Spur of the Moment

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Dr. King was indeed a gadfly, one with a sting every bit as sharp as Socrates.’ For that reason, he was not always the celebrated hero we remember today.  Especially when he began following the moral threads of the struggle for Civil Rights beyond the boundaries of race into the adjacent territories of the Vietnam War  and poverty, he ceased to be a noble pest and became a bona fide threat in the eyes of many who once supported him.  When he couldn’t be shooed away, he was swatted.

Yet, as Eugene Robinson points out, the fact that King’s message is still relevant in our time demonstrates he was spurring us in the right direction.  Fifty years after Dr. King paid the ultimate price for the cause of justice, many of his speeches read as if they were written yesterday.  If we wonder why we haven’t put more distance between our age and his, surely one reason is that we still refuse to heed King’s warning that we cannot achieve racial equality without confronting economic injustice.  Civil Rights and economic opportunity are not separate issues.  Addressing one without tending to the other is akin to treating a cough while ignoring the accompanying fever. They are both symptoms of the same underlying respiratory infection that continues to afflict American society and threatens to suffocate the American Dream.  We are effectively trying to run a race while suffering from pneumonia.  Until we recognize and deal with the infection, we will never see the finish line. We can’t breathe deeply enough.

To honor Dr. King on his national holiday, I share with you this lengthy excerpt from a speech he gave in March 1968 to a gathering of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN – the same group he would address a month later the night before he was assassinated. In it he makes the case for why we must wage the battle for justice on two fronts simultaneously.

You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.

But you are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America. The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression. Now you know when there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the black community they call it a social problem. When there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the white community they call it a depression. But we find ourselves living in a literal depression, all over this country as a people.

Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation. These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income. You are here tonight to demand that Memphis will do something about the conditions that our brothers face as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.

You know Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. His name was Dives. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who came daily to his gate in need of the basic necessities of life, and Dives didn’t do anything about it. And he ended up going to hell. There is nothing in that parable which says that Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to Him talking about eternal life, and He advised him to sell all, but in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis.

If you will go on and read that parable in all of its dimensions and its symbolism you will remember that a conversation took place between heaven and hell. And on the other end of that long-distance call between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven talking to Dives in hell. It wasn’t a millionaire in hell talking with a poor man in heaven, it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich. His wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Dives finally went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell. And I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes we are able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths.”

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not, I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn’t provide it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.” This may well be the indictment on America. And that same voice says in Memphis to the mayor, to the power structure, “If you do it unto the least of these of my children you do it unto me.”

Now you are doing something else here. You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights. That is a distinction.

We’ve fought the civil rights battle over the years…. Now all of these were great movements. They did a great deal to end legal segregation and guarantee the right to vote. With Selma and the voting rights bill one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee? What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankiest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our city and the motels of our highway when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?

What indeed?

May Dr. King’s words continue to sting that we may yet be roused to greater heights of understanding and brotherhood, and finally achieve liberty and justice for all.

The Long Walk of Love: Remembering Nelson Mandela

The world in memorializing Nelson Mandela today in Johannesburg.  As a personal tribute, I am posting the condensed text of a sermon I preached back in April that uses his life as an illustration of just how much one person, guided by love, can accomplish.  In the words of South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, “We always loved Madiba for teaching us that it was possible to overcome hatred and anger in order to build a new nation and a new society” (New York Daily News, 12-07-13).  May we emulate Mandela as well as remember him. -BTT

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Some months ago, I saw a banner ad on the side of a bus in DC.  The banner featured a picture of Nelson Mandela along with the caption, “Never underestimate the power of one person to change the world.”  I had almost forgotten about it, until my studies this week sent it rolling back through my mind.

First, I was reminded that 19 years ago today (April 28, 1994) South Africans were voting in the first free elections that country had ever seen – the first elections in which all adults of eligible age could vote regardless of their ethnicity. It was that election that would make Nelson Mandela President of South Africa.

