Our reading from Martin Luther King on Sunday was an excerpt from a speech he gave at Riverside Church in Harlem on April 4, 1967. It was a speech about the Vietnam War, but, as he often does, he connected his opposition to the war to a broader moral context. He called not only for an end to the war, with its particular inhumanity, but for a “revolution in values” away from our general inhumanity. Sadly, that revolution has not come to fruition, in no small part because the Church has declined to participate.
Over my lifetime in the Church, I have seen a greater emphasis on charity, especially among Evangelicals. As I understand it, Rick Warren has done a lot of work to reduce the spread of HIV in Africa. Even Franklin Graham, who I despise, was until recently best known for his work with Samaritan’s Purse. (I say “until recently” because he is now probably better known as a shill for the most un-Christian president in history.) The Catholic Church has long been known for its work with the poor all over the world.
I’m sure that someone will respond to this post telling me all the things wrong with those charitable efforts and I probably won’t disagree. For example, the Catholic Church would not have to do so much work with the poor if it weren’t for their dangerously absurd position on birth control. But this points to the point of MLK’s call for a revolution in values: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” This is where the Church has failed.
On Sunday, we read the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. As it was read to me as a kid, it was all about heaven and hell and trying not to go there. Little attention was given to the things Jesus said would make that determination. It’s good that churches have started to pay heed. But it would be very easy to stop there, to say that Jesus himself only called for the relief of immediate suffering. That would be a mistake.
Jesus entire ministry was realpolitik. When he fed people, he preached. When he preached, people followed. He was killed because thousands followed him to Jerusalem – not the wealthy and the powerful, but the poor and the marginalized. When those who have been beaten down stand up and stand together, it is a threat to the status quo. Unfortunately, the Church in our time – just as the temple in Jesus time – has become a staunch defender of the status quo.
When Jesus turned over those tables in the temple it was an assault business as usual. That is the revolution that Dr. King called for. That is the revolution to which the Church must turn itself. The Church must turn around, return to God, repent of its support for “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” It is appalling that I can simply quote Dr. King from fifty years ago, that it still fits so well. King warned us that “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, [these things] are incapable of being conquered.” That they remain unconquered is an indictment. And we know that we could add myriad other -isms.
Lent begins very soon. It is a time of repentance and purgation. At Church in the Cliff, we will be talking about our journey on the Way. There is a practical element to this – the logistics of an upcoming move, the strategies of growth – but let us not be distracted from the task at hand: revolution. Revolution is repentance. Let the logistics and the strategies be framed by that revolution. Wherever the journey takes us, let our steps bear witness to those values. It is my hope that fifty years from now, Dr. King’s words will seem a quaint relic of a time gone by and not a still vital call.