Legacy of a Nonconformist Saint
By John Pattison
January 21, 2013
John Pattison is the co-author of Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture (2010) and the forthcoming Slow Church (2013), both from InterVarsity Press. He lives in Silverton, Ore., and blogs at www.SlowChurch.com.
As it happens, Inauguration Day 2013 falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So we can expect, this January 21, no end to the politicians, pundits and pastors who will invoke Dr. King’s name. Their mentions will no doubt subtly infer that his work was somehow fulfilled with the election and re-election of our nation’s first black president.
When we want to beatify great moral and civic leaders, we inscribe their names in holidays and their likenesses in stone. But King wasn’t a saint who can be so easily dismissed—as Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to say, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Dr. King was a prophet whose luminous life and thundering words should still unsettle us, like an electrical storm about to break.
Reverend Dr. King liked to say that he was, above all else, a clergyman.
These books are essential reading for American Christians in the second decade of the 21st century. But the book I want to talk about here is Strength to Love, a collection of King’s sermons first published in 1963. Reverend Dr. King liked to say that he was, above all else, a clergyman. Everything else he was—civil rights leader, anti-war activist, labor activist, advocate for the poor, writer, public intellectual and Nobel Laureate—flowed from his primary vocation as a Baptist preacher and as the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers.
The first thing that strikes the reader about these sermons is the context in which they originally appeared. King says in the book’s introduction that the sermons were written for particular congregations: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. They were all preached during or after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By the time Strength to Love was published, King had been imprisoned 12 times, his family was receiving near-constant death threats, his home had been bombed twice and he had been stabbed nearly to death. Incredibly, three sermons in this collection were written in Georgia jails, including one sermon on Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”) and another on loving your enemies (Matthew 5:43-45).
Despite real advances in the area of integration, King’s famous lament that the church is the most segregated major institution in the country is still essentially true.
“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists,” King says. “Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”
“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists,” King says.
These sermons are messages from a shepherd to his flock. King took seriously the demands of the Gospel on the soul and society, which is to say he took Jesus at His word when He said, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” And, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”
King says in one famous passage:
To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
Richard Lischer has shown that most of the sermons in Strength to Love would have ended with an altar call. If the altar calls didn’t make it into the text, we still reach a moment of decision. The question King asked explicitly four years later in a different book is the same facing every person who has an authentic encounter with Dr. King: Where do we go from here?
Thus, I propose that we spend less time on Inauguration Day interpreting Dr. King’s legacy and more time letting Dr. King’s legacy interpret us. The convergence of holidays will be an inspiration for President Obama, as well it should be. But I also hope it goads the president—really, all of us—toward a second term that will be described by future generations as visionary, passionate and daring on behalf of peace and justice.