I came across these words today. They are taken from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon, “A Knock at Midnight,” based on Luke 11:5-6, preached in August of 1967:
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause [people] everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of [humankind] and fire the souls of [all people], imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. [All people] far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travellers at midnight.”
Since moving to USA I have had more and more opportunity to learn about MLK. In October 2014 I visited the newly opened Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA. On the same day I also toured Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized as a child and where he became co-pastor with his father between 1960 and 1968. Last year in 2016 I began my doctoral studies and had to read “Stride Towards Freedom” as a core text for one of my classes. This summer (2017) I hope to take a class which will immerse me again in the MLK story as I visit MLK/Civil Rights Movement sites in Montgomery and Selma. Movies have also helped me engage the narrative of this time in history, the most recent one being “Hidden Figures,” which I watched on Saturday. It charts the groundbreaking work of 3 African American ladies in NASA at a time when inequality and segregation was rampant. If you have not seen it I would recommend it.
Perhaps it is my childhood in Northern Ireland that spurs the interest in the Civil Rights Movement. Northern Ireland fell victim to it’s own divisions (and still struggles with them) in the past, and much of my adult life has been lived in a time of reconciliation and peace building that seeks to bring people together and build a better society where every person has the same opportunity. Perhaps it is the fact that I am a church leader who longs to see the church take an active role in embodying peace and justice in society (like King was) that spurs my interest. Or perhaps it is simply the fact that I am a man who desires to make a difference in the world, like King did. Maybe it is a mixture of all three. I don’t know. But I do know this: Whenever I read anything by King; whenever I see one of the movies that portray the struggle of the African American people in their pursuit of justice and equality; whenever I study the Civil Rights Movement and how it carried itself and went about seeking justice I am simply in awe and long to be better at what I do so that I can make moves toward making some kind of lasting significant change in the lives of the people around me and even the world.
That’s what the words quoted above do to me.
I read them and think to myself that I am a leader in a church which, in many ways, has become ‘an irrelevant social club‘ in larger society. I am a leader in a church which seems, in large part, to sit idly by and allow injustice to continue in our society and it not say a word. Of course I am speaking in generalities here. There are, of course, many churches, many Christians, and many church leaders who are outspoken in their pursuit of justice and equality; who are quite brilliant at lobbying the powers that be in their world to see change brought about at legislative level.
But I fear they are too few and far between. I still fear that a large portion of US churches are quite happy to be disengaged from the wider issues of society; from the struggle for peace, and economic and racial justice. I still fear that a majority of US churches are happy in their status quo and are taking a journey which is far from what the church was birthed for and is commissioned to do.
I fear that I too am part of this large portion of the church that i talk about, but there is one difference that I can note for sure: I am not happy about it. This means that I have some re-shaping of ministry to do. This means that I have some courage to find. This means that it is time to alter my leadership in such a way that it begins to chart a new course for the church. Personally, I don’t think I have a problem with making this happen in my own life and leadership.
MLK’s call to prophetic leadership continues to haunt relatively new leaders like me to this day.
I am haunted by these words now, as I should be, and I hope that my fellow church leaders will also be haunted by them when I share MLK’s words with them tonight.
If you are reading this, how do these words impact you? If you are a church leader, do you find yourself haunted by them? I’d be interested to know- please comment if you wish.