Civil rights and Dr. King

Civil rights and Dr. King

By Kenneth J. Collins

A year after President John F. Kennedy called out the troops to quell the riots surrounding James Meredith – the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi – the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested on April 16, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. Growing up in a Baptist church in which his father was a pastor, King learned early on that the Christian faith is a universal religion that transcends race, ethnicity, gender, social class, or cultural origin.

During the time he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, King began to think deeply about social justice issues and became acquainted with the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), especially his Christianity and the Social Crisis. Though King found much to his liking in social gospel thought, he differed from Rauschenbusch and others whom he believed came “perilously close to identifying the kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system – a temptation which the church should never give into.”

While he was in prison, King penned a letter (”Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) that not only revealed why he and the civil rights movement could no longer wait (”justice too long delayed is justice denied”), but it also argued for an understanding of justice that was well-rooted in both moral philosophy and the Christian faith. Appealing to the writings of Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), King maintained that the laws of many southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, were invalid because they were out of harmony with the natural law and the eternal law that is above it. Put another way, such laws failed to accord to black Americans those benefits and prerogatives that pertain to them precisely as human beings. “An unjust law,” King wrote in this letter, “is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This difference is made legal.”

Having a theoretical basis for distinguishing an unjust law from a just one, King developed a sophisticated distinction between the legal and the moral, a distinction that several evangelicals at the time were reluctant to acknowledge. In this line of reasoning, some laws may be on the books, so to speak, but because they deny basic human rights to a sector of the population, such laws must be deemed immoral. Or as King himself put it, a law so construed is necessarily unjust for “it does not square with the law of God, so for that reason it is unjust and any law that degrades the human personality is an unjust law.”

So then, part of King’s strategy to further the civil rights of black Americans was to challenge such unjust laws through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, a tactic he had learned from Gandhi. Such civil disobedience always upset the law-and-order crowd, who argued in terms of respect for the law of the land above all, or at best they championed gradual, less disruptive forms of change. To this and similar objections, King replied, “And I submit that the individual who disobeys the law, whose conscience tells him it is unjust and who is willing to accept the penalty by staying in jail until that law is altered, is expressing at the moment the very highest respect for the law.”

Though the strategy employed by King invited criticism from evangelicals and others, there was a genius in his method of wedding a natural law critique of unjust state laws to non-violent civil disobedience. If King had promoted violence in a struggle to address injustices, then the inevitable police crackdown would have hardly evoked sympathy for the movement. “They got what they deserved,” would have been the quick, almost unthinking reply. But King did something very different. His goal, of course, was to demonstrate that the legal sometimes is immoral because the state has simply codified the all-too-common prejudices of the majority. In order, however, to get the average American to hear this plea of injustice, King had to break through the normal social filters such as a concern for law and order that would most often cut off any sympathetic response in its tracks.  King, however, would eventually get the ear of the American people through a strategy of nonviolence coupled with his generous moral concern.

The stage was set the following month in May 1963, for a heroic contest between nonviolent civil rights protestors who had God’s moral law on their side and Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama, who had his dogs and police. TV cameras caught the graphic violence of Conner’s directives. Black activists were smashed into storefronts by hoses, pummeled by the billy sticks of cops, and bitten by attack dogs as they patiently suffered for their cause.

Americans, indeed the world, looked on this spectacle in horror as the cameras rolled. Ironically enough, the law and order argument was being turned on its head and Conner’s lackeys now appeared to be shameful as new heroes were being born. Moreover, a fund of sympathy, wide and deep, was evoked that day for King’s cause. Such an identification, sustained by strong emotion, represented nothing less than the illuminating grace of God breaking through, a grace that darkness and hatred could by no means overcome.

And so while neo-evangelicals were positioning themselves between fundamentalism and liberalism, as they were preoccupied with fighting communism and developing a unified cultural voice, the actions of King demonstrated a much different kind of power. Not that of coercion and force, but one that, remarkably enough, refused to speak the language of Babylon.

Kenneth J. Collins is Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Taken from Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism by Kenneth J. Collins. Copyright(c) 2012 by Kenneth J. Collins. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

For this article, the quotes from Dr. King are found in The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

Photo of Dr. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-122982.

