Is the church the hope of the world?
Most Christians would likely respond with an immediate and resounding, “Yes.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. asked and answered this question for a sermon writing exercise while a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948, his answer was less than enthusiastic.
“It is a common saying in religious circles that the church is the hope of the world. This question inevitably leads the objective mind to a bit of doubt,” King wrote.
“He immediately asks, ‘How can the church be the hope of the world when it is the most reactionary institution in society.’ In other words, the church is supposed to be the most radical opposer of the status quo in society, yet, in many instances, it is the greatest preserver of the status quo.”
As I read King’s words, I recognize the hyperbole of phrases such as “most reactionary institution in society” and “greatest preserver of the status quo.” But King’s use of hyperbole does not necessarily negate the underlying truth behind his words.
There are several things for which the church in America will eventually have to give an account regarding how it has contributed to past and current culture conflicts experienced by our nation.
The church may not explicitly tell our political leaders like President Trump, or social extremists on either end of any given spectrum, to behave badly on our behalf.
However, congregants still affirm their actions by continuing to vote for them, advocate for their exercise of authority and parrot their false narrative about the illegitimacy of our voting processes, their assertion about who is a “true” patriot and their misapplication of the First and Second Amendments of the Constitution.
I believe the church should be asked to give an account, 76% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020, according to a New York Times analysis of exit poll data.
Yet, this criticism is not only directed toward white Christians. Although only a handful of Black and Brown people were spotted participating in the insurrection at the Capitol, it is not hard to find people of color who are fans of Trump’s rhetoric.
Multiple Black business leaders, rappers, athletes and prominent pastors publicly threw their support behind his words. Overall, data shows that Trump’s support within the Black community increased between 2016 and 2020.
Please understand that I am not against Trump or any other person because they are a Republican, and I am not for anyone because they are Democrat.
I am against any action that seeks to subvert Jesus’ teachings from Matthew 25:31-46, which was about Jesus’ desire for his followers to love others, provide for the poor, feed the hungry, protect the helpless and care for the imprisoned.
Instead of making that our focus, many U.S. Christians seem more interested in gaining and preserving power and influence.
King said it this way in his assignment. “What has happened is this: The church, while flowing through the stream of history, has picked up the evils of little tributaries, and these tributaries have been so powerful that they have been able to overwhelm the mainstream. In other words, the church has picked up a lot of historical vices. This is the tragedy of the church, for it has confused the vices of the church with the virtues of Christ.”
Please do not take my critique of the church in the U.S. as an indication that I am against it.
I am a member of the church universal and within a local congregation. I am a fan of the church and have spent the past 30 years trying to understand it and encourage it to live into its true calling found in Matthew 25.
I acknowledge that there are multiple things that the church is doing well and getting right, but the things that we have not done so well, at times, loom so large as to overshadow the good we have done.
Any critique that I may offer about the church comes from not only a place of love, but also from the hope that we, the church, would consistently follow the example of the one whom we say we believe in.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 (Jan. 18). The previous articles in the series are:
King, Heschel: Fast Friends and Activists | Jack Moline
Another King Holiday: We’re Still Not Listening | Starlette Thomas
The Other Dream of Martin Luther King Jr. | Rob Sellers
We Need Constellating Light to Follow King’s Path | Ken Sehested
King’s Nonviolent Resistance Was Way of Life | Maria Power
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.