Advice and Admonitions on Church in America: Radical Reflections on the Words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

January 15, 2011 - 4:13 pm 120 Comments

“… we must not forget that there were three men crucified on Calvery’s hill… two for immorality and theft, living below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, for truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

… Things are different now. 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 just 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 everyday whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

Maybe again, I have been too optimistic, Is organized religion too in extricable 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 for our world.”

from Letters From The Birmingham Jail

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As I see it, without a willingness to consider becoming creative extremists, the mission and vision of any spiritual and/or religious group is at risk of never developing beyond being an irritant to the status quo, a socially troublesome but treatable rash, that will easily be placated and then ignored.

With being willing to become more “creatively maladjusted” is there enough of a sense of dignity and justice that makes any person or group capable of presenting the dis-ease and lament of the people of God effectively and powerfully enough to those who oppose them and who, by patriarchal religious and often penitential tradition and their theological assertions have effectively have controlled them.

Throughout the centuries of Western civilization, churches have come to occupy places of religious prominence and cultural importance. There is an undeniable historical reality that informs us… But that fact of culture and history cannot limit our understanding of what a church is, or what it stands for in our respective communities. Just as it is certain that there is a need for our churches to stand against any intrusions by government concerning one’s right to worship as one sees fit, and to remain separate from mutual entanglements, so, too, is it important for churches to assert their ethical presence in a community. As I see it, our progressively minded churches stand as stately sentinels; they can act as the guardians of individual freedom, and stand watch over the issues of justice and compassion in all civic affairs and interpersonal relationships.. In a world that seems to have lost its moral compass, our inclusive churches can act decisively to promote a concern for corporate responsibility, governmental accountability, and personal ethics. Furthermore, their presence in any conservative community acts as a vibrant religious alternative; a place that promotes freedom and safety, dialogue and self discovery, along the many diverse paths of human and spiritual inquiry towards greater comprehension and understanding. Our progressive and inclusive communities offer a welcoming and affirming environment that promotes a variety of opportunities for rational exploration, self discovery, and personal affirmation, which was traditionally aligned with the idea of the ripening and maturity of one’s soul or awareness.

If King is right in his prophetic sense of where the church of our contemporary culture is today, then the world of culture, consciousness and church life is now, more than ever before, in need of creative extremists. The time for timidity is over; it is Gospel based temerity that longs to assert itself- to present itself as being fully believable- fully and without reservation on the side of compassion, justice, equality and radical change.

If the mission and vision of a spiritual and/or religious group is sincere, it will have to be honest about the degree of obstinacy and frustration it faces in our larger religious world. The power of clerical inertia and the hierarchical arrogance that lies at the base of that power it held on to fiercely. Its desire for keeping up the dysfunctional status quo will remain stolid, intransigent, cold, and callous to the need for change, unless it go unheeded, and people vote to secede with their wallets and their feet! In that regard, it is not too strong to suggest that much of what functions in our culture as mainstream church, and what passes for a purposeful or meaningful spiritual life has already separated from the people of God it claims to serve!

Ask yourself this: If King waited until all the churches aligned with him on civil rights, then the battle would not yet have begun… If Ghandi waited until the English Raj and the Crown police demurred, or until they saw the errors of their inhospitable, dehumanizing ways, then India would still be a colony. So, too, if the faithful today have to ask ourselves this preeminent question: Are we willing to wait?

The history of the Western Church has evolved violently- It was through disagreement with the powers that were ensconced or enshrined, be they be creed, book, prince, or tradition, and that only through reformation, revolution and reform, did visionaries and dissenters have sufficient energy and impetus to create all the many varieties of church that can fill many almanacs and reference books.

As one radical example among many- Who is to say that the time is not right for an American Catholic Church? Or a People’s Catholic Church?

If there is an earnest desire to defeat the systemic evils that we clamor to remove, its arrogant crassness and the icy unresponsiveness that creates so much of the heartache in the women and men of conscience within the institutional church, then to simply protest by declining to agree is insufficient– a rash that is treated with indifference.

Only substantive action will create meaningful reform. Only with an acceptance that one has to be maladjusted to the status quo can there be enough energy generated that will definitively support deep reform and foster genuine change. Only with the affirming and encouraging creation of a new paradigm for spiritual community and ethical service, can the real or true ecclesia that King recommends come into being; Only then will energy of an inclusive and compassionate mission manifest, and only then can a vision that is clear and strong to be seen that exposes the long held, tolerated abuses of the Senex and patriarchal mentality. It is only then that we will arise as the hope for the world, and affirm ” Let the revolution of God’s people ” begin!

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