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Your Brother's Keeper

January 18, 2021
By Johanna Smith

“Unity is the great need of the hour.” [King, 1955]

As we commemorate the life and work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his call for unity rings clamorously with as fierce urgency today as it did when he spoke these words. Recent events affirm the chasmal divisions and prejudices that extend beyond and seemingly overshadow racial lines. At the core of all that separates and threatens to tear us apart is sin, and only in Christ Jesus do we find the cure for our malady and all that ails us.

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:7:9]

Dr. King poured out his life in the struggle against racial injustice and all its implications, rooted in the belief that all humans possess intrinsic value because we are all created in His image. “The imago Dei is not a quality possessed by man; it is a condition in which man lives… established and maintained by the Creator… which constitutes him as him-whom-God-loves.” (Piper, 1971) It was on the basis of this “condition” that King vehemently appealed for the equal treatment of all people. “There are no gradations in the image of God. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.” (King, 1965) Further, our inherent value is unchanged by any or all attributes that comprise who we are, including and especially sin.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:8-10]

Without denying the gospel’s power to save from the punishment of sin, King submitted that a robust teaching and application of the gospel must also address the presence and power of sin wherever it exists. In other words, salvation is preeminent, and sin expressed in all its forms, such as injustice, are serious implications as a result. In Galatians 2, Paul rebukes Cephas and opposes Peter for drawing back in their fellowship with Gentiles and forcing them to live like Jews vis-à-vis dietary restrictions and circumcision requirements – making ethnic and racial identification a requirement for them to become children of God. While racism is not the prevalent theme in his admonishment, the division between Jew and Gentile (the origins of which were rooted in racism and ethnic prejudice) and the inclusion of the latter by the former was a central concern for Paul because it simply did not square with the gospel. Rather than replace our ethnicity, the gospel redeems it and gathers us as brothers and sisters in Christ into one family. In no other place do we see this unity (to which we are called) more prominently. Freedom and unity are inextricably woven within—that Christ died to set us free and unite us in and to Him. The gospel removes the barrier between God and us through Christ. It also removes the barriers that exist among His people:

“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the hostility, which is the Law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two one new person, in this way establishing peace; and that He might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the hostility.” [Ephesians 2:14-16]

As Bryan Loritts writes, “The gospel is both vertical and horizontal. Truth must be firmly buttressed in God; without this, we are but a stone’s throw away from doctrinal error and spiritual malpractice. [But] in almost every letter, Paul begins with orthodoxy and concludes with orthopraxy, with doctrine and then duty, and much of the orthopraxy has to do with the horizontal accoutrements of the cross—how we relate to one another. The Bible knows nothing of a vertical reconciliation that is not evident in horizontal reconciliation with others.” (2018)

Charles Spurgeon expounds this point further: “Churches are not made that men of ready speech may stand up on Sundays and talk, and so win daily bread from their admirers. No, there is another end and aim for this. These places of worship are not built that you may sit comfortably and hear something that shall make you pass away your Sundays with pleasure. A church which does not exist to do good in the slums, and dens, and kennels of the city, is a church that has no reason to justify its longer existing. A church that does not exist to reclaim heathenism, to fight with evil, to destroy error, to put down falsehood, a church that does not exist to take the side of the poor, to denounce injustice and to hold up righteousness, is a church that has no right to be. Not for yourself, O church, do you exist, any more than Christ existed for Himself.” (1869)

So, what are we to make of all this? There is much work for us, the bridegroom of Christ, to carry out, and “we must not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” [Galatians 6:9]. I urge you to 1) bear each other’s burdens [Galatians 6:2], 2) listen to others’ stories that extend beyond your reality in order to understand rather than respond and 3) give yourself to concerns that are perhaps foreign to your experience. There exists as much hope as travail. I leave you with some of Dr. King’s words during his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome!”

Johanna Smith is a member of the extended Rockbridge Academy community and wife of Stan Smith, appointed Rockbridge board member. 

References:

King, Dr. Rev. M. (1955). ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott Speech’, MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, 5 December. Available at: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/mia-mass-meeting-holt-street-baptist-church (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

King, Dr. Rev. M. (1964). ‘Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech’, Oslo, Norway, 10 December. Available at: https://www.lwvhcnc.org/PDFs/43708MLK_Speeches.pdf (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

King, Dr. Rev. M. (1965). ‘The American Dream Speech’, Ebenezer Baptist Church, 4 July. Available at: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/mia-mass-meeting-holt-street-baptist-church (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

Loritts, B. (2018). Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Piper, J. (1971). ‘The Image of God: An Approach from Biblical and Systematic Theology’, Desiring God, 1 March. Available at: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-image-of-god (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

Spurgeon, C. (1869). ‘The First Cry from the Cross’, The Spurgeon Center for Biblical Preaching at Midwestern Seminary, 24 October. Available at: https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-first-cry-from-the-cross/#flipbook/ (Accessed: 3 January 2021).

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