This post originally appeared on the NOBTS.edu GeauxTherefore blog.
As one born twenty years after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, I grew up hearing the scratchy recording, ”I have a dream”—usually truncating somewhere around there.
I knew about Martin Luther King Jr. But it wasn’t until I sat down to read his book, Strength to Love, that I ever interacted with the man and his ideas.
What was particularly surprising to me was that race was often not at the center of his message. Sin was. Discrimination and hate were byproducts of sin. And King knew it.
Here are a few of my favorite lines from his book, Strength to Love:
“A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
Complacency is an influence that slyly confuses wisdom and fear. When Jesus told his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16), he was telling us to keep both a sharp eye and a soft hand.
From the sermon, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Mind,” (based on this same passage), King makes the parallel between the struggles of the Christian life in general and civil rights in particular.
“Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts”—a truth he notes, that applies regardless of the color of one’s skin. And, as such, “one of the great needs of mankind is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda.”
Taking up our Lord’s command to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” is more than an approach; it is, as King notes, the building blocks of our future.
“We as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists.”
Upon first reading this, I thought “nonconformist” was too extreme. I am, at my heart, a peacemaker. I don’t enjoy conflict. So I wondered, can a nonconformist be a peacemaker?
Keying off of Paul’s instruction to “not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) King applies these words to our economic context. We live in a country of historically unprecedented wealth. It’s easy—even natural—to find ourselves sliding into the stream of material or social success. And the truth is, these things are not bad. What matters is what we do with these successes.
“The ultimate measure of man,” notes King, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Nonconformity is not limited to inflammatory topics or taboos, it is at the center of what a Christian is called to be.
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent act.”
Here is King:
“In spite of the fact that the law of revenge solves no social problems, men continue to follow its disastrous leading. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path.
“Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye-for-eye philosophy would leave everyone blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with aggressive love.
“What a magnificent lesson! Generations will rise and fall; men will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the altar of retaliation; but ever and again this noble lesson of Calvary will be a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate.”
“We can store our surplus of food free of charge in the shriveled stomachs of the millions of God’s children who go to bed hungry at night.”
In 1961, the newly elected John F. Kennedy gave his country a clear mission: land a man on the moon and return him back safely. Since then, our world has turned over impressively. There is now, for instance, more power in the phone in my pocket than there was in all of the Apollo program’s mission control.
The things we’ve created are quite amazing.
But if we’re not careful, they can become the things we live for.
“The means by which we live,” wrote King, “have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided man.”
In Genesis, the Tower of Babel was about men so enamored with their own technology, they forgot their place before God. We are not immune to that same temptation today. If our stuff is anything, it is a resource to help our brothers and sisters. What better investment is there than that?
“A nation or a civilization” from Martin Luther King Jr’s Strength to Love, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 5.
“Our minds are constantly,” 5.
“We as Christians have a mandate,” 12.
“The ultimate measure of a man,” 26.
“Forgiveness is not,” 33.
“In spite of the fact” paragraph, 35.
“We can store our surplus of food,” 68.
“The means by which we live,” 73.
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