Civil rights and Dr. King

Modern day martyr

By Maidstone Mulenga

Delegates at the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church May 1 declared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a modern-day martyr.

The historic vote was in keeping with a decision at the 2008 General Conference giving the German theologian the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer the same distinction.

King, who gave his life for the betterment of all people, will be listed with Bonhoeffer in the Book of Resolutions to bear witness to all people of faith in printed and digital form.

“Dr. King gave of himself to bring a message of hope to the world. His martyrdom set him apart. His love and his sacrifice must be remembered in a significant way by the church for future generations,” the declaration reads.

A graduate of Boston Theological Seminary, a United Methodist-related institution, King is perhaps the most well-known leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech.

In 1964, King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004).

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a national holiday in 1986.

Maidstone Mulenga is the director of communications for the Upper New York Annual Conference. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.

Photo of Dr. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-122982.
Civil rights and Dr. King

Editorial: What Does Love Require?

By Rob Renfroe

Recently Dr. Timothy Tennent posted an article on entitled “Why the Church is So Concerned with Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination.” As president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Tennent’s article was thoughtful, insightful and reserved. In all of his writings, he has a wonderful way of making his point without belittling or condemning those with whom he disagrees.

The reaction to Dr. Tennent’s article was as predictable as it was immediate. Of the many responses that could be cited, Dr. Sanford Brown, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Seattle, critiqued Dr. Tennent’s thoughts as “a reminder that our message of ‘God is love’ hasn’t yet melted the iceberg at the heart of conservative, evangelical Christianity.”

Dr. Brown’s primary criticism was that those of us who maintain traditional Christian beliefs regarding sexual morals do not truly love our neighbors. Instead we are “… hamstrung with the older-than-Christianity tradition that drags us downward toward pride in our own righteousness and condemnation toward others and emptiness of heart toward the stranger.”

We’ll leave aside Dr. Brown’s less than charitable characterization of those he disagrees with. But his response did cause me to think about the words we use.

For example, the word “love.” Brown uses the word 18 times in his article and along with “listening,” he states that love should be the determining factor in how we think about homosexuality. But he never defines “love.”

We must love our neighbors, Brown rightly contends, but he never defines what it means to love another person. The closest he gets is that love requires us to be in “an attitude of compassionate service” to those around us. But that simply begs the question, “What does it mean to serve someone?” “What does it mean to love?”

I facilitate a course at our church titled “How to Love and Help Your Adult Child.” Parents attend who have children who are alcoholic, guilty of criminal behavior, and/or repeating bad decisions regarding their love life. And every parent who attends, no matter how much pain he or she has experienced, still loves his or her child.

But the question becomes: “What does it mean to love a child who is making poor decisions?” Some want to give the child money and shelter so he or she will be safe. They’re certain that’s what love would do. Others feel they must let the child live with the consequences of his or her choices, even if it means living on the streets. These parents believe that’s the loving thing to do. Both sets of parents love their child, but they disagree about what love requires.

I think in some ways that’s where the church is.

Does loving others mean that we must celebrate their lifestyle? Does serving another person mean we must accept and support every choice he or she makes?

If it does, then surely Jesus was not a loving person. He told people, all people, to repent of their wrong choices and change their “lifestyle,” to use a word that was not known in the time of Jesus and is today used primarily to defend the idea that all moral and sexual choices are equal and above criticism. He told the greedy, the self-righteous, the sexually immoral, and those who taught falsehood as truth to repent – not because he did not love them, but because he did.

There was no iceberg in the heart of Jesus. There was no emptiness of compassion in his soul. There was only the purest love the world has ever known. And yet, serving others did not mean accepting what they did or what they taught. It meant caring enough to tell people the truth they needed to hear – the truth that would set them free.

