For the past 3 years, I’ve tried to take time every MLK day to devotionally listen to one of Dr. King’s sermons. Each year, it has been an incredibly life-giving and faith-enlarging experience (you can read my 2011 reflection on Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in NYC). This year I listened to Dr. King’s sermon entitled “Paul’s Letter to the American Church” delivered to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama on November 4, 1956. It was no exception. Dr. King imagines the epistle Apostle Paul would have written to the American church. Even his introduction to “the letter” is laced with golden prose:
May I hasten to say that if in presenting this letter the contents sound strangely Kingian instead of Paulinian, attribute it to my lack of complete objectivity rather than Paul’s lack of clarity. It is miraculous, indeed, that the Apostle Paul should be writing a letter to you and to me nearly 1900 years after his last letter appeared in the New Testament. How this is possible is something of an enigma wrapped in mystery. The important thing, however, is that I can imagine the Apostle Paul writing a letter to American Christians in 1956 A.D. And here is the letter as it stands before me.
You can listen/read the entire sermon here. I also think the privilege of getting to hear the power and passion of Dr. King the preacher is an incredible gift to the Church, so I hope you could spare 30 minutes towards this great end.
Today, I wanted to focus on Dr. King’s reference to the need for “Moral Progress” — a passage from an early portion of his speech:
“…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”
To modern ears, this phrase, “moral progress,” may strike us as indicative of the presumptuous battle cries of paternalistic, narrow-minded zealotry. To Christians, it may whiff of legalism, works-righteousness and all that is unhealthy and dysfunctional with “religion.” But hearing the phrase from the lips of Dr. King gives me pause.
I consider just how potent the passing of time can be in rendering shades of grey into black and white. On this side of history, all previous social movements possess a gloss of inevitability. Yet I don’t believe for a moment that the issues of Dr. King’s era were any more nuanced and complex than our own. To think that we would fare any better than our forbearers in confronting their social challenges betrays one as an amateur historian at best and a self-deluded ignoramus at worst (probably the latter). In ages past, courageous women and men were required to distinguish between good and evil and to fight for the right with their lives. This, I believe, is moral progress and what Dr. King calls forth.
What does it mean for a society to grow in moral progress?
Dr. King makes comparison with scientific progress: our flashing airplanes, expansive subway systems, majestic skyscrapers and brilliant medical advances. Through the development of science, architecture, urban planning, engineering, biology and medicine, we’ve began to understand the nuances and exhibit mastery over the human body, the forces of gravity. We’ve began to probe deep into the realms of sub-microscopic particles and manipulate the rawest of creation to forge new substances, new chemicals that can be harnessed towards previously unimaginable ends.
How then could this relate to moral progress?
What if we could cultivate “moral scientists” who sought to understand the nuances and exhibit mastery of the towering moral challenges of our day? Moral scientists who probed deep into the realms of the moral universe, asking questions, deconstructing our notions of good and evil and forging new ways for us to do right, to love, in an eternally complex society.
Certainly, the equipment for this task would not be microscopes and test tubes. It would seem that the tools readily offered to the Christian seem most adequate to the task: the belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, feet fitted with the shoes Readiness, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation and the sword of the Spirit.
Much has been said and written in the Christian subculture lamenting the rise of relativism in our post-modern age. And in the midst of this cultural shift we would do well to acknowledge how often the Church has drifted into naïve, myopic absolutes and have far too often stood on the wrong side of right. But should the acknowledgement of our corporate fallibility lead us to moral hesitancy? Certainly not! Dr. King, speaking this in 1956, had experienced first-hand the moral impotence of the American church. Yet his antidote was more than humility but a clarion call for moral progress.
If Dr. King could somehow track down Apostle Paul to write another epistle to the American Church circa 2013 (America II), he may have written along the lines of: may our moral progress be commensurate with our church building campaigns. May our moral progress exceed our financial statements. May our moral progress outpace our budding small group ministries. May our moral progress dwarf the financial vibrancy of our worship music industry and CD sales.
Oh that the American Church would grow in moral progress to learn to confront issues of immigration, human trafficking, global hunger, terrorism and gay rights. In our current state, I fear that I and many in my Church are akin to toddlers with test tubes trying to map the human genome.
Yet, this is the task that is laid before us.