A prophetic word
Eric Patterson | Martin Luther King Jr.’s warning against worldly Christianity
Today, as we remember Martin Luther King Jr., we revisit a sermon of his delivered in 1956 from the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., where he preached against worldly Christianity: “Many Christians in America … give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs … morality is merely group consensus … by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion.” His admonition to think and act as Christians in an “un-Christian” culture continues to challenge us 66 years later.
King’s sermon, titled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” is written in the style of a Pauline epistle. He begins with praise for America’s technological and scientific genius: advances in medicine, architecture, communications, and transportation that King lauds as “marvelous,” “wonderful,” “astounding,” and “tremendous.” From the polio vaccine to spacecraft, King witnessed America’s revolution in science and engineering:
“But, America … I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems … that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress.… You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends. … You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality … your civilization to outdistance your culture. … So, America I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”
This rings true today. Our technology has provided barren families with beloved children through in vitro fertilization. However, what about our responsibility for a million children frozen as embryos in labs? We can detect disease at the genetic level. Yet, this technology is also used to cull so-called defective human beings before they are born. We have developed incredible medical tools to restore the body following an accident or injury, but we now use drugs and surgery to alter biological birth gender. Shockingly, most of these technologies target vulnerable children.
King chides, “I am impelled to write you … concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an un-Christian world.”
He explains how Christians can do this by emphasizing their dual citizenship “in time and eternity; both in heaven and [on] earth,” but our “ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity.” In other words, the values structure of God’s eternal word is the moral compass for life on this earth. Because God’s Word is true, it is the foundation for how to live, work, and act in this world.
The Christian life is too often reserved for Sunday mornings or the privacy of our homes. When we avoid being gospel salt and light in society, we still reflect something: We reflect the world’s standards for morality. King identifies contemporary America’s ethos as “everybody is doing it, so it must be alright”:
“Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes … ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. … Never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”
King preached this sermon at a time when America’s black population suffered from poverty and segregation. He contrasted scientific and economic achievements enjoyed by many in the white majority with the violence and despair faced by many black Americans. He also recognized that championing what is right on behalf of the vulnerable could be costly:
“I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may.”
This tough kind of love motivates the Christian church to stand courageously against evils such as abortion, euthanasia, racism, and all forms of hateful chauvinism. Love must be the motivation for justice-seeking because it is the key to restoring relationships and transcending past wrongs. Love should shape the assumptions about how we employ our scientific and government programs. Love should motivate us to protect the vulnerable rather than concede that “it is all right if everyone is doing it.”
King saw love as the antidote for a “power-drunk generation,” one drunk with egotistical pride in ourselves and our technology. We must beware of the idolatry of putting our great achievements—instead of God’s purpose—at the center of history. King concluded, “Love … is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is [the] most durable power in the world … the heartbeat of the moral cosmos.” Amen to that!
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