On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a few things to remember…
1.The local church can make a difference. All of the trend lines for churches point toward declining attendance and waning influence, but only one generation ago Christian leaders literally led the march toward greater freedom and equality and changed the way our entire nation operates. When great purpose is matched by great courage you can throw the trend lines out the window. I am convinced that the church on mission still has the capacity to inspire, engage and transform great majorities of Americans. As Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, is fond of saying, “The local church is the hope of the world.”
2. The church should NEVER retreat from the public square. You won’t find someone who believes more firmly in the separation of church and state than I do. It is THE bedrock principle necessary for a free church to exist in a free state. But that doesn’t mean the church has nothing to say to the state. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be interested in shaping legislation and influencing public opinion. In fact, the separation of church and state is the very thing that guarantees the church’s enduring independence to do just that.
It is not just our right, it is our duty, to boldly speak the truth of Jesus Christ to the world around us. As we remember the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington, it’s a great time to remember this familiar saying: “Change doesn’t come FROM Washington, change comes TO Washington.” The church has an invaluable role to play in public life and discourse.
3. We’ll always do better to advocate for the expansion of individual rights rather than the curtailing of individual rights. The whole New Testament—and much of the work of the Old Testament prophets—is about communicating expanding standards of acceptance and inclusion. Lepers and prostitutes and adulterers; Jews and Romans and Gentiles; men and women; and people of all races and nationalities find their way into God’s good graces in the pages of scripture.
So much of what passes for Christian ethics today lacks the compassion and inclusiveness that were defining characteristics of Jesus’ ministry. We generally find ourselves on thin ice when our words and actions tend toward judgment and exclusion. The gospel is Good News to the marginalized and disenfranchised—to the poor and the prisoner, to sick and the weak—precisely because it is a message of inclusion and acceptance. Today is a great day to remember that.
4.Great change comes at great cost. It will cost you something if you want to change the world. Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Change rarely comes without sacrifice. Christian transformation of cultures and attitudes can take lifetimes and generations to achieve. And change will always be a threat to the powerful forces of the status quo.
People and institutions with money and power will always seek to preserve the systems and rules that have served them so well in the past. Their overwhelming interest will always be to maintain things just as they are. Any person or organization that seeks change will quickly find challenge and controversy from those forces. It will always take courage, passion and the willingness to risk great personal loss to meet that challenge. Change that matters rarely comes easy.
When Baptist pastors make the news, I’m not usually jumping up and down to claim kinship to them. But today is different. Martin Luther King was a Baptist pastor from Atlanta, and so am I. Thanks be to God.