After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seemed all cross’d),
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs
The Church’s Alternative Vision for the World
I’m reminded on this day where we observe the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the issue of justice has a way of taking unique shape for every generation. Time and circumstance will mold the conditions of justice into whatever form that generation is to encounter it. And so, as one who has agreed to devote my life to the ordained ministry of the Church, I have to ask myself, what does justice look like for me? In doing this, I have to admit from the outset that I am a middle-class, American, straight, white, male who has lived a great deal of my life in the majority of whatever social classification one can come up with. That being said, being called into the ordained ministry requires that I also expand my world beyond the groupings that sociological study can offer.
The greatest act the Church can do is to tell the truth about the world as it is, and offer an alternative picture of the future. We don’t always do such a good job of this because, frankly, we’re often too caught up in our own issues at the present time. Bills need to be paid. We’re losing members left and right. We long to be more efficient in operation in order to survive a cultural shift that would cast us aside from the center of society.
It can be easy to forget that before we institutionalized ourselves, we were called into the grander vision of salvation for the world in Jesus Christ. Before we sought to find our place in the order of the world’s priorities, we were called to a different set of priorities that would dare to toss the norms of society aside. And before we thought our job was to work within the framework of politics in order to bring about the Kingdom, we were called to radically embody the Kingdom and model an alternative framework to that with the political landscape can offer.
It can be difficult for the mainline church to hear, but maybe we should consider leaving issue-driven justice alone for awhile. Now before you throw the pitch forks and flames, hear me out.
Over the past 200+ years of American evolution we’ve adopted every initiative from Prohibition to anti-gambling to civil rights. Many of these were bold and much needed during their time. What would this country be had the Civil Right Movement not happened from within the Church? But so much of our society is built around the ideas of identity politics now that we’ve slowly allowed the political realities of our world govern the ways in which we engage and live out the realities of the Kingdom of God.
The Prophetic Power of Poetry
Walter Brueggemann argues that the prophets of the Old Testament specialized in a poetic rendering of reality for ancient Israel. The great power of prophesy was not simply the message of change, but it was in the act of poetically rendering the world in a new and alternative way than the one people had known. The prophets spoke in imagery and poetic verse in such a way that it cut through the malaise of a prose-ordered world.
I’m reminded this day as well that Dr. King knew a little something about the power of poetry in constructing alternative visions of the world:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity…”
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…”
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
You see, King’s dream was a prophetic vision for the world as it should be and in spite of what it is. This is the same vision we need in the Church today. It’s one that is both prophetic and poetic. It’s a vision that’s not governed by politics or issues but is, instead, one that seeks to cut through our rigid and temporal vision of the world that we might see the world as God sees it. This is the vision of the great banquet table set in Luke 14 and we have to make sure that we’re not so consumed with our own narrow worlds we miss the invitation to the great meal. It’s a poetic vision of the world that offers an alternative to the realities we see and hear and know in the moment.
It’s not that I don’t think we should worry about efficiency and measurable vitality–I think we should worry a good deal about those things. And it’s not that I don’t think we should care about the pressing issues of the day and how our witness is revealed in our response to those issues–I think we should care deeply and passionately about pressing issues of justice and righteousness.
Let’s just make sure that when we do these things we allow for the vision of God’s kingdom to stay large and eternal in the process. Let’s see that we don’t get so consumed by our time and our issues that we forget God’s Kingdom is one for all time and space. Rather than trying to fit God’s Kingdom within our debates and policy initiatives, why not boldly proclaim the grand, cosmic vision of the Kingdom and see how our lives fit within that?
I’m indebted to the legacy of Dr. King–not just for helping lead a movement to pass laws and bring change, but for seeing the world in such a grand poetic and prophetic, Kingdom-driven way.