Reflections on MLK Day

MLK Memorial. Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

It has become a new ritual of mine to read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” every year around the holiday named in his honor. I was first introduced to the letter in book form when I was a student at Whitworth University (then Whitworth College). I don’t remember exactly how it affected me then, but it must have had some impact, because years later I have read it a dozen times or more. (You can read it for free using the link above, or even listen to a reading of it by Rev. King himself).

The impact this letter has on me now is much different than when I was younger. For one thing, I can now be categorized as a “white moderate pastor” – and this is exactly those to whom the letter is addressed. And 2021 brings even more urgency to the Rev. King’s words as we wrestle with the lack of progress towards racial equity and justice in our nation. As always, I am challenged, encouraged, and amazed the powerful words of the letter. But today, I wanted to simply reflect on two sections that grabbed me the most.

“If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning of the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 17

An “irrelevant social club!” I admit that I chuckled a bit when I read that. Not because I find the idea humorous, but because I have heard the church described this way in calls for reform by many leaders of the missional church movement. But I also now see, some 52 years later, that he was right. The American church has lost its “authentic ring” for much of the population. Church declines can be measured in the millions. The view of many young people toward the church can be described as “outright disgust.” And while there may be many reasons for this, I happen to think that the #1 reason is that the church has, in many cases, lost the sacrificial spirit of the early church – the sacrificial spirit of Jesus Christ.

Of course, it is easy to critique, much harder to take ownership. It is powerful to be reminded that as disappointed as Rev. King was with the state of the Church, he refused to give up hope. As a church leader, that is what I must do. I must take ownership and look for ways to guide myself and my congregation back to that sacrificial spirit. And that should at least look like the willingness to have difficult conversations about race, difficult conversations about inequity and injustice, and taking time to listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters of color. (If this is something that you or your church are interested in I highly recommend beginning with Jamar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise or the video of the same name on Amazon Prime Video).

Here is another section of the letter that really grabbed me today:

“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structures of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 16

I have to admit that I do not understand the reluctance of many of my white Christian brothers and sisters to enter into conversations about race and injustice. My spiritual journey has been one of constant rebuke, correction, repentance, and growth. I’m never surprised to discover hidden sin in my life. I was not pleased to see racism in myself, but as a sinner in need of grace, I was eager have the Holy Spirit shine light on the darkness of my soul and move me towards sanctification. It is a process, and I own that it may not be complete in this life. But I want to move closer to the heart of Christ, even if it is painful to do so at times.

But the pull of the status quo is powerful when you are the one that benefits from it. And just as it was in the day that Rev. King penned the letter in the cell in Birmingham, there are growing calls within the white church today to “focus on the things of the Spirit” and “keep politics out of the Church.” I hear them myself, and I know that other church leaders hear them as well. But the call to follow our Lord comes first, the call to sacrifice and service remains foremost.

I deeply admire Rev. King and love listening to or reading his sermons and other works. I read the sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” today. It seemed so timely and appropriate and I highly recommend it. But more than that it reminded me of my call to follow Christ faithfully in this moment we call 2021. O Lord, hear my prayer, and give me wisdom and courage!

Another Take

One of my college professors, Jerry Sittser, has a new blog post on the same topic that I wrote about last week. Jerry is an expert in Christian history and his take on current events is well worth the read. Besides, he just has a much nicer way of saying things! Go check it out at Here is an excerpt:

The attempt to make America a “Christian Nation” has birthed the rise of Christian Nationalism, which elevates nation above Kingdom, party above church, leader above Lord.  It also privileges the few over the many: rich over poor, white over black, men over women.  It leads to apocalyptic thinking and tends to turn all national problems into a fight between good and evil, light and darkness, which makes it almost impossible to negotiate compromise and to exercise any degree of self-criticism.  It is too much “all or nothing.”

— Dr. Jerry Sittser

Dr. Jerry Sittser

A False Gospel

This last week I silently wept as news reports rolled in, detailing the storming of the US Capitol Building by pro-Trump extremists during a joint session of Congress actively deliberating to certify the electoral college votes naming Joe Biden the next President of the United States. I love my country. I take pride in many of our democratic principles and values. I am heartbroken, ashamed, and even angry at the violence that took place. I never imagined that I would see this day. And most disturbing of all, some of those storming the Capitol carried the name of Jesus on their signs and clothing, and carried with them the false rallying cry that this act was “God’s will.”

