by Katharine Armbrester
A year before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr. published a collection of sermons predominantly about American Christianity, racism, and nonviolent action, the latter of which he was convinced was the best way to combat segregation. This collection, Strength to Love, is an excellent way to begin our series of modern prophets, and also celebrate Black History Month.
In this brief but powerful book, King need never have worried, as he does in his introduction, about his sermons being as effective written down as compared to when preached from the pulpit. His words ring as fiery, comforting, and true today as when first written, for, unfortunately, American Christians are still struggling with many of the same issues. Segregation is gone, but sinful pride and willful ignorance remain, and they still poison both American democracy and the church. And it is a very slow, agonizing death.
How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds! We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practice the very opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time, we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly on the road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.
Along with desegregation and nonviolence, and the unstoppable power of Agape love, King also touches on the importance of the early Christian church, his thoughts on living in both time and eternity, and how scientific (which can also include technological) growth in modern society is rapidly outstripping moral growth in American citizens.
These matters are still relevant, and King’s opinions are still marvelously eloquent and simple. King truly possessed a genius for grasping centuries-old ecclesiastical arguments and whittling them down to bare, finely-chiseled and unforgettable phrases, one of the finest examples being:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.
In one of his most interesting sermons, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” which has much weight in our current and fiercely divided political climate, King refers to “soft-minded” churchgoers, and how they (rather than true believers) have led to “a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion…this is not true.” He goes on to say:
There may be a conflict between soft-minded religionists and tough-minded scientists, but not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge that is power; religion gives man wisdom that is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.
This is a potent message in a time where many Christians take pride in denying modern science, insult those on the opposite side of the political spectrum at every turn and believe (falsely) that they are honoring God by their hard-headed obstinacy. In fact, all they are doing is alienating unbelievers who could be drawn to Christ by loving-kindness and a spirit of goodwill. Refusing to build bridges will only lead to much drowning when the storms come and the water rises.
Over and over in his sermons, King reiterates that the church will fall unless its members seek to emulate Christ. This was obviously something that King struggled with in his own life; like David and Solomon, he was a deeply flawed and sinful man, that Christ still valued and used to great purpose. All of us, we soft-minded and hard-headed sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, can still be used for the glory of God. The church also has a lot of work to do.
As the chief moral guardian of the community, the church must implore men to be good and well-intentioned and must extol the virtues of kindheartedness and conscientiousness. But somewhere along the way, the church must remind men that devoid of intelligence, goodness and conscientiousness will become brutal forces leading to shameful crucifixions. Never must the church tire of reminding men that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent…if we are to call ourselves Christians, we had better avoid intellectual and moral blindness.
In my personal favorite of King’s sermons, “A Knock at Midnight,” he seems to have predicted the current state of the American church, which, if you scroll through any evangelical news website long enough, is suffering from the mass exodus of young people from its pews. King predicted the reason for this exodus sixty years ago, and he offered the remedy:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.
But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.
King’s warnings to the church might sound very cataclysmic and woebegone (most of the Biblical prophets were rarely optimistic) but in his most tender and perhaps the most deeply personal sermon in this collection, “Shattered Dreams,” King writes:
Almost anything that happens to us may be woven into the purposes of God. It may lengthen our cords of sympathy. It may break our self-centered pride. The cross, which was willed by wicked men, was woven by God into the tapestry of world redemption.
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.