domesticating the teachings of m.l. king jr and Jesus

in our fragile humanity, we often reject difficult truths when they makes us uncomfortable. it is easier to listen to messages that make us feel good about ourselves and others. we can often ignore or pretend we did not hear something that makes us squirm a bit– even if it’s for our own good!

comfort can be more important in our lives than what is good and true.

yesterday, we celebrated the federal holiday and life of martin luther king jr. in my blog post yesterday, i shared some personally uplifting king quotes ( ). i have a ton more. king’s words inspire me as i see in them essential ways to live the gospel of jesus: love, peace and freedom.

but if we are to move forward as a country, we must be willing to be uncomfortable with prophetic words. we must change and sacrifice in the present in order to reap benefits for the common good in the future.

the biblical role of prophets was to speak God’s truth. the initial reaction to the challenging words of a prophet is rejection. we see this dynamic in the prophets of the hebrew and christian scriptures as well as the early church that was born from the blood of martyrs. we see this dynamic of rejection in the life of jesus. his suffering and death on the cross was the result of political and religious power plays by fearful leaders. those in power were threatened by jesus’ being as well as what jesus taught. one example of this truth is in jesus’ teaching in the beatitudes:

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you. matthew 5: 11-12

jesus shows us new perspectives in love. jesus taught his followers what to expect if they receive and live in the self-sacrificial love that he exemplified in his earthly life. there will be serious consequences if we dare believe and act on jesus’ words and example of love.

for me, living the ideals of being a catholic priest and as a claretian missionary are my particular ways of serving in this world. although i often fall short of these ideals, i have to rededicate myself constantly to what is good, true and beautiful in the Spirit. in my life, staying connected to the catholic worker movement as well as the catholic group pax christi has helped my purify the my vows as a claretian and promises as a priest.

i also have to remind myself that most people do not know of the radical message of jesus. christians will reject it for a more sanitized version of good news. it is more convenient to domesticate jesus for our own purposes– whether it is the church or as individuals.

we can replace the radical self-sacrificial love and service of jesus with feelings which only touch our hearts with warm fuzzies. it is a selfish way of using and thus marginalizing jesus.

as a christian minister, king integrated the prophetic graced-filled words of jesusas the basis for his actions for justice and peace. we can treat the prophetic nature of king’s words in a similar way to jesus’: we can water down his message by only quoting his feel good messages of love and hope. we can easily dismiss him by ad hominem attacks when we read or listen to the difficult truths of his teachings. when we domesticate king, we marginalize his true impact.

reza, who is my fresno brother in the struggle for justice, posted this quote yesterday. these are the words of Martin Luther King Jr in May 1967:

“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” – Report to SCLC Staff

we will have to get out of our comfort zones to even address our world within this challenging framework.

king points to the inter-connectedness of evil in our systems. these are the roots of the problems that bring down our people. king examined sinfulness at our country’s systemic levels. he suggests that tinkering with responses at the edges of these problems will not solve them. only change/redistribution of power at its roots will solve them: a revolution of values.

for christians, this is a deeper dimension of love. for catholics, this love is unpacked in our social teachings on justice, peace and the environment.

because of the strong grip of sin within these structures and ourselves, i am not holding my breath waiting for radical change to happen. jesus and ml king and their message of love will continue to be rejected by the majority. some well-intentioned catholics even reject any part of our catholic social teachings. but i will not give up striving toward this profound justice-love.

if king were alive today, he most likely would have been at the forefront of the black lives matter movement and living out the witness of love through non-violent, non cooperation. he would be praying for his persecuting, calumnious enemies. as a national leader he would have been the face of this radical movement and probably would have been shot (again). those who really oppose truth can resort to violence and murder.

ml king was graced to know the self-sacrificial love of jesus. king had the courage of the Spirit to live it out to its dreadful consequence. ml king trusted and had faith in the power of the cross and resurrection. shame on us when we domesticate him to be something lesser.

i pray these graces on our world. i pray that we do not domesticate the messages of the prophets who show how to love authentically in our world. i pray that we may do what we can to live this kingdom of God here and now and to do God’s will toward peace-justice-love in the Spirit.

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