MLK Day Sermon: Paul and Martin’s Dream of Reconciliation through Nonviolent Direct Action

MLK Day Sermon: Paul and Martin’s Dream of Reconciliation through Nonviolent Direct Action January 19, 2015

Both the civil rights movement and Paul’s ministry to the Corinthians were catalyzed by a dream of reconciliation, forged through the tactics of nonviolent direct action.

The Reverend Dr. Martin King Jr. spoke of “beloved community” as a way of evoking that ancient metaphor from Jesus: “the kingdom of God.” As King said, following a Supreme Court verdict that desegregated Montgomery buses: “The end is reconciliation. The end is redemption. The end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” The boycott was a foretaste of beloved community because in God’s family of equality, everyone could sit down and ride the bus together. Everyone could eat at the lunch counter table. Upon forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became the flagship organizational vehicle for the civil rights movement, King wrote that the goal of that organization was to “foster and create the beloved community in America where brotherhood is a reality.” The sit-ins, speeches, beatings and marches were all undergone, King said, so that the beloved community could become actualized.

The method by which King sought to birth this beloved community was that of strategic nonviolence. Beloved community for King was no idyllic vision of harmony divorced from suffering or reality. It was a hope-filled proclamation of a more just future forged through the tactics of nonviolent direct action. Perhaps one of King’s most influential advisers was the Quaker pacifist Bayard Rustin. Bayard Rustin was a controversial figure: he was a gay man and former Communist with whom King took substantial flack for affiliating. Through his formative friendship with Rustin, King learned the technique and philosophy of mass nonviolent resistance. Rustin had visited India in 1948 to study Ghandian nonviolence; he had been a leader in the Quaker pacifist organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation; way back in the 1940s, long before the Freedom Rides, Rustin had been arrested for refusing to give up certain seats on segregated buses. With mentoring in nonviolence from Bayard Rustin and others, King boycotted Montgomery buses, he traveled to India himself in 1959, he marched in Birmingham, he faced off against Bull Conner’s fire hoses, he participated in Selma’s voting rights campaign, he gave up the armed guards and the gun he’d been storing for self-defense after his home had been bombed. He said: “nonviolence was the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Ghandi furnished the method.”

The apostle Paul had a dream, too. Paul’s dream that he articulated in the second letter to the Corinthians was likewise reconciliation.(This sermon especially inspired by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns’ book Ambassadors of Reconciliation.) Paul envisioned a community that functioned as one new creation in Christ, regardless of whether one was Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. He wrote, in 2 Corinthians 5: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ. We beseech you: be reconciled to God.” Typically this passage is read without any political or economic context that would give any this-world meaning to reconciliation. The apostle Paul’s revolutionary message of oneness has been overly spiritualized to be about the soul’s relationship with God [it is this, but it is also much more]. In Paul’s day, and in Corinth’s culture, there were not only souls that needed reconciliation; there were actual people who needed to be reconciled.

First century Corinth was a divided city. There were social and economic barriers between rich and poor bolstered by a system of hierarchy called “patronage.” The biblical scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh describe the patronage system as this [quoted in Myers and Ends, page 6]: “socially fixed relations of generalized reciprocity between social unequals in which a lower-status person in need (called a client) has his needs met by having recourse for favors to a higher status, well situated person (called a patron). The client, then, relates to the patron as to a superior and more powerful kinsman, while the patron looks after his clients as he does his dependents.” The way to get ahead in Corinth, if you didn’t have resources, was to cozy up to the 1%, and persuade them to sponsor your cause or family. If you were an itinerant philosopher-theologian in the manner of Greek Sophists or the apostle Paul, you sought sponsorship for your teaching. The way to amass power and prestige in Corinth, if you had financial resources, was to choose and cultivate your client list wisely. And of course-much like our modern-day system of political lobbying-if you received money, you were expected to behave towards your benevolent patrons with a certain level of friendliness.

Paul achieved his ministry of reconciliation through an ancient equivalent of nonviolent direct action. He traveled all throughout the Roman Empire nurturing a network of communities that dared to claim that Christ was Lord and Caesar was not—some have called it a counter-imperial movement. One of Paul’s strategies in the Corinthian context was to refuse to participate in the patronage system itself. He boycotted it. Unlike his Greek philosopher-analogues, he made tents to provide for himself; he took no money from the wealthier members of the community; scandalously, he actually did receive money from churches of lesser means in Macedonia to the north. And at the center of Paul’s house assemblies, such as that in Corinth, Paul emphasized a meal that demonstrated oneness; he called it the Lord’s Supper. Every time Paul’s communities sat down to eat communion or what early Christians called the Love Feast, they crossed barriers of race, class, gender, and religion. The Eucharist for Paul was a subversive meal manifesting social solidarity; he lambasted the Corinthians when they reflected Roman patronage and hierarchy in their communion dinners rather than the reconciliation brought about by God through Christ. He chastised the class-conscious members of the Corinthian church: “What?!” He wrote, “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you?” (1 Corinthians 11:22)

Yet, there is a cost to those who would have the courage to join God’s nonviolent ministry of reconciliation. For Paul, as he proclaimed reconciliation in a culture split by patrons and clients and Jews and Gentiles and men and women and slaves and free, there were afflictions, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger. (2 Corinthians 6:5) Sounds like the movement, doesn’t it? There were the Ku Klux Klan and Bull Conner and fire hoses and jail time and bomb threats and assassination attempts and the FBI watchlist and those four little girls, dead in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

After cataloging his hardships, Paul lists virtues that have sustained reconciliation movements ancient and contemporary.These are the qualifications by which the dream is achieved: by purity and singleness of vision. By the knowledge of injustice that only the oppressed fully know. By patience and 600 Selma marchers bloodied by the police. By kindness. By the Holy Spirit; by love, even for those would hang Jesus Christ or black bodies from trees. By truthful speech and soaring oratory. By the weapons of righteousness and justice, all buoyed and strengthened by the nonviolent power of God. (See 2 Corinthians 6:6-7)

It is one thing to commemorate the cost and courage of nonviolent activists 60 or 2000 years ago; it’s another thing for us to embody that cost and courage in our lives today. If Martin Luther King Jr were alive, I can’t help but think that he would be uncomfortable with his holiday. I can’t help but think he would have some problems with how easy it is to memorialize a hero and a movement without personal sacrifice. I can’t help but think, if King were alive today, that he would be lending his voice, spirit, and body to nonviolent action with the oppressed, that he would be marching in Ferguson and New York and Paris, denouncing all forms of injustice and violence at every opportunity. May we who follow the nonviolent Christ demonstrate such courage.

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