THE EXTENDED FAMILY OF GOD. We often encounter people who sacrifice much for those they love. I know a mother who was bed-ridden for three months and nearly lost her life in order to carry her baby to term and a father who sold his road-construction business and many properties to cover a son’s bad debts. After old, this man went back to work for low wages. I know a woman who gave up a blossoming career for the sake of her husband; and a man who moved to a distant place so that his wife could be near her family. I know a sister who suffered great abuse at the hands of a sister she was helping. And I know a son who searched and found the alcoholic father who had abandoned him as a boy, and then took that man in and cared for him until he died.
When listening again to sound-bites from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech this past week and to the commentary that often followed from television personalities, I was struck by the tendency to strip Dr. King’s accomplishments from their radical Christian moorings. Clips focused on Dr. King’s hopes for future generations of black and white children playing together, judged only “by the content of their character,” and the “let freedom ring” refrains near the end of the speech. Keeping with the tenor of the national holiday, comments sentimentalized American ideals. Overlooked were the first three-quarters of the address where Dr. King told of the nightmare suffered by generations of African-Americans and by our default on the promissory note (that is, the bad check “which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’”) of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Dr. King’s vision of true equality was anchored not in his patriotism, but in his theology–and specifically in his view of an extended family where all people are God’s children. To him, America could rise to be a great nation where the bell of freedom tolls because in the imagination of its principles and the framing of its founding documents all people belong equally to the household of God. Loving each other is what we expect within the family. Members sacrifice, suffer for each other. Within a family setting, even Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (italics added, Matt. 5:44-45a) takes on the character of practical advice, rather than naive idealism.
Dr. King’s hope for America was not simply the end of racism, but the creation of a beloved community. In an article entitled “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” he presented a roadmap for fighting injustice and building community. In the practical advice of the essay, we see the implications of loving the neighbor as if one’s child or parent, brother or sister.
1. Adopt nonviolent resistance. Victims should not resort to violence in their struggle against forces of injustice. While violence might bring a temporary end to oppression, it produces a legacy of bitterness and chaos. But passivity also falls short. Though not being aggressive physically toward oppressors, the nonviolent resister is strongly active spiritually, “constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken.”
2. Be an instrument of redemption and reconciliation. The resister should not seek to humiliate, but to win over the other. Friendship, understanding, and awakening moral shame are the true goals of the resister–not, defeating an opponent.
3. Oppose forces of evil, not individuals. Instead of demonizing other people, nonviolent resisters should direct their attacks against unjust structures in society. Many oppressors are themselves victims gripped by evil. Bad laws should be changed and good laws enforced. Poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, and ignorance are evil forces. The struggle should be directed at injustice itself, not simply at persons who are unjust. The victory is “for justice and the forces of life.”
4. Avoid violence of the spirit. Oppressed people should not retaliate with hate. Hate breeds hate. In contrast, “at the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.” This is not a sentimental love. The love Dr. King visualized is the agape love of the New Testament which seeks nothing selfish in return and wishes good to “the person who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.”
5. Trust that justice will win out. Those who resist oppression can be confident that the cosmos is on the side of justice and that ultimately justice will win the day. The nonviolent resister can endure suffering exactly because of this deep faith in the future. God is on the side of justice.