Civil Religion Series: “In dire need of creative extremists”

MLK Vignette

Civil Religion, part ten
“In dire need of creative extremists”

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.

At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

• • •

As historian David Chappell has recently argued, the story of the civil rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about a revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed to many of its citizens.

• John Fea

American Nationalism has been a perspective advanced primarily by white Protestants, though in our last study we saw how Catholics became emboldened throughout the twentieth century to promote its own vision of a Christian America.

All the while, there was an entire community of U.S. citizens who had endured slavery and an ongoing culture of injustice in our so-called “Christian” land. In post-World War II America, their voice grew until they became the most important social liberation movement in our nation’s history. And they were led by African-American ministers and members of black churches who cried out like Moses, “Set my people free!”

In his book,  Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?, John Fea gives some attention to this part of America’s history and an alternative vision for what Christianity should achieve in American culture.

He focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King and the vision he set forth in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written to some fellow clergymen who had been critical of his actions, with its classic statement, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

King self-consciously saw himself and other civil rights leaders in the prophetic tradition. Explaining himself to those who criticized him as a meddling outsider who had come to Birmingham with actions that were “unwise and untimely,” King replied:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

In his letter, Martin Luther King eloquently described the plight of blacks in the United States, who had been and were continuing to be denied their “constitutional and God-given rights”:

MLK JailWe have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

King’s letter also showed his familiarity with the history of Christian doctrine, and he justified the civil rights movement and the concept of “civil disobedience” on a thoughtful application of biblical and historical theology.

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

He went on to reference Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as models of civil disobedience, as well as the early Christian martyrs who died before lions rather than obey the laws of the Roman Empire. He mentioned twentieth century examples such as Hitler’s Germany, where “legal” and “illegal” did not conform to God’s moral standards. He went on — in the midst of the Cold War — to speak of the Soviet suppression of Christian faith, advocating disobedience to their anti-religious laws. He criticized those who said the civil rights movement was advancing too quickly, saying, “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” King argued that it is the duty of Christian people to use time constructively and that any advances are the result, not of neutral time passing, but of responsible faith in action.

Finally, Martin Luther King called upon the church to rise up, unafraid to be called “extreme” in the pursuit of justice, love, truth, and goodness.

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

That such a letter had to be written from an American jail, by an American Christian minister nearly 200 years after the founding of the United States, is quite an indictment against our historical self-identification as a “Christian nation.”

As the events of this past week show, we have not shaken ourselves free of this scourge of racial inequality and distrust between various racial communities in the U.S. One can only hope that Christian leaders and their churches will take the prophetic call for justice and freedom seriously in our day and that we will be committed to actually following Jesus, laying down our lives in love for our neighbors’ well being until there is “liberty and justice for all.”

• • •

Civil Religion Series 2016


Reflections on Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God

Reflections on John Fea’s Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction

27 thoughts on “Civil Religion Series: “In dire need of creative extremists”

  1. Fear and anger, yes, manipulated by people who stand to profit from it. I also see, at least among the younger people (by that I mean first half of life) some fear and anger but more so, resignation as they understand that the world belongs to those who are the best at manipulating others, not to those who work hard, are industrious and try to be fair. Maybe it always was that way, but we were too naïve to understand. Maybe the internet and social media and the evangelical leadership embracing the likes of Trump whose life embodies everything the church is supposed to be against has simply opened our eyes. I see it in the attitudes of my kids. Why work your tail off and strive, strive, strive to be your best and do the right thing when a couple of bankers can completely screw you out of your economic gains, or a couple of politicians can decide that your retirement age just extended another 10 years, or some CEO decides that to increase company profits, your entire division no longer exists and good luck to you in the future? Why go to church because they really just want your money and you to market the church brand to those around you?
    They aren’t afraid so much, just tired of it all. Tired of the church. Tired of politics. Just tired.


  2. But there’s always been profit for some in peddling fear and anger, if not money then some other advantage. The peddling of fear and anger for non-monetary advantage accounts for much of the completely irrational antisemitism of Christendom, East and West, down through the ages; such was the way Christian leaders, religious and secular, kept control over the peasant populace, and diverted attention away from their own sins and incompetence.


  3. It seems to me that fear and anger have been addictions of the human race for a long time, since the beginning. I don’t think we’re anymore addicted than previous eras, there are just many, many, many more of us to be addicted.


  4. Fear and anger.
    We as a culture are becoming increasingly addicted to those two things. We are approaching a state in which we want to be afraid and we want to be angry. Fear and anger serve as justification for sealing ourselves off in little ideological fortresses with others of like mind — where we can feel safe and supported and confident in the rightness of our group. And media networks and social media are just amplifying this social dynamic.
    I know there is still social injustice and racism and cultures of poverty in this country. But I think it’s more than that. I think we’re just unhappy as a nation. In spite of all the prosperity and freedom and entertainment and cool gadgets to play with, I think we’re still miserable and unhappy with who we are, both individually and collectively as a nation. We thought all this stuff was going to fill up the holes inside us, but it’s just not working. Underneath all the hot topic issues people are demonstrating about, I sense a rising tide of vague, nameless discontent and a mostly unconscious need to lash out.
    And in that need to last out at an enemy (whichever enemy best serves for the moment), we are becoming more and more a house divided against itself.


