King on True Social Peace

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Submitted By: Paul Drake

Gentry’s Note: I have been reading quite a bit about and by Dr. King lately – focusing especially on Bearing the Cross by Garrow and the Testament of Hope compendium of Dr. King’s writings – but I had not heard this interesting piece of biblical exposition until Paul mentioned it. For that reason, I asked Paul to repost his MLK day piece here.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thought I’d share a passage of his that I have found quite meaningful and challenging:

I remember when I was in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the white citizens came to me one day and said – and I think he was very sincere about this – that in Montgomery for all of these years we have been such a peaceful community, we have had so much harmony in race relations and then you people have started this movement and boycott, and it has done so much to disturb race relations, and we just don’t love the Negro like we used to love them, because you have destroyed the harmony and the peace that we once had in race relations.  And I said to him, in the best way I could say and I tried to say it in nonviolent terms, we have never had peace in Montgomery, Alabama, we have never had peace in the South.  We have had a negative peace, which is merely the absence of tension; we’ve had a negative peace in which the Negro patiently accepted his situation and his plight, we’ve never had the peace, we’ve never had positive peace, and what we’re seeking now is to develop this positive peace…

True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.  I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.”  Now Jesus didn’t mean he came to start war, to bring a physical sword, and he didn’t mean, I come not to bring positive peace.  But I think what Jesus was saying in substance was this, that I come not to bring an old negative peace, which makes for stagnant passivity and deadening complacency, I come to bring something different, and whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated, between the old and the new, whenever I come a struggle takes place between the old and the new, whenever I come a struggle takes place between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come not to bring a negative peace, but a positive peace, which is brotherhood, which is justice, which is the Kingdom of God.

“Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” 1961

Such a holistic understanding of peace, I find, echoes the rich biblical concept of shalom, and Christian Scripture as a whole, which rejects cheap grace in favor of maturely discipled love, which is ultimately to reflect the perfect love of God, in whom righteousness and peace coexist in perfect harmony (Ps. 85).  It is the difficult work of instantiating or approximating this peace and justice here in our broken world that King speaks so authentically to, in his words, his life, and ultimately his death.  Rather than bringing wanton violence like Jared Lee Loughner, King suffered it, showing that seeking both justice and peace can prove costly.  It certainly proved costly to God, in Christ, when he submitted to death on a cross to achieve a just peace with humanity and to lay a foundation for a just peace among humanity (Eph. 2:11-22; Phil. 2; Col. 1:20).

The other, more common (but more difficult) cost King speaks to here is that of relinquishing the insulation that comes from our privileged social locations.  Choosing to expose ourselves to the unjust sufferings of our fellow creatures appears to be an essential part of authentically seeking justice (Is. 58:7).  The humility that God the Son exhibited in submitting to death, first involved submitting to life, human, earthly life, with all of its struggles (Phil. 2; Heb. 2:14-18).  If Christ, who did not owe it to us to relinquish his privileged position, exposed himself to our weak human condition, how much more ought we be willing to expose ourselves to the weak condition of others?  King’s words are a continual reminder to me that we must be sure to hear the cries of the weak and the poor rather than dismissing them, and that a meaningful response to injustice requires committed confrontation.  I’ve found that both hearing and responding challenge me with the personal costs of effort, time, honesty, dissonance, power-sharing, and the risks of confronting power, but that they ultimately result in a deeper peace, in a truer shalom.


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