The MLK Option
Tim Keller once said we’re now living in the autumn of Christianity’s influence in the West: the leaves are falling to the ground and winter is approaching.
For many of us, the cold wind that reminds of us the coming winter storm is the loss of religious freedom so many evangelicals see in American life today.
A Christian student group at Vanderbilt University loses official school recognition; Chick-Fil-A gets grilled by the Denver City Council for trying to move into theDenver International Airport; in California an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is forced to elect non-Christian leaders.
Many evangelicals feel like a cat backed into a corner. A combination of fear and outbursts of rage (usually on our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages) often define our response.
Times have changed. Christians committed to the public implications of their faith are now a minority in American life.
Today many Christians are frantically searching to find a way to live in American society without cultural power.
New options are being proposed.
For example, Rod Dreher, the conservative editorial writer, has suggested the “Benedict Option. Keep the flame of faith alive in private communities as the larger culture deteriorates. Though I’m not sure Benedict — who believed his monastic communities were essentially a missionary endeavor — would opt for this route, I’m not sure how this option works with the essential Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord of all.”
In response, Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post, has suggested the “Wilberforce Option,” which advocates for defending human rights in the seats of power. Yet the “Wilberforce Option” assumes Christians actually have power to change laws, which seems to be less true with each passing year — and has been untrue of Christians of ethnic minorities for centuries.
Where in church history should we look for faithful, public responses to persecution, discrimination, and marginalization? I suggest we look to the preeminent expression of public faith in American history: the American Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps moving forward, we should embrace a distinctly American legacy: The MLK Option.
The MLK Option
Instead of a non-stop protest against unfairness or unequal treatment, we’d be wise to embrace Martin Luther King Jr’s model of social change and cultural witness. MLK can help the white church see what has been true for hundreds of years for the black church: the meaning of a faithful public life without cultural power.
Now more than ever the entire American church needs to come and learn at the feet of MLK’s counter-cultural, yet deeply Christian, vision of nonviolent love, even for our enemies.
In an age of caustic political debates and divided communities, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words echo as true today as they did a half century ago: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil. The greatest way to do that is love.”
What would the way of love look like for evangelicals in America today? Here are four places we could start:
1. Acknowledge that Christians are a minority in American culture (and this isn’t going to change any time soon).
What does it mean to be a minority people in a majority culture? The black church could be a wise counselor to white churches that are now experiencing this for the first time.
Suffering and lament choruses, like the blues, might need to become just as common as praise and worship songs. Being prepared to respond to discrimination with dignity may be just as important to church discipleship as quarterly marriage seminar. I admit, as a white evangelical myself, I have a lot to learn here.
But it’s important to first recognize that we’re not going to “take America back for God” and become a majority culture any time soon. That ship has sailed. As MLK said in 1956, “We must prepare to live in a new world.”
2. Embrace the central principle of Martin Luther King’s leadership: love your enemies.
After centuries of oppression, public shame, and suffering, it’s incredible that MLK could conjure such character to counsel African Americans “to meet the forces of hate with the power of love…We’ve got to learn not to hit back. We must learn to love the white man.”
This makes me wonder: could Christians be known centrally for their acts of grace in American culture?
To do this would require us to bring gourmet meals to pro-choice co-workers; to pray deeply and honestly for our political leaders of that other political party (whether that be Democrat or Republican); it would mean finding those we despise in our neighborhoods and treating them as if they were Christ himself.
In the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
“Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” is not an impossible ethic. It is a logical plan of action for a persecuted minority.
3. Expect to suffer.
In September 1958, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta accompanied Ralph Abernathy to the courthouse. Abernathy had been assaulted by police and spent several days in the hospital.
As King began to explain their reason for coming, two officers raced up to King, grabbed him and yelled, “Boy, you done it. Let’s go.” King later recalled, “The police tried to break my arm. They grabbed my collar and tried to choke me…When they got me to the cell, they kicked me in.”
King endured injustice at the hands of those in power in order to awaken the conscience of America. He suffered for his cause. We should be prepared to do the same.
Very few white evangelicals in America have ever experienced this kind of persecution for their faith. But should the day come, and it might, suffering for doing what’s right is perhaps the most powerful act of public witness possible.
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult,” the apostle Peter commands us, “On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called.”
4. Remain resolutely hopeful.
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The forces that negate life must be challenged by courage…This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out of stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”
We need not despair over American culture, nor believe that we will return to a golden age of American Christianity.
We have lost cultural power, but to live in the fullness of Christ requires neither influence nor power. It merely means we are willing to take up our cross and walk in the way of the Suffering Servant.
In the end, the goal for Christians in American culture today is not triumph but love.