  5. On the internet, the good and the bad exist alongside each other, evenly distributed and without demarcating lines. It’s like a vast open air market, all the goods on tables next to each other, some good quality and others lying imitations of good products, with no way to tell the difference between the real and the false, besides one’s own native wit and intuition. The internet is like the Wild West, where you have to rely on instinct, and luck, to survive. One or two clicks away from this site are a multitude of alt-right feeding grounds, where the most cleverly vile ideology is sucked into like-minds (many of them not dull minds, no, not at all) like water into the gills ominous fish. I see no special triumph of liberty, for civil rights or anything else, coming from the internet; it can as easily be used for inhumane manipulation as for liberation. It’s like anything else human beings have ever invented. Next exit is not Eden.


  6. >> I suspect we read very different things.

    Adam, I share your suspicion. You and I would not be having this conversation were it not for the internet. And altho it is not the revolution I am observing, I observe that this place is pretty revolutionary in its own right, again not possible but for the internet. I would credit the internet with making the the triumph of liberty over tyranny a possibility but it ain’t over yet.


  7. I know I push this book every so often, but like a broken record I’m going to do it again. One of my favorite complements to reading the primary sources for the civil rights movement is “God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights” by Charles Marsh. Marsh writes about the religious worlds of several figures and how they intersected with the events in Mississippi in 1964. The following folks each have a section: Fannie Lou Hamer (civil rights activist), William Douglas Hudgins (prominent white Baptist minister), Ed King (white Methodist minister and activist), Cleveland Sellers (of SNCC, civil rights activist who becomes militant), Sam Bowers (Imperial Wizard, KKK, Mississippi). The portraits offered are compelling, and Summers offers some great analysis.

    At the time I first read this book, I was in college or my first year of graduate school, about the time that I was breaking with evangelicalism (but very unsure what I was doing or where I was going or what that meant). I was troubled over how little evangelical language about purity and salvation seemed to fail to “connect” to satisfactorily most real world issues, and in fact seemed to be running the other way. It was frustrated that the theology seemed always to be veering off into the high grass of theological words and getting lost. This drove me nuts because I so badly wanted “Jesus” to matter to something real.

    Anyway, just the portrait of William Hudgin’s world – the self-enclosed spirituality that (paraphrasing a comment of Marsh’s) safe from the suffering of others, especially outsiders – was worth the whole book. My older copy of the book has comments like “this is the problem!” all over the margins.

    In any case, going back over to MLK, MLK’s real gift was in sensing the terrible weight of history and what the civil rights movement wanted to achieve, and in managing to connect the Biblical narrative to it. He manages this marriage of judgement and eschatological hope that is so pitch perfect for the moment.

    Maybe for ours, too.


  8. “In college, I finally read his writings and Letters. I admired him greatly.”

    Yes. I still find him moving, even all the things I’ve read many times before.

    ….”he was a racist womanizer false prophet who hated America….”

    I’ve always wanted blurt out, “Oh, I agree. That man is inconsistent and wishy-washy. It is clear from moral example that we should all follow Malcolm X.”

    Incidentally, I love the wise crack in the Malcolm X film, where the FBI agents listening on Malcolm X’s phone line are all like, “Man, this guys is boring.”


  9. > Trump isn’t black. Or a woman.
    > That’s it. Period.


    > Would someone please argue that it’s not racism or sexism? I’ve got popcorn.

    It makes me tired, I’d leave the room.


  10. > The cynic in me wants to respond “oh you mean like how community churches used to be?”

    I mean exactly that. Only at an increased amplitude. We, as a society, continue to find ways to increase our isolation [under the guise of autonomy/independence].

    Just as with a medication where dosage matters; degree of isolation matters.


  11. > world-wide revolution that is going on right now, mostly unremarked and unobserved

    I suspect we read very different things. I see this “revolution” such that it is as keenly observed and much remarked upon.

    > have been impossible without the internet.

    There is a conflation of “the Internet” – and communication technology in general – and Social Media.

    One is Open, the other is curated. I distinguish between the two. SMS/SMTP/HTTP are technologies; Twitter and Facebook are something else.

    Aside: There is also a false narrative – at least if topics are things like the “Arab Spring”. These were ***not*** Social Media driven. Reporters kept repeated that – but it doesn’t make it true – they were simply seeing it FROM THE OUTSIDE via Social Media. Internally these movements were much more free-wheeling – driven largely by good old fashioned SMS. Social Media is heavily restricted and monitored in many of those nations – and ‘real’ Internet access is limited.


  12. >> the Internet in general also empowers and educates more than any school or seminary ever could

    The world-wide revolution that is going on right now, mostly unremarked and unobserved, would have been impossible without the internet. It remains to be seen whether or not it succeeds.


