When you consider that during the height of the Civil Rights movement, the federal government was extremely suspicious of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., having him surveilled around the clock for anti-government activity, it might strike a person as odd that he today has a national holiday and a memorial in Washington D.C. in his honor. This, however, is actually to be expected. When we human beings follow the pattern of this world (set by Satan and the fallen powers) we seek power over any movement that threatens our self-centered way of life. We tend to resist radical change until we have no other appealing alternatives. So we tune out much of Dr. King's radical message, informed by his Christian faith, because it cuts directly to the heart of our self-centered ways.
So, how can the federal government acknowledge this great leader and the movement he led without actually putting into practice the way of life he preached? Easy: They give him a holiday and a statue.
This is not unusual; this is actually normative idolatry. The best way to control a movement is to co-opt a movement. Offering token recognition and lip service praise has the potential to disrupt the unbridled power of a movement that threatens to change everything. This is precisely how Constantine tamed the Church. He gave the Church just enough power to stop them from being the revolutionary movement that was turning the world upside-down. That way, empire now controls the Church.
This is how idolatry has always worked. God didn't forbid Israel from making graven images because he dislikes kitch. God forbade Israel from making graven images because idolatry gives the idolater the illusion of control over God or the gods. The stone, metal, or wood figurine now lives where the idolater places it and responds when the idolater petitions it. The idol becomes a tool at the disposal of the idolater. YHWH would not be reduced to an idol!
Neither should Dr. King be. Merely giving Dr. King a holiday and a statue dishonors his legacy and is a thinly-veiled attempt to placate those who might continue to carry on his message and movement.
Idolizing Dr. King
We also make an idol out of Dr. King when we pretend he was perfect. We dishonor him in a misguided attempt to honor him. I'm not talking about his alleged extramarital affairs. I'm referring specifically to his trust in democracy and the U.S. experiment.
I continue to be deeply challenged and inspired by Dr. King's radical message of enemy-love and nonviolence that he preached in the service of social change. I think this cuts to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. But I cannot ignore that embedded in his message and mission was a trust in the democratic process, and the U.S. experiment that I don't share. Dr. King believed a grassroots movement of people could change a nation—and proved it! But his goal was to change the laws of the land, and I don't see that anywhere in the message or mission of Jesus. Instead, Jesus's message and mission were all about forming an alternative community of called-out disciples ready to lay down their lives for their King. Rather than changing the way Rome, or even the Sanhedrin, treated people, Jesus's mission was to change how his disciples treated people—to reflect the love of God revealed in Jesus's Cross. Jesus didn't do this through a new set of laws. He did it by modeling the Way for them and by giving them his Holy Spirit to transform them.
Dr. King's message and mission of social justice is deeply rooted in the Hebrew prophets. But overlooked is the context of their audience: Israel—God's covenant people. The United States has no such covenant with God. The New Covenant in Jesus's blood is not restricted to ANY one nation (people group) but is in fact deliberately open to ALL peoples. God has covenanted with all those who submit their entire lives to the Kingship of Jesus. God has covenanted with a trans-national, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community that exists in stark contrast to all the kingdoms of this world. This Jesus Movement must necessarily look different from the world's kingdoms because kingdoms reflect their leaders! That means the Jesus Movement must necessarily look different than the United States of America. In this Jesus Movement, there will necessarily be racial justice, racial righteousness, and racial reconciliation. There may never be racial justice in the U.S..
"…I would want to draw people deeper and deeper into the heart of the Kingdom and even more so, the heart of the King. Ultimately, the witness to the world that will be most powerful (from the New Testament Church to the “beloved community” King loved to speak of) is the creation of an alternative community. To put it bluntly, I think [we've], on the whole, been far too unsuccessful at creating such an alternative community to the structures of the world to be overly concerned with trying to tell the world how to live. It seems to me the time is right to invest ourselves in Christian communities that truly demonstrate to the world that another kind of life is made possible by the resurrection. In our own cultural climate, it is hard for me to envision any project more important than showing the world a community where the poor, the alien, stranger and the widow (no matter where they come from or what they’ve done) can receive the transforming love of God through the touch of human hands."
Theological Graffiti is a blog written by T. C. Moore @tc_moore ...a Jesus-disciple, husband, father, Associate Pastor @NewCityChurch of Los Angeles, sometimes web designer, writer, and theology geek. For more about me, visit my Personal Website or my Online Profile. Otherwise, enjoy the graffiti.