M. Scott Peck defined love this way: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing … another’s spiritual growth.” I don’t deny – in fact, I decry – the fact that there are some conservative Christians who use demeaning language toward persons with same sex attraction and who find it difficult to feel compassion or have friendships with persons who are gay. That’s not who I am. Furthermore,  it’s not indicative of any of the orthodox leaders I know within the UM Church. But I know there are some conservative Christians who are unwilling to “extend” themselves to love, accept and serve persons – all persons – as they are. And out of love let me say, they need to repent and change.

But there is also a word of caution in Dr. Peck’s definition of love for progressives. And that is what does it mean to nurture another person’s spiritual growth.

Is spiritual growth nothing more than learning to accept one’s self? Or is spiritual growth a process of transformation from who we are into the person God wants us to be?

Is spiritual growth learning the eternal moral truths of the Bible and living accordingly? Or is it ignoring the teachings of The New Testament in order to affirm “the new thing” that liberals tell us “the Spirit is now doing?”

Is spiritual growth coming to a place where we believe we know the motives of others and judge them for having icebergs in their hearts and being guilty of “pride in (their) own righteousness” and “emptiness of heart toward the stranger?” Or is it believing that we can have real differences on important issues and even write about them, without impugning each other’s motives?

Progressives tell us that the way of Christ is the way of love. And I agree. But what we don’t find in Jesus is the love of the sentimentalist. What we don’t witness in the ministry of Jesus is grace without truth. And what we don’t see in Jesus is a compassion that accepted people without also telling them, “Now, go and sin no more.”

No, he extended himself to nurture the spiritual growth of people – and that always meant speaking to people about the Father’s love and their brokenness and their sin. And then teaching them about and loving them into a new way of life.

My best friends have been the ones who have told me when I was failing. They have done so with compassion, but on two occasions, different friends have said, “Rob, here’s an area of your life that needs to change.” And they were right. I needed someone to confront me and correct me. And these two friends loved me enough to tell me the truth – and nurture my spiritual growth. And I am forever grateful.

I hope the church will be a good friend to all – the greedy, the self-righteous, the sexually immoral, the prejudiced, the alcoholic, the judgmental. And being a good friend means loving people as they are and then nurturing their growth so they can become more the person God desires them to be.

That is the least that love requires.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. 

Civil rights and Dr. King

Putting Aside Your Prison Clothes

By B.J. Funk

Want to read a book better than the latest mystery novel you have read? Then, grab your Bible and feast your eyes on the intriguing 25 chapters of Second Kings! There you will find plenty of evil, hatred, and wickedness. Throw in war, cruelty, power, the desensitizing of right and wrong, and you have the ingredients that fill most of the best sellers on our book shelves. Add a famine so deadly that mothers eat their own children, mix in idolatry, conspiracy, murder, destruction, nauseating self-love, and you are standing in the middle of the reasons for Israel’s defeat. The intriguing story goes on and on, a tug of war between those who served God with a passion and those who led the Israelites astray.

But, there’s more. Woven into the framework of evil is the enchanting excitement of supernatural events: Elijah touches his cloak to the water, and it parts; He does not die but is taken up in a whirlwind; Elisha helps a widow with her debt by supernaturally expanding her jar of oil, and he also removes poison from a stew; He raises a boy from the dead, enlarges a small amount of food to feed a big crowd, and heals a man of leprosy.

Then there is Jezebel, the evil Baal-worshiping wife of king Ahab of Israel. She is thrown out of a window by eunuchs and then eaten by a dog. How humiliating is that for a main character!

To add insult to injury, the Babylonian army marches into Jerusalem, carries the people into captivity, and Jehoiachin, a former king of Israel, is put into prison. The story takes an unexpected turn after Jehoiachin has been in prison 37 years! The new Babylonian king releases Jehoiachin, speaks kindly to him and gives him a seat of honor. We have no indication why, especially since the king’s given name was Evil-Merodach, except we do know that God’s grace overrides evil rulers. The last two verses of this book reads, “So, Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life, ate regularly at the king’s table. Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived.”

Talk about a surprise ending!

There are several thoughts we can carry with us from these last two verses. First, God is a God of surprises. He is the master at turning a story around and bringing a happy, surprise ending! Secondly, who but God would give us a story like this! Full of the theme “rags to riches,” it is also only complete as a “jail to grace” story. Lastly, who of us could deny that God can soften the heart of a king? Our Father knows how to place both the villain and his victim in the same paragraph and allow a tenderness and softness to change the plot.

The greatest thought we can take away, however, is to allow Jehoiachin’s release and Evil-Merodach’s forgiving spirit to make a difference in our own lives. Jehoiachin, the prisoner, did nothing to earn a seat at the king’s table. You and I, prisoners to our sin, have done nothing to earn a seat at our King’s table. Yet, He invites you to “put aside your prison clothes, and join him regularly.”

Are you walking around daily in your prison clothes, afraid to claim your new wardrobe? Do you still sleep in your jail cell outfit? You don’t realize Jesus has set you free? When Jesus bought your life through his death, he brought you freedom from old habits, freedom from past sins, freedom from all those things that inhibit you from being all he wants you to be. He took your filthy rags and in exchange, he gave you new, clean white robes of wholeness.

What are you waiting for? Run! Throw off those prison clothes! Find your seat at the King’s table!

Don’t let anyone else have your spot! Gulp down the cup of his love. Eat his grace until you are stuffed. Bask in the unbelievably wonderful feeling of freedom.

Civil rights and Dr. King

The Impact of Incarnational Ministry

By Reed Haigler Hoppe

“You know, in 1978 we stoned a missionary here. Killed him. We haven’t allowed anyone else in here since then…until you guys. You are different. It’s not your words, it’s your actions. We love you. We’re really glad that you came.”  –Peruvian Woman

Billy and Laurie Drum serve with The Mission Society team in Peru, along with their nine-year-old daughter, Sarah. The Drums live in a rural mountain community called Patarcocha. Their adobe house complete with mud walls, a bucket toilet, and frequent water shortages – is perched two miles high into the Andes.

Billy and Laurie moved to Peru from Texas almost five years ago. Both science teachers, the Drums weren’t quite sure what their lives would look like in Peru, but they knew they had been called to cross-cultural ministry. “We are just lay people. We aren’t pastors. We came to the field as science teachers. So we always felt like we would just be sowing seeds here in Peru,” said Laurie (pictured above).

The Drums founded the Kuyay Talpuy program, which means “sowing seeds with the love of God” in Quechua, the local language. Through the Kuyay Talpuy education centers, the Drums are able to touch the lives of children, their families, and their communities. “We want to plant seeds of the gospel and of Christ’s love in the children here,” said Laurie.

Despite their intense desire to move to Patarcocha, it took a funeral of a dear friend to open the door. “After two years of working in the community every day, but living 45 minutes away in Huancayo, we were granted permission to actually move here.”

“Mama Victoria was the matriarch of the community of Patarcocha,” said Laurie. “Through her death and our inclusion in her family during the funeral, we were finally given recognition as members of the community. We suddenly moved from ‘missionaries’ and ‘gringos’ to a new, more intimate role.

“The community rallied around us and helped us make plans and begin to move in. We became neighbors and friends. We began to work on community issues together. We began to have community struggles together. We bonded in a new way.

“Living among the people has had the greatest impact on our ministry. We worked hard to try not to improve our living situation beyond what others in the community had access to. People knew that we could live better than they did, but we chose not to. We chose to be like them. We shop in the open market alongside our neighbors. Our daughter attends the same school as their children. We eat what they eat.

“We will always look different, and they will always know that we aren’t really from here, but they now consider us one of them. They call us family. That’s huge!” said Laurie.

When asked how she felt about the statement from a neighbor (in the read-out above), Laurie remarked, “Honestly, I have to say that during the first year when we were really being persecuted and we considered leaving, had we known that there was a history of killing missionaries here, we would have definitely left and not persevered. But, in this case, not knowing may have been the best thing. We stayed and stuck it out, and the ministry was blessed,” said Laurie.

Reed Haigler Hoppe is The Mission Society’s associate director for communications and is an ordained deacon in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.

The Drums are relocating from Peru to a least reached area of the world in 2013. They plan to work with refugees and missionaries in their new field in the areas of counseling, coaching, and training. Learn more about their ministry and watch a video at