But it was not God’s will! That is, not the will of the God that Christians know and worship. It is, however, the will of a very disturbed President clinging desperately to power. A man who has twisted, contorted, and mangled the truth to the point that many of those who support him, even some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, live in a web of tangled lies (John 8:42-47). This deception runs so deep that some of them are even able to justify violence, insurrection, hatred, and political power at all costs. This is NOT the way of Christ! In fact, this is anti-Christ! It is for this reason that I am writing this now. It may be that there is someone out there who needs to hear me say this.

There have been many articles in the past year that have looked at the QAnon conspiracy theories and point to the emergence of a new religion complete with a new savior (Trump). But much of what we are seeing now has been brewing long before Donald Trump became president. The roots, I believe, are deeply embedded in a false gospel. This false gospel claims that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation, and Americans (specifically white Christian Americans) are God’s chosen people. Ignoring the words of Jesus to love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you (Matthew 5:44), this false gospel justifies violence and war against any who would threaten it.  Carefully picking around passages of scripture that say to care for the marginalized, immigrant, and poor, this false gospel instead calls for massive sums of money for more weapons, military, police, and prisons. This false gospel claims that the God’s will is supported by a political party, and your allegiance to voting Republican is the sole evidence of your standing before God. 

This false gospel claims that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation, and Americans (specifically white Christian Americans) are God’s chosen people.

Is it any wonder that now there has arisen someone like Donald Trump? He has none of the characteristics of a godly person according to the Bible, showing himself to be the polar opposite of every fruit of the Holy Spirit and, in fact, having many of the marks of the so-called “flesh” (Galatians 5:13-26). And yet, according to current data, roughly 81% of so-called “evangelical Christians” voted for Trump in 2020. Why? Because he stands for the things that really matter to those who have bought into the false gospel: “America first,” wealth, power, the Republican party as the party of Jesus, and white privilege. And yes, I know that this oversimplifies why many Christians claim that have voted for him (e.g. abortion and the Supreme Court), but I would argue that there is much evidence to show that these other issues are justifications for what really matters most to many of these voters.  I should know, because I used to be one of them and I was not honest with myself about why I really supported some candidates. I claimed the moral high ground of a single-issue voter, but I didn’t want to be bothered with the details about whether or not electing a certain candidate made any real difference on abortion, and I certainly didn’t want to be bothered with doing anything about it myself! I voted on what I thought would be best for me – a white middle-class man who doesn’t want things to change because I am doing just fine.

This false gospel requires faith. We see this clearly right now. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, there are ongoing claims that the election was “stolen,” that there is massive and wide-spread “voter fraud,” that there is a liberal “deep state,” working in the shadows to undermine our democracy and elections. Never mind that it wasn’t a particularly close election, never mind that every court in the land has upheld the result because no credible evidence of fraud has been brought forward. Never mind that those in charge of the safety and security of the election from all sides of the political spectrum say that the election was valid. It requires faith. You simply must believe. And if you go far enough down the rabbit hole you can begin to believe in new kind of evil: A Democratic party intent on taking away all of the things that we hold dear: namely our guns, our money, our power, and our privilege. And if that isn’t evil enough for you, maybe throw in some conspiracy theories about an underground network of child sexual slaves. 

Even now, as I write this, the FBI is reporting that the danger of more violence at the US capitol and at other state capitols is growing. The national guard is being deployed at our capitol here in Washington State, and extra security is being deployed at capitols all over our nation. My hope is that we will have a transition of power on January 20 without more bloodshed. I think it is too late to claim – as we have often done with great pride – that we will have a peaceful transition of power. But we can only guess at what the future holds. If the past teaches us anything, it is that nations come and go, democracy is fragile, and that those who have power do not give it up easily. But as Christians, our hope and our true citizenship rests not in this country, nor in any president, but in a kingdom that is “not of this world.” (Phil. 3:17-21, John 18:36). There are Christians living in every nation on this earth. Many live in places of war, famine, poverty, and corruption. Some live in prosperous and peaceful places, some live under dictators ruling with an iron fist. But all of them live ultimately under the reign of God, and their hope rests not in this life, but in the life to come (1 Cor. 15:19-26). Their Savior is not a political party, or a president, or a nation. There Savior is none other than Jesus Christ. 

But as Christians, our hope and our true citizenship rests not in this country, nor in any president, but in a kingdom that is “not of this world.”

The true gospel is that only when we admit our weakness and brokenness can we find forgiveness and salvation. The true Gospel is found in a Lord who showed strength through weakness, power through kindness and mercy, greatness through service, and life through death. The way of this Gospel is not violence, but sacrifice and love for the other. The way of this Gospel is not allegiance to nation or party, but identity in a family that transcends nation, race, class, and politics.  And through this Gospel, Christians claim – as they have from the very beginning – that only Jesus is Lord!