I am grateful for MLK day. Admittedly, it is great to have a long weekend with the family so quickly upon the heels of Christmas; but mostly I am grateful for this national observance because it reminds me to pause a moment and focus my attention on his life and work.
Our Class 8 students were in Washington DC last month and visited the impressive MLK memorial. They stood next to the ornate pulpit in the Washington National Cathedral, the spot from which he delivered his last Sunday sermon, and so he was freshly in my mind. This year I chose to read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and was struck by two things in particular.
While Dr. King is known as a gifted orator, this response to a group of clergymen in Birmingham demonstrates that MLK was also first-rate thinker with an impressive intellect. The “Doctor” wasn’t an honorary title: he earned his PhD in Theology from Boston University. Employing a “Natural Law” line of argument, King draws on examples from history and references some of the great minds of the church and the West, such as Augustine and Aquinas, to defend his position and the peaceful protests against unjust laws. From his youth through his time at Morehouse, Crozer Seminary, and Boston University, King honed his use of logic and rhetoric, read widely, and studied philosophy and theology, eventually employing those gifts to champion justice and equality. In a sense, one could argue that King enjoyed a classical education, much like we offer to our students today at WDCS.
Many of us have probably heard the “thermostat and thermometer” metaphor in a sermon or talk on leadership, but it is rarely attributed to MLK. And yet he employs that language in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Here is the passage that struck me with particular force this past week.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”
His words cut to the quick; admittedly I am too often comfortable with the status quo and I sense a growing internal cynicism, that our culture and nation are in steep decline and things are unlikely to change. But a hope founded in the God of scriptures, as King’s was, has the true north of a resurrected Jesus and the future promise of the New Jerusalem: it operates like a thermostat.
For 2017, my prayer for myself, for the church, for WDCS, is that we would employ the wisdom promised by God and thoughtfully critique the “ideas and principles of popular opinion.” I pray for the humility, resolve, and courage to resist complacency and instead function as a thermostat that can “transform the mores of society.”
Head of School
Leave a Comment