  13. However I belive this is back-stopped by **self-engineered** manipulation that is Social Media; everyone with their own self-curated silos feeding them bias reinforcement – and rendering them powerless via disallusion [a curious but reliable side-effect of being fed exactly what you want].

    The cynic in me wants to respond “oh you mean like how community churches used to be?”

    Power shifts. That IS the side effect of social media, but the Internet in general also empowers and educates more than any school or seminary ever could.


  14. the massive organizational efforts of black churches that put “boots on the ground” in the civil rights effort

    That’s what’s missing right now, in large part. IDK if it exists anymore. I’ve asked friends who’ve been at BLM rallies if clergy was present, and the answer is that they are staying in their churches to provide safe places to go back to and recharge. That’s noble, but they are missed.

    The black community is now generations removed from MLK and has been subjected to the policies of Nixon and Reagan which have devastated them. I don’t blame a single young black person for not being involved in their “community’ or churches like they might have been.


  15. Trump isn’t black. Or a woman.

    That’s it. Period.

    Would someone please argue that it’s not racism or sexism? I’ve got popcorn.


  16. >> “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”

    Apparently not unique to Christianity, tho in their childish and unsophisticated way blacks seemed to add on the willingness to let folks go upside their head, which they apparently believe has something to do with the message of Jesus. King had to go to India to find someone modeling that one. White folks tend to recognize the higher priority of first getting your pee-pee theology straight. I must admit I’m have trouble finding proof texts tor that in my Red Letter edition but I’m still looking.


  17. > a racist womanizer false prophet who hated America

    Oh, yeah. I heard a *LOT* of that. Still do. [Meanwhile Trump’s sexual indiscretions get a free pass – it is important to be “reasonable”].


  18. It is too depressing. Reading something like King’s letters sounds so much like “History”, old history.


  19. > due to engineered manipulation trying to take advantage of that frustration

    True. However I belive this is back-stopped by **self-engineered** manipulation that is Social Media; everyone with their own self-curated silos feeding them bias reinforcement – and rendering them powerless via disallusion [a curious but reliable side-effect of being fed exactly what you want].

    > Yes, there are isolated demonstrations trying to become riots,
    > but for the most part most people are not joining in.

    Agree. Engagement and affiliation remain at an all time low. These events are loud and bright, but ultimately they are of a diminutive scale.

    > People are smarter and more aware and more sophisticated

    Nah. People are more isolated and less affiliated. Isolated and unaffiliated people have proven to be almost unmovable.

    > I don’t know that this is particularly a Christian matter,

    I do not believe it is. Religious institutions have withered at more-or-less the same rate as the secular ones: PTAs, sports leagues, neighborhood associations, political parties, etc…

    > it seems more about advancing as human beings.

    I look at it in exactly the opposite direction; it is a sad retrograde trajectory.

    > Lots of creative extremists at work.

    Lots of extremists, yes. I find none of them to be particularly creative.


  20. One thing not mentioned in this post, but which I hope to explore later in the week is the massive organizational efforts of black churches that put “boots on the ground” in the civil rights effort. MLK and others inspired, but multitudes of unknown, ordinary people did the real work of “creative extremism” by “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”


  21. Creative extremism can be good or bad depending on the true goals of the creative extremist and upon the values of the observer. Yes, it can be a good rhetorical ploy to invoke it but is ultimately a two edged sword. During the civil rights era, both north and south might have agreed that King was a creative extremist, but they would hardly have agreed on whether this was good or bad for the nation. If King was a creative extremist, so were George Wallace and George Lincoln Rockwell. Still and all, we likely wouldn’t be here discussing this without a line of creative extremists leading the way, and I would not consider it an insult to be called such.

    The present turmoil in this country and the world at large is partly an expression of extreme frustration but it is also due to engineered manipulation trying to take advantage of that frustration for unworthy ends. Yes, there are isolated demonstrations trying to become riots, but for the most part most people are not joining in. People are smarter and more aware and more sophisticated than they were during King’s lifetime, in part due to his efforts. I don’t know that this is particularly a Christian matter, it seems more about advancing as human beings.

    There is an alternative scenario going on in the world as we speak which appears to be larger and more important than the American Civil Rights movement ever was. As with civil rights, the outcome is uncertain but hopeful for humanity at large. If this is real, it likely will become more apparent to ordinary people as time goes on. The presidential campaign leading up to who knows what is the tip of the iceberg. Lots of creative extremists at work. Stay tuned.


  22. Growing up, my mom let me read one of those for young kids biographies on MLK. I liked him a lot.

    In college, I finally read his writings and Letters. I admired him greatly. And then would leave the classroom and listen to my campus ministers tell me how he was a racist womanizer false prophet who hated America.

    He was very important, and we need more people like him, flaws and all.


  23. Part of the problem with responding is that when I read those magnificent words I am so moved I can barely speak. Have we learned anything? Is repentance possible? Or is it way too late for that?

    mene, mene, tekel, upharsin


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