In the wake of racist atrocity, the Church rightly feels called to speak out. Often preachers turn to the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Reflecting on the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) and Dr King, Sarah Cotterill asks if we are willing to put in the necessary work to truly walk with him in the footsteps of Jesus?
A note: Before beginning, in the spirit of properly crediting and amplifying black voices, I should note how much I’m indebted to Professor Cornel West in my understanding of Martin Luther King Jr.
We love to sanitise our saints. In the wake of any racist atrocity, the Church rightly feels called to speak out. It’s a safe bet, though, that it takes most preachers – or white preachers, at least – less than eight minutes and forty-six seconds to reach for the K section in their quotation books for some inspiration from Dr Martin Luther King Jr. But in this moment, when so many are finally facing up to the ways in which systematic racism structures our society and destroys our humanity, we must take time to examine what we’re doing when we do this, too.
Too often, we cite King’s words out of context. Too often, we pay mere lip service to his memory and blunt the power of his prophetic vision. We trot out selected quotations and package them like some modern-day Beatitudes, treating his words – as we do those of Jesus here – like a soaringly beautiful “best of” compilation, and then wonder why they seem to lose their power in our pious recitations.
Blessed are the pure in heart… we treat King’s dream as if all we have to do is share it for the world he envisions to come about. Blessed are the merciful… we treat King’s weapon of love in the face of hatred like a John Lewis Christmas ad, with the same soporific effects. Blessed are the peacemakers… we treat King’s non-violent resistance as if it had always been the universally loved stance of moderation, forgetting the fury his actions drew in his lifetime.
All the while, as we stump for the saint, we misapprehend the man and the vision that drove him. For King knew rage. King knew despair. And King’s prophetic witness was a searing indictment of the racist, capitalist system that continues to structure our lives and constrain our imaginations. He knew the work he had to do, work that – thanks to the inertia of self-proclaimed allies as much as the violence of the opposition – still faces us with the same urgency today as it did when he spoke.
Of course, Dr King should inspire us in this moment. Taken in all of his complexity, his courage, and even his imperfection, he offers us a model of what it truly means to live out our calling in the world, wherever that may take us. More than that, in taking the time to look beyond the half-digested poetry to the power of his prophetic witness, we can find in him a hermeneutic for re-approaching the similarly abused “best of” bits of the Bible. For as we recognise afresh that the urgent demand of justice that called him is calling us still, and face the fact that we must meet this demand, in the face of all our fears, our doubts and our desire for self-protection, we can appreciate afresh the same urgency behind the Beatitudes’ familiar refrains, the same call to turn the world upside down in the service of God’s kingdom.
Of course, we cannot bear the weight of this calling in our own strength, and we know that even if we could, systemic racism is only one of the many sins in our society that this pandemic has exposed with unusual clarity. How tempting it can be, in the face of this, to turn to despair and resignation. But we never act alone. God is with us. And beyond God’s presence we have the gift – to which in this context we can now turn back with propriety – of our textual inheritance and its inspirational beauty. For in presenting us with seemingly impossible ideals of human behaviour, Jesus also presents us with a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that is the reward of those who faithfully seek to follow his call, however often we may fail. And Dr King experienced that vision, too, sharing with us his own experience of it. Like Jesus in today’s reading, he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the promised land. And with that vision sustaining him he was able to work in the service of God’s kingdom all his life and to face death with equanimity.
So when we read yet another a half-digested King quotation, when we prepare to listen to our hundredth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, let us take the time to step back for a while, to recover our sense of wonder and to find ourselves similarly sustained by that same vision. But then, like Dr King, we must follow our Saviour down from the mountain and face the world again. For we have work to do.