in a small group meeting lately, that the Bible describes Jesus himself as “poor.” Remember that the next time someone tells you that the poor only deserve what “trickles down” to them, or that they’re parasites, or lazy people who aren’t willing to work. It just might be, that someday macroeconomic forces will catch up with you, and that one day you’ll be looking in the mirror at the poor. Don’t wait until then to have a heart of compassion. Don’t wait until then to do what you can to advocate for and help the poor. Remember, when you do it unto them, you do it unto Jesus himself. Now that’s significant.

POSTSCRIPT:  seven responses from Christian Humanitarian organizations (like World Vision and Habitat for Humanity), and a response by the original author Mark Galli

11 Things to do Instead of Occupying   Leave a comment

… and by “instead of occupying” I mean, “instead of becoming involved to make our country a better place. I’m thinking  of what the Occupy Movement is doing in that regard, but there are obviously other, similar or parallel ways to be involved – so I mean “instead of any of that.”

Instead of “occupying” you could…

1) Watch a lots of movies. I love a great movie. Lately my wife and I have been watching old ones. (One evening it was an early version of Dicken’s Oliver Twist.) It was great. We also caught up on some newer ones (and great ones) that everyone else has already seen – Avatar, and Disney’s/Pixar’s Up.

2) Work on your house or car. All I ever do for my car is wash it occasionally, and fill the tank. Oh, once I tried to change the wipers, but my son had to end up helping me. The house is just one big project though. Lately I replaced a faucet and wired two new light fixtures in the basement. So far no floods, but I’m holding my breath, and I need to buy another smoke detector.

3) Read some good books. I love to read. One of my most recurrent thoughts lately is that I wish I were either young again (with all those years ahead of me to read), or retired (to have more time to read). How does anyone find the time? And I have a long list “to read.” (See my Amazon cart if you want to buy me anything – and thanks ahead of time for your generosity.) BTW, please don’t misunderstand the book by Lenin. Just curious about almost everything.

4) Watch your favorite teams’ complete season. Those who know me know that I’m no good at this. I wear an Indians sweatshirt but don’t follow them, and I like the Steelers, but only watched them win the Superbowl last year. I’ve watched the Giants more this year, but that’s really about spending time with my Father in Law. And now, my wife is getting interested in football. Great.

5) Learn to cook. I set a goal for 2011 to master four new recipes. I learned none. I have at least 20-25 cookbooks, and the book Cooking for Dummies, which seems particularly appropriate. Maybe this year will be different. It’s really not that hard.

6) Invest time in your marriage. This is a tough one, since now we’re approaching real work – and leaving one’s comfort zone even more than for plumbing, electrical work or cooking. It’s so hard to communicate (“love languages”, “Venus and Mars”, etc.). I don’t like confrontation, or sharing my feelings, and in spite of lots of messages I’ve preached over the years on “grace”, “patience” and stuff like that, I’m still really not very good at it.

7) Spend time with your children. As I grow older, I’m more and more motivated to do this. The problem is, they have their young lives (four boys in their 20s and early 30s), and for that reason and others that we won’t go into here, they’re not that interested a lot of the time. It has to be something really good like Christmas, Mets tickets, or kayaking. (I remember with shame only now how I was the same way at their age.)

8) Go golfing, fishing or boating – or perhaps some combination of the three. Isn’t it amazing how some people take their clubs everywhere, golf or fish in the rain, or go out in the same bay for a ride over and over? It’s just not me. Avoiding this one is the only easy task for me on this list.

9) Work on advancing your career or building your business. I started a business in 2005, and I’ve been nurturing it ever since. The economy has made it endlessly interesting and pretty challenging. I have a blog for that to maintain, and I’ve had to learn about “search engine optimization”, networking, designing a website, marketing, and how to effectively generate leads. Anyway, just thinking about it makes me tired – and each year, when my tax guy shows me my taxable income, I wonder why I try. Lately it’s a little better.

10) Go to church meetings. You can imagine, as someone who was a full-time pastor for 20 years that I’ve been to a lot of church meetings. Sunday worship, Bible studies, lots of prayer meetings, Vacation Bible School, conferences, food pantry, etc. The church needs workers, and you just gotta help when you can. I appreciate great worship times, and I love good teaching from the Word. I appreciate what God has done for me and want to give back.

11) Stare out the window. I not sure if you’ll know about this one – if not, then you really owe me. It’s like staring at the ceiling but more dynamic. The goal is checking out, going blank, forgetting everything, settling into a wonderful stupor. You’ll see, sometimes it’s just the best.

By now, if you’re still reading, you may be excused for wondering what my point might be. I’m just trying to say that we all have a lot of things we need to do and want to do – an endless amount of things. And I’m no different than you. If I wasn’t willing to sometimes make occupying more important than some of the things on my list, I could never do it. We could all easily leave occupying for someone else to do, but that’s not only pretty self-centered and short-sighted, but it also means that we’ll never harness the power of the 99% to bring about change. We’re all needed for that. Look at what people movements around the world have managed to do in the last few years – but it took masses of people joining together against the powers.

If the US were a person, we’d say it had “real issues.” It really needs some love. I’m asking you to think about how you can show it some love. For instance, become more informed, vote more faithfully, stand up for others when you see their rights being trampled, advocate for those who are less fortunate than you, speak truth to power, spread the message – just stuff like that. We’re all in this together. We’ve been given many precious gifts which we routinely take for granted. If we can’t be bothered to do anything to protect them, then one day they’ll be lost, and our remorse won’t be enough to bring them back.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” He was speaking of his own day, and hopefully, not also or ours.

Martin Luther King’s Disappointment with the Church   1 comment

Martin Luther King’s letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, originally begun on the margins of a newspaper, and upon completion, widely disseminated, is an articulate, courageous, masterful work appealing to reason and common sense, to history and to the Bible. Dr. King was imprisoned for his part in non-violent demonstrations against segregation. The letter should be read thoughtfully and often, and is quite long. At a few places it took my breath away. It’s courage is balanced only by its civility. Except for the ending, I’ve included only the section where he addresses his disappointment with the “white Church and its leadership.” Dr. King explains that his letter “… would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?”

I have abbreviated even this portion of his letter at times (as indicated by marks for an ellipsis – ….) I also want to note that all the italics are mine, marking phrases or sections to which I want to draw special attention. (Originally I planned to comment on these, but I decided it would be much better to let Dr. King speak without commentary.) I would also like to make clear that, like Dr. King, I do not speak “… as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the Church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the Church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.”

These words are extremely painful to hear, and I don’t want to pretend that, if I had been a pastor at that time, I would have done better than those that perplexed and grieved him so. (For instance, Richard Beck reminds us elsewhere that most Christians, not only during the Civil Rights Movement in the South, but also during those terrible years in Nazi Germany, stood by and didn’t get involved.) Perhaps though, by thinking about the church of our day in the context of Dr. King’s words, we can avoid making those same mistakes again.

Birmingham City Jail
April 16, 1963

My dear Fellow Clergymen,

… Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white Church and its leadership. Of course there are some notable exceptions. …

But despite these notable exceptions I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the Church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the Church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the Church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white Church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of the stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.

I have travelled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: “Who worships here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave the clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised, and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. 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. Yes, I love the Church; I love her sacred walls. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformist.

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.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so 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 irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the Church has risen to outright disgust.

Maybe again I have been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Maybe I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual Church, the church within the Church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone through the highways of the South on torturous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been kicked out of their churches and lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have gone with the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. These men have been the leaven in the lump of the race. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the Gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

… If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of
Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.

%d bloggers like this: