MLK: Paul’s Letter to American Christians

Martin Luther King Memorial by Alan Kotok - flickr.com/photos/runneralan/6402533885/

Martin Luther King Memorial by Alan Kotok – flickr.com/photos/runneralan/6402533885/

Today is not Great Americans Day; it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

I invite you to read an excerpt from the Rev. Dr. King’s creative “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” message, which he preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on 4 November 1956.

But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. . . You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. . . Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. They live by some such principle as this: “everybody is doing it, so it must be alright.” For so many of you Morality is merely group consensus. In your modern sociological lingo, the mores are accepted as the right ways. You have unconsciously come to believe that right is discovered by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. . .

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.

I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.

The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. . .  You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth. . .

Let me rush on to say something about the church. Americans, I must remind you, as I have said to so many others, that the church is the Body of Christ. So when the church is true to its nature it knows neither division nor disunity. But I am disturbed about what you are doing to the Body of Christ. They tell me that in America you have within Protestantism more than two hundred and fifty six denominations. The tragedy is not so much that you have such a multiplicity of denominations, but that most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth. This narrow sectarianism is destroying the unity of the Body of Christ. You must come to see that God is neither a Baptist nor a Methodist; He is neither a Presbyterian nor a Episcopalian. God is bigger than all of our denominations. If you are to be true witnesses for Christ, you must come to see that America.

America in 2017

These words are as prophetic today as ever.

In the 60 years since Dr. King spoke these words America has excelled at increasing our income inequality rising to become the most unequal of all Western nations. Since the middle of the last century the top 1% of American earners have more than doubled their share of the nation’s income. And, the top 0.1% have fared even better.

In recent days actions have been taken to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  Proposals for replacing it would ensure that fewer people will have access to care and those with access will have access limited in critical ways.

And yet more uncertainty is ahead since the Presidential inauguration is scheduled to occur later this week.

So What?

Among those who follow the Way of Jesus, 11 o’clock on Sunday morning continues to be the week’s most segregated hour.  Denominations have grown in number while the divisions have risen not only between denominations but also within them.

While it is unlikely that all or even most followers of the Way of Jesus will come together to address our contemporary issues with a unified voice, it is possible for those committed to caring for the masses and the marginalized to work collaboratively.  It is also essential that these Christians partner with justice minded people of all religions.

Take a few minutes to ponder what this means for you and what it looks like in your community of faith.  Share your answers with at least one person, and consider posting them here as well.

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