"Be Transformed by the Renewing of Your Minds": Scriptural Reasoning and the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King's College, Pennsylvania
Presented to the Canton Interfaith Association, Canton, Massachusetts, January 2004
1. Children of Abraham: Gathering Under the Text
It is wonderful to be welcomed here, today, to a gathering of the children of Abraham. To identify ourselves as Abraham's children, those who would hear God's call to "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you," (12:1) as God tells Abram, is neither easy, nor innocent, nor apolitical. To live as nomads, on a journey to a home and a nation other than that in which we find ourselves, poses a challenge that may give us pause. We can trust, however, in the memory of those who have gone before us. It is most fitting, therefore, that we gather here in remembrance of one of Abraham's children, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed that if we journeyed toward justice and brotherhood, that God would "make of you a great nation" even when he despaired of the racism, poverty, and violence that keep America so far from true greatness, and even as he lamented that the church risked becoming an "irrelevant social club."1 In him, as in Abraham, we hope that "all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (12:3)
As nomads, if we lived in other countries or other times, we would gather under tents, for protection, rest, and nourishment. Today, on our journey, the children of Abraham gather under texts. In studying scripture together, in the activity we call "scriptural reasoning," we find a space of welcome, a space of peace, which can give us strength and consolation on our long journey. I would suspect that for many of you, this is your first Children of Abraham event, or your first time doing scriptural reasoning. So, I'll just give you a few details on how it works, and then talk about its significance.
Scriptural reasoning is the shared study of scripture by members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. Sometimes, groups will begin with only members of two faith traditions, but our goal is to develop communities involving all three. It is a particularly intimate, intense form of study, because we share with each other our relations to these most cherished of texts. From the sharing of such secrets, trust and friendship begin to emerge. Members of the three communities gather together, to study a narrative or topic, such as the story of Jonah or places of meeting, as it is related in the biblical scriptures and the Qur'an. We read the scriptures together, and then discuss them. Discussions can focus on different points; in our journal, we frequently discuss the commentaries and interpretations of the scriptures that have developed through our traditions. This is helpful for understanding the significance of the scriptures in the life of the different communities, and how our practices of reading operate, as well as how they have changed over time. In reading together, while knowledge of commentaries is useful, the focus is often more directly on the relationship between the scriptural texts themselves. So, for example, in our group study, you may want to focus on the relationships you perceive between the story of Joseph and the selection from Paul's letter to the Romans. I will just say that there are at least two significant points of learning in this study. First, you teach members of other communities about your scriptures and how your community reads them. Second, though, you also hear how participants from other traditions, in light of their scriptural reading, read your scriptures. You see the scriptures through another's eyes, as if for the first time.
In the midst of our journey, gathering under the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we can mutually welcome one another in the particularity of our traditions, so as to replenish our souls in friendship and continue our journeys for God's sake. It is in welcoming others, and being welcomed as guests, that we go forth from our parents' houses, carrying our traditions into the pluralistic world of the 21st century.
There are, in my view, several particularly crucial dimensions to scriptural reasoning in today's world. First, the text creates an alternative public space in which our deepest theological convictions, and the scriptures and practices that shape these convictions, can have voice. Religious discourse has frequently been privatized, or excluded from the public sphere, because of the legitimate concern that religious discourse will become exclusivist or totalitarian, speaking out while silencing all other voices. When we read together, we engage in mutual offering of ourselves, which must include hearing others, patiently and obediently seeking God's face in the faces of those whom we encounter. Scriptural reasoning is, above all, a space of listening.
A second significant dimension of scriptural reasoning is its transformative potential for our communities. The study of scripture is an identity-shaping practice for all three of our traditions; it is a central component of who we are. Too often, however, our practices of study have led us further apart. Speaking as a Christian, our reading of scripture has often led to anti-semitic attitudes and practices, and the belief in the church as the realized Kingdom of God has perpetuated ignorance of and exclusivity towards Islam. When we read scripture together, and I hear the anguish of a Jewish friend in reading the description of Judaism in the Gospel of Mark or John, I am called to develop new readings and interpretations. In the face of one's neighbor, one is called to wrestle with the text once again. More positively, to see what other communities draw from the stories near to one's heart illuminates and enriches one's own way of reading. Reading together reminds us of the depth and mystery of the scriptures, which we may forget when we remain in isolation from others. As each community offers its unique, intense perspective, the other communities will learn something they would not otherwise learn about who God is, and who humanity is in relation to God.2 Sharing our ways of reading highlights their problems and tensions, but also thereby gives us the resources to repair these problems and rebuild relations between our communities.
Finally, scriptural reasoning is a peaceful activity. It is inherently nonviolent, as the participants mutually welcome one another in hospitality and friendship. Yet like the hospitality shared under a tent, the hospitality of the text opens onto the world, as we carry these relationships and readings forth into our world. The readings and friendships cultivated by scriptural reasoning can make our lives within our communities more responsible toward others. We participate in our communities in many ways, through which the peacefulness of shared scripture study can inform the practices of the broader world. This is really the central goal of the Children of Abraham Institute, whose international and domestic branches seek to develop bonds of peacefulness in communities where there has been tension and hostility. The initial results are promising, and we hope that this initiative will continue to grow.
2. Martin Luther King, Jr.: a Child of Abraham
I can think of no more appropriate day to talk of scriptural reasoning than today, in commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Scriptural reasoning can only hope to dimly reflect the vision and transformation his life and writings have brought about. His view of the world, including the civil rights movement, was deeply shaped and informed by his reading of scripture. No one in American history has more vividly demonstrated the power of nonviolent resistance, and the importance of developing peaceful practices, nor the belief that the church is to be a counter-culture leading toward justice and peace, rather than "a tail-light standing behind other community agencies."3 It is important to recognize that his practice of nonviolence grew from his engagement with scripture, and especially his understanding of the Apostle Paul. As Richard Lischer has written, "King overlaid his prophetic vision with imagery and verbal expressions suggestive of the Apostle Paul."4 To illