Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout! Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives…(Isaiah 58:1)
When was the last time you went to church and enjoyed a sermon or choral selection or even a responsive reading that addressed the plight of the poor or lent hope to the world’s oppressed? When was the last time your minister encouraged you to live in a way that provided release, relief and comfort to the least, last and lost? Which “open prison doors and set the captives free” messages come from your pulpit? I’m not talking about the ecclesiastical tendency to hyper-spiritualize such concepts and morph them into issues of middleclass individualism and materialism. I’m not talking about the Jaguar driving pastor I met in Baltimore whose approach was to “get em saved” and then all their social issues will work themselves out. And I am not talking about taming the scriptural texts pertaining to the poor with the stock copout “People can have money and still be spiritually poor.” Yeah that might be true, but that’s not what Jesus is saying to our age of 1.8 billion people living in abject poverty when he said, “Blessed are the Poor” (Luke 6:20 vs Matthew 5:3). It is clearly not what his mother Mary is saying when she proclaims the works of the true father of her son, “Those who had no food he made full of good things; the men of wealth he sent away with nothing in their hands…” (Luke 1:53).
When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning…. The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately that you die on… And that’s the way I’ve decided to go.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. May 22, 1967, Penn Community Center, Frogmore, South Carolina
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forsook the promises of material prosperity inherent with becoming pastor of an important African American Baptist Church. With his oratory prowess and theological depth, he could have easily surpassed the Eddie Longs, TD Jakes, Joyce Myers and Fred Prices in popularity and prosperity. While the aforementioned chose the path of palatial mansions, private aircraft and luxury vehicles, King instead chose the prophetic path of the cross. In his own words, he proclaimed that he couldn’t worry about such things; he only wanted to do God’s will (I’ve Been Over the Mountain Speech).
Unfortunately this prophetic course has been steadily reversed since the time of King’s death. It has sadly been replaced with the theology of material abundance, which has left storehouses of morality, ethics, righteousness and justice practically empty. Somehow issues such as the new American slavery (also known as the prison system), the crises in education, health and housing among people of color and poor whites, the persecution and prosecution of certain southern hemisphere brown aliens, and the continued neo-colonial/neo-liberal destruction of the African continent and its people cannot hold court in the face is the issues of already overly blessed middle-class and affluent Christians, who instead of crying out for Sudan, cry out from their late model German and Japanese luxury sedans, for more blessings and increased territory.
The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 17, 1963, National Conference on Religion and Race, Chicago, Illinois
Dr. King was thrust into a context which afforded few luxuries – not only of the material variety but also of the theological sort. He could not afford to spend time justifying his adherence to or departure from orthodoxy and tradition. Instead, Martin provided orthopraxticly authentic contexts for the sacraments of our faith. He was anointed with sacred chrism, only not from the hand of a bishop but by the voice of oppressed people crying out for justice and human dignity. He contextualized baptism, not by immersion or sprinkling but by fire hoses on steaming evil Southern streets. On the balcony of a second rate Memphis motel, he lived out the Eucharist, not with wafer and wine but with his body – broken for the sake of righteousness and his blood – spilled for the sins of the world. Unlike the leading priest/pastors of our day – living life within the safe confines of finely appointed sanctuaries, armour bearers, robust retirement plans and the trappings of conspicuous consumption, King opted for the dangerous authenticity of the Christian faith. He clung to a Jesus-faith that thought it Satanic to forsake God-righteousness for man-safety. (Matthew 16: 21-23)
Our age, our society and our culture is marked by an incredible level of wealth and prosperity and an equally incredible dominance of abusive injustice, violent iniquity and oppressive unrighteousness. Such an age calls for the agitation of dangerously discomforting prophetic voices. Prophetic voices who seek not to achieve favor among the powerful and elite but to speak God’s peaceful and righteous truth to them: the truth that God wills our prison population to decrease and not to increase for the sake of corporate gain, the truth that our world’s massive wealth is best spent in creating health and harmony and not on making excuses to fight wars in the name of controlling natural resources, the truth that God wills the powerful treat their workers with fairness and equity and not push them back into serfdom by denying them the right to bargain for a fair deal, and the truth that while the poor are blessed, those who willfully create the conditions that trap children in poverty are truly cursed. Thus I dream with Martin for the day when our sermons, our television evangelists, our conferences, our gospel concerts and our popular Christian book selections reflect God-righteousness – the likes of which Isaiah assures will cause God to answer when we call.
I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the LORD. Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused! Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives. Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed. Your honesty will protect you as you advance, and the glory of the LORD will defend you from behind. When you beg the LORD for help, he will answer, “Here I am!” Don’t mistreat others or falsely accuse them or say something cruel. Give your food to the hungry and care for the homeless. Then your light will shine in the dark; your darkest hour will be like the noonday sun. (Isaiah 58:6-10)
Tim Merrill is a Street Psalms Community Member and a minister in the City of Camden, New Jersey. His life’s work has been to guide and encourage Camden’s young people, specialising in serving those who have slipped between society’s cracks; those at economic, social and educational disadvantage. This post was first published on his blog/website Millenial Practice.