Since that time, of course, Mandela has gone on to become a world icon.  He is celebrated wherever he goes and his 90th birthday in 2008 became an international affair. And deservedly so, because Nelson Mandela did, in fact, change the world.  Not only was he instrumental in dismantling apartheid, but he also (more than any other individual save Desmond Tutu) prevented South Africa from trading one form of oppression for another.  Post-apartheid South Africa could so easily have devolved into a state of retribution.  But it didn’t – because Mandela, Tutu, and a handful of others resolved that it wouldn’t.

The other reason why this rolling public service announcement (or whatever it was) featuring Nelson Mandela has come back to my mind is that I’ve been reading John 13.31-35.  I’ve been ruminating on the new commandment Jesus gives to His disciples: love one another just as I have loved you – something much easier said than done.  It’s really the “just as I have loved you” bit that’s the kicker.

If Jesus hadn’t said that, if He hadn’t slipped that qualification in, we could read this passage in the sentimental light that we tend to – and prefer to. We could leave things with each other comfortably on the surface: a hug here, a handshake there, the passing of the peace, the polite exchange of pleasantries, the occasional extension of a helping hand.

But Jesus did say it.  He did slip it in.

Now, this qualifier doesn’t mean that our comfortable, surface-level expressions of affection are wrong.  They aren’t.  They are needed and necessary.  But “just as I have loved you” means those things aren’t enough. They aren’t nearly enough – not in the Kingdom of God, not in the Body of Christ. Why? Because love is the end all and be all of the life Christ calls us to as His people.

The Apostle Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 13.1-3: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love that foundational is, by necessity, a deeper, riskier kind of love than the love we tend to experience elsewhere on this earth. It’s what makes the Kingdom of God different: a new reality, a new paradigm; a cut above and step beyond the ways of this world. It is a counterpoint, in fact, to the ways of this world.  It’s a love that ultimately does not and cannot come from us.  It can come through us; but its source is beyond us.

That’s why, as followers of Christ, we must strive to love one another just as He (first) loved us.  It’s how we bear witness to the reality of the Kingdom.

Otherwise, what’s the difference?  Indeed, what’s the point?  As Jesus said elsewhere (Luke 6): “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners…” 

 This is why Jesus gave us these instructions, set forth these commandments, and issues to us a call: love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength; love your neighbors as you love yourself; love even our enemies.

It’s not just a call to love as Christ loves; it’s really nothing less than a call to change the world.

And so what better place to look in trying to understand that kind of calling than to the life of a living, breathing person who has, in fact, helped to change the world through love?  A man who, in his autobiography, credits his Christian faith as the source from which his actions and convictions derive. A man who, for all intents and purposes, should be the last person to embody the life-giving, life-changing power of Christ-like love.  A man named Nelson Mandela.

Mandala’s story is all the more inspiring because the actions and convictions for which we know him weren’t always his actions and convictions. He had to be changed. He had to be transformed.  And so must we. We must – if we dare to call ourselves Christians, if we profess Christ as our Lord. We must – because Jesus has made the consequences of His commandment clear: by this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We must – and we can.  If Nelson Mandela can be transformed, we can.

Nelson Mandela began his political career as a militant. He founded the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Basically, he was a terrorist. He believed that a violent, oppressive regime had to be opposed with force.  Non-violent resistance wasn’t enough – it wasn’t going to work. That is why he was put in prison.

So how did a militant leader go from convicted terrorist to celebrated human rights activist?  Knowing what I know of his story, I think he possessed three key qualities that enabled him to make the journey he did – and that we can draw strength and inspiration from in our own journeys.

1. He was willing to learn – which means he was open to change.

Transformation is a process that needs an incubator, and Nelson Mandela had one.  For him, it was Robben Island, South Africa’s most notorious prison. Desmond Tutu has written that when Mandela was first imprisoned, he was “forthright and belligerent” but in jail he “mellowed.”  He “began to discover depths of resilience and spiritual attributes that he would not have known he had.” He allowed the suffering to ennoble him, and found himself “able to be gentle and compassionate towards others.”

He found a strong sense of solidarity with his fellow prisoners through their shared experience of suffering. The prison was bitterly cold and none of them received adequate clothing.  The food served was barely edible.  Their days were spent in exhausting physical labor at the prison’s limestone quarry, breaking up rocks for use in roadbeds. Their guards were racist and regularly demeaned the inmates. In fact, racism appears to have been a prerequisite for employment on Robben Island.

