“Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority.”
In his classic book of sermons strength to love, Martin Luther King Jr. defends the Christian idea that we cannot be conformed to this world. If our state is racist, we must not conform. If our social set condones sexual immorality, we must not conform. He says both. We want to hear neither or one or the other as Americans in the 21st century. Otherwise, we cannot conform to the in group or other alternative power source.
When we do conform, we must repent, because to conformity to the world, the flesh, and devils, the Christian says: “no.”
Today Reverend King is read in colleges and universities, even when he is challenged by more radical thinkers. Is he heard? Or is he being read in places where the options are all in one direction, the non-conformity all predictably the same? Does this leave a horrible intellectual vacuum filled by the alt-Right, the new Klan? Do we hear his attacks on wealth as an end and his attack on impurity?
We need nothing to encourage the old evils, old root causes (including toxic religion) keep them alive, but God forbid we exacerbate the problem.
Perhaps, however, those of us who went to college need to examine whether we are conforming to an intellectual culture. Do we care too much about what the establishment teaches us as opposed to what the Christians of Nigeria, India, or China would teach us about issues such as sexual morality, colonialism, doctrine, and justice?
God forbid we explain to them that “we” have learned better than they . . . And so recolonize areas we so recently left.
Christians are citizens of the beloved kingdom, never, quite, at home here.
As King says: “As Christians we must never surrender our supreme loyalty to any time-bound custom or earth-bound idea, for at the heart of our universe is a higher reality- God and His kingdom of love- to which we must be conformed.” That is true today of the jingoistic Christian and the Christian who adopts the moral colonialism of the American university class.
A Christian is not conformed to the morality of anti-Fa or the alt-Right. Jesus Christ is “the world’s most dedicated non-conformist, whose ethical non-conformity still challenges the conscience of mankind.” Jesus stands with the African-American harassed by racist cops and with the university student hectored by an intolerant professor for her pro-life ideas.
A Christian says “no” to materialism: “When an affluent society would coax us to believe that happiness consists in the size of our automobiles . . . Jesus reminds us, ‘A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesses.”
When a Christian says “no” to the morality of sex outside of heterosexual marriage, she refuses to conform: “When we yield to the temptation of a world rife with sexual promiscuity and gone wild with a philosophy of self-expression, Jesus tells that “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”Most of us are bothered by one or the other of Reverend King’s Biblical ideas. We want what we want in terms of stuff or sex. We are conforming to the world if we fail EITHER test.
The mega-church minister with a mansion is conforming. The university educated Christian with modern Western sex morality is conforming. Against this: “Everywhere and at all times, the love ethic of Jesus is a radiant light revealing the ugliness of our stale conformity.”
We must not use power unjustly to “win.” Was there anything more prophetic than Reverend King’s warnings about conformity in jingoism, sexual immorality (“unwholesome pursuits”), and “bigness?” We want big churches, but not Christ’s sexual morality. We want wealth, but dare not criticize the unjust use of that wealth lest we offend givers. We want the power of masses to defeat the radical individualist and so have fallen into “an even greater extreme of rugged collectivism.”
Some of the most just people I know are rich. Conformists on the left cannot hear this truth.
Some of the most racist people I have met ran Christian educational institutions. Conformists in the church cannot hear these facts.
I am a sinner. I don’t want to hear that hard truth either.
We conform so that we can avoid truth. We find a team and hope, against reality, that conforming to the team (right or left) will make us good. We are saved by our team . . . Not by God’s grace which demands the hard path of dying to conformity to the world’s systems.
Yet since we fail, the church fails.
King notes the church has often conserved “slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation.” King points to the early Church: “Their powerful gospel put an end to such barbaric evils as infanticide and bloody gladiatorial contests.”* The “liberal” church might agree with King on racism, but applaud mainstream sexual decadence. They are with King on economic injustice, but applaud third trimester abortion: infanticide.
The “conservative” church might approve of King’s defense of sexuality morality as the ideal, but ignore his calls to social justice.
Should we just find any standard and refuse to conform? By no means!
King is, as always, balanced and warns against the exhibitionism of non-conformity untethered to truth. This can be “exhibitionism” or (perhaps) even deep psychological problems working themselves out in hatred. “A reformer may be an untransformed nonconformist whose rebellion against the evils of society has left him annoyingly rigid and unreasonably impatient.
Go on social media and see those who define themselves as “ex-“ . . . Evangelical, Marxist, Liberal, Republican. The person who defines herself as “ex-“ will almost always conform to another power group. The “ex-“ liberal will flock to jingoism and so gain power. The “ex-“ conservative will run to modern decadence and so gain acceptance. Both conformations are sub-Christian.
The Christian church says: “Justice and Holiness! One and forever inseparable!”
Jesus says no conformity to the world, but only to the Beloved Kingddom.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
*Bold not in original text.
**The sermon is Transformed Non-Conformist.