Updated: May 17, 2020
On Monday, I attended a breakfast to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a beautiful tribute to such an inspirational life and also a call to continue the work. I was grateful and humbled to be in a room filled with people who have given so much of their lives to fight for a world that reflects more of the freedom, justice, and love that are representative of the Kingdom of God.
As I left that breakfast, the idea that lingered in my mind was that the pursuit of justice is so much more important than my own comfort. That might sound pretty obvious, but the reality is that I really like my comfort. I like to feel safe and accepted. I like to stay in spaces where I know that others share my values and perspectives. I like to get along with others. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of that until it becomes a barrier to justice.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King talks about the danger of one “who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Often times, that absence of tension sounds much easier than putting forth effort and sacrificing my comfort for the sake of justice, especially when it’s justice for someone else. Why should I give up what I have, what I’ve earned, and what I feel entitled to for the sake of someone else?
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:6-8
This is the God that I worship, the One who created the universe and everything in it. Surely he deserves to sit on his throne basking in comfort and wealth and the praise of angels. And yet, he gave up everything that he deserved in order to live on this earth and take on all the struggles that come along with being human.
His purpose was far greater than making us comfortable or giving us a ticket to heaven. When Jesus first introduced his ministry in Nazareth, he made it very clear what his life on this earth was about. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he declared…
The Spirit of the Lord is on me
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!
– Luke 4:18-19
Jesus laid out his priorities from the beginning. He cared about the poor, the prisoners, the sick, and the oppressed. He didn’t come just so that they could have relief in the next life but so that they could experience freedom and honor and love and wholeness right now in this world. He came to do something about the injustice that people were facing here and now. If we claim to follow this Jesus, then our priorities should be the same as his.
2 Corinthians 5:15 says that
[Christ] died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.
To live for Christ is to live like he lived, to follow his example of laying down his life for the sake of others’ well being. It is letting go of our comfort and privilege and all that we think we deserve in order stand up for the freedom and dignity of others. It’s not optional. It’s not something that we do only if we feel like it. It’s not something that some people are made for and others are not. This is what it means to be a follower of Christ.
I cannot let my desire for the absence of tension determine when and how I choose to stand up to injustice. Whatever discomfort I may experience is inconsequential in light of what Jesus sacrificed for the sake of justice. And it doesn’t measure up to what many who have gone before, like Dr. King, have endured for the sake of justice. And it pales in comparison to the oppression, discrimination, and struggles that many people face on a daily basis.
The first step in letting go of my comfort is choosing to listen and learn. It’s easy to believe that injustice doesn’t exist if I don’t feel it or see it. And it’s easy to believe the narratives that are comfortable for me – the narratives that don’t require me to change or give up anything, that don’t cause me to question my own intentions or beliefs. But if I am serious about living for Christ and I want to address the injustices that the poor, the prisoners, the sick, and the oppressed face, I have to listen to the voices of the poor, the prisoners, the sick, and the oppressed. I have to be willing to humble myself and recognize that I don’t know what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin. I need to allow those who are most vulnerable to be my teachers.
I have been challenged by Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as I consider what I’m willing (or unwilling) to lay down in order to stand up for justice. I invite you to read the letter in its entirety here or, at the very least, to read the two paragraphs below. As you read it, note the emotions that rise up within you. Is there anything that makes you feel convicted, angry, or defensive? Don’t ignore that, and don’t reject it. Instead, take time to sit with it, to bring it before God, and to ask God what he wants from you.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What is it that you are clinging to? What are you unwilling to let go of? Is it your comfort, your privilege, your image, your pride, your wealth, your need to be right? What is standing in the way of your ability to love others and pursue true justice?
Check out this post from Martin Luther King Day last year where I shared some resources and a bit of what I’m learning from people of color.