In this environment, Mandela came to realize that if he and his fellow prisoners stooped to the level of the guards, to the level of the system – if they insisted on fighting fire with fire – nothing would be gained and what would be lost in the struggle would be their own dignity.  He came to see and understand that the system of apartheid dehumanized the oppressors as well as the oppressed.  And that realization utterly changed his approach to life – and to resistance.

2. He lived what he learned

Nelson Mandela didn’t stop simply with studying. He didn’t just make observations and jot down notes.  He put what he learned into practice.

When he was finally released from prison after 27 years, one of the first and truly remarkable things he did was to approach his enemies with kindness. He paid a special visit to the chief prosecutor, the man who had robbed him of 27 years of his life, just to shake his hand.  Rather than depose the leaders of apartheid (which he easily could have done with a groundswell of public and international support), he set out to build relationships with them. He reached out to them with love and grace. In doing so, he utterly confounded and disarmed them.

And he continued in this posture even after he won the election, even after he had all the political and legal authority he needed to act without them.  One of the most powerful stories I’ve heard about his relationship with his former enemies is that he once interrupted official state business to go and visit with one an apartheid boss whose wife was dying of cancer. Mandela learned of the diagnosis as he was on his way to meet another head of state, and he took a two-hour detour to be with them in their time of grief.

The result of Mandela’s new approach to life and politics was that people who had literally been trying to kill each other started working together to build a new South Africa. This is the power of living what the gospel teaches us:

If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well.  If someone asks you to go one mile, offer to go a second mile. If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none. 

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

All the things that serve to weigh us down and keep us apart – hate, distrust, indifference, suspicion – cannot persist in the wake of life lived in such a gospel fashion. They are swept aside by the rising tide of all the things that build us up and bring us together – brotherhood, sisterhood, respect, affection: a tide that naturally swells and washes over everything around it when a love like Christ’s love passes through.

Christ calls us to this life of faith, love, and service not just because it’s noble, but also because it works.

3. He believed in who he is.

Generations of Nelson Mandela’s family served as royal advisors to the kings of what we know as South Africa, long before European colonists arrived. Thus, he had a lineage to remind him that he was somebody even though he lived under a system bent on convincing him that he was nobody.

Thankfully, we don’t live in an apartheid state (anymore), but we do live in a materialistic one that makes judgments about people based on what they do or don’t have. Advertising can beat people down just as forcefully as a police battalion.  The message we receive day in and day out is that we are what we possess.  In such a culture, our lack of wealth and success can make us feel worthless AND our achievement of wealth and success can give us a false sense of importance.

But Scripture teaches us that, if we are followers of Christ, no matter what our earthly circumstances may be we have a royal pedigree. We have value not because of anything we do – but because of what God has done in creating us in His image and redeeming us through the death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Through Christ, we have peace with God and we are heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven (Romans 5.1).  And so, in our struggles the gospel helps keep us afloat; and in our successes, the gospel helps keep us grounded.

This orientation is important because this orientation is the foundation of our discipleship.  You and I can answer the call Jesus extends to us – to love just as He loves us – because we are worthy of that calling. We are heirs to His Kingdom.

Yet, too often we count ourselves out because we fail to trust in our gospel identity and believe falsely that we have nothing to offer. Or we count ourselves too far in because we fail to trust in our gospel identity, and we believe falsely that we’re the only ones who can do things right. Either way, we wind up turning our backs on others. That’s not what God wants from us, and not what the world needs.

The gospel helps give us balance – the same kind of balance Nelson Mandela has found, that has allowed him to be fully who he is and allowed him to embrace others more fully as they are. Perhaps more than anything, that has been the key to his success, and the nations of the earth are in desperate need of more successful people like that.

There is a lot wrong in our world.  There is a lot wrong in our nation, our state, our city, and in our own lives. But the world can be a better place. God is very much at work building His Kingdom, at work transforming the world – and He calls us to be a part of that work as members of the Body of Christ, as instruments of His love, grace, and mercy.

Let us never underestimate the power of one person to change the world.  You’ve heard Nelson Mandela’s answer to the call. What will your answer be?

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