Taming the Message
I learned something new this year during the Martin Luther King, Jr (MLK) observance: his views on racial and economic equality were not widely embraced by either the white or black church. I had always imagined that a million people marching with him meant that he was wildly popular in his time. Yet, in 1963, when he was arrested for nonviolent protest against segregation in Alabama, white clergymen criticized MLK in the newspapers, saying they, of course, affirmed MLK’s message but rejected the “troublemaking” (as in, violence against the protestors) caused by his message. (cf Letter from Birmingham Jail)
I recognize the causal code in this response. The world observed a similar fallacious response at Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota when the nonviolent resistance by the water protectors against a private pipeline caused a violent paramilitary response against the water protectors. The causal code is “blaming the oppressed for their own oppression.” The thinking is that the oppressed cause violence against themselves by having the temerity to insist – even in a nonviolent way – on their human rights.
I saw the MLK celebration expressed in a variety of MLK quotes, “The time is always right to do what is right,” “Hate is too great a burden to bear…” The quotes were agreeably self-examining but not painful, certainly not a call to radical action but rather a domestication of MLK’s message. His message was a call for radical love, for justice and equality, and they killed him for it.
In my New Testament class, we talked about the ‘upside down kingdom’ Jesus brought when he said things like, “the first shall be last,” and “love your enemy.” Jesus announced his ministry by saying he came to “preach the gospel to the poor; to heal the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives; and recover sight to the blind; and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke14:18) Jesus modeled nonviolent resistance to the dominant power, what it means to live out this kind of radical love, and they killed him for it.
What I get from these models of nonviolent resistance is that I cannot say that I am against hegemony that is antithetical to the gospel, and then hide behind domesticated texts on love and peace. Jesus brought a radical message for me to live into, and not alone. As I find my way along this challenging road, I’m reminded, “After all, He’s not a tame lion, but he is good.”