Dr. King’s Hope for the Church

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Reflecting on the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

— on what would’ve been his 95th birthday — I am struck by his natural (even assumed) integration of spirituality into all facets of life. Our culture loves to compartmentalize, and faith/religion/spirituality has long been boxed into the realm of one’s private interior life. We have taken the separation of church and state to mean that the convictions and ideals espoused within the church should have little bearing on our shared public life.

Yet Dr. King confronted the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism as a concrete expression of his spirituality. How many of our churches today (especially in the white evangelical stream) fail to address even one of those evils with any regularity or conviction?

Poverty may receive, at best, an occasional volunteer effort or one-time offering collection.

Racism may receive, at best, a passing word or two in a sermon or liturgy on days like today.

And militarism? Many churches seem far more interested in explicitly supporting rather than dismantling it (you could easily mistake the 4th of July for a religious holiday in most churches, a topic for another time…).

Dr. King’s legacy demands that we see the call to love God and love our neighbor as covering everything and everyone in life. Nothing is left untouched. Everything is spiritual. It all matters, and when we limit our understanding of the church’s place in society to the “spiritual” (i.e. private) realm, we all lose.

The last thing I want to argue for is a crusading church imposing its morals and values on society. Rather, I am pleading for a church that doesn’t spend most of its time, money, and energy on simply “saving souls,” Sunday worship, and midweek programming. I am crying out for our churches to practice what Jesus preached, which should lead us to active engagement with the work for justice, equity, and belonging within our communities and society.

Dr, King observed,

“The contemporary church is 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… 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 hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.”

Dr. King would likely lament the myriad ways the church has not yet met this challenge. However, anchored in a hope inspired and defined by his deep faith, Dr. King would undoubtedly invite the church into meeting this challenge anew. Even now, it’s not too late… but every delay has punishing consequences for those on the underside of our world’s power structures.

Today is the lone federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service. My prayer for our churches as we revisit the life and teachings of Dr. King is that we, too, would understand his legacy not merely as an opportunity for reflection but as a call to meaningful action and service, so that all may flourish.

Until justice rolls down,