Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Colony of Heaven

Good theology can awaken us from the slumbers of self-indulgence, ethnocentrism, and dogmatic “sleepiness” that prevents us from seeing God’s work in the world and among the marginalized. Anders Nygren once wrote that “no age lives without inarticulate, self-evident presuppositions.” By “inarticulate” he meant that “men do not perceive the self-evident presuppositions by which their own age lives.” The problem of inarticulate presuppositions has been with Christianity since its beginning—at times with disastrous results. From the life-denying, death-cultivating crusades of the middle ages to the humanity-destroying endorsement, explicit or implicit, of the slavery trade in colonial America, to the silence and even support of the German established Church in the atrocities of Nazi Germany, to the origination and development of that oppressive Apartheid system in South Africa by the white Reformed church, inarticulate presuppositions have facilitated, enabled, or otherwise contributed to the squelching of Christian witness in the world.

Closer to home, a little over 40 years ago (1963), in a prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter to a group of southern, white clergyman who had criticized the non-violent resistance of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
His letter, from that jail cell is startling in its prophetic punch:

"I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership…I do not say that as one of the negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the chord of life shall lengthen…There was a time when the church was very powerful…they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven.” And had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated….Things are different now. The contemporary church is 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 structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are…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 for the twentieth century"

The institution of slavery in our country is abolished, but not so racial, ethnic, economic, and even theological injustice.
Theological injustice remains when we, who represent the “wealth-majority,” do not listen to voices from the margins with sincerity, inviting those voices to help us identify our false ideologies and deconstruct them, This isn’t to say that all of our presuppositions are evil or even wrong and it isn’t to say that other contextual perspectives are blameless and infallible; sin (and noetic fallibility) cuts through us all. But ideological commitment does not necessarily equate with faithfulness to Christ and theological truth. The time for ideology has passed; the time for theological and contextual engagement has come. Inter-contextual dialogue uproots inarticulate presuppositions, and allows for either affirmation or correction.

The splendid timing of tomorrow's inauguration of Barack Obama, coinciding so closely with the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., gives us reason to be thankful, but also hopeful, that diversity and equality will finally overtake pride and bigotry in our nation. May this also be an opportunity for evangelical theology to unite the liberative Gospel of God with the rich tapestry of contextuality, working toward the fruits of freedom from the bondage of both sin and oppression. May the church work again at being a "God-intoxicated colony of heaven" with Christ as our guide and redeemer.


Teresa said...

Hi Kyle,

Wow, I found your blog :)

Don't have much time to comment because today's a big day! I just thought I'd stop by and say AMEN - especially to that last paragraph.


Kyle A. Roberts said...

Thanks, Teresa, for stopping by.