When today we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1964 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic and painstaking work as a civil rights activist, I am struck by King’s words on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. At the time, King was a young, relatively unknown Baptist minister who had just been chosen to lead the boycott. In his first speech as the newly dubbed leader of the effort, he said this: “We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”
“To be saved from patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” How often do we stop to think that our “salvation” includes deliverance from complacence with all that is wrong with our world? Could this be what it means to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul in Philippians exhorts? I can’t help but think so.
Today’s admonition in the devotional, Today, was to be “peace makers”: “Cosmic peace has been secured by God in Christ (Colossians 1:19-20), yet God tells us to ‘let the peace of Christ rule.'”
When God “breaks into” our world in the person of Jesus Christ, God shows that “peacemaking” is not the same thing as just “keeping the peace.” “Peacemaking,” I suspect, is nothing less than the disruption of our comfort with the status quo wherever “business as usual” fails to reflect the peace that God in Christ has already made with our world. A peace that, if real, is inseparable from justice or freedom.
And yet we remarkably have the freedom to choose whether “to let the peace of Christ rule.” God does not force God’s Self on us: God gives us free wills; but when we decide to be part of the peace that God has made with our world, which sometimes can be as simple as not getting in its way, we have the opportunity to live into a God-given dream. A dream that King not only preached about but died for.
It is easy to die for certain things. We can work ourselves to death by trying to build ourselves a nice retirement nest. We can smoke and drink ourselves to death in the spirit of Christopher Hitchens, who said his two bad habits made him a better writer. We can kill our very selves and who we were meant to be because of others’ expectations. We can die trying to be good. These forms of dying are almost second nature to us. But to die because we truly believe in God’s dream- a dream that all of us will one day be “saved” from the injustices of our world, including our own complacence- how many of us will do that?
Whenever I drive by Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta or, en route to the gym, stroll down the “Walk of Fame” featuring the shoe prints of famous civil rights leaders, I cannot help but marvel at the proximity of King’s story and the deep legacy it leaves. Which is a reminder, among many things, of the costliness of salvation and our invitation to be peacemakers. Happy Birthday, Dr. King. May you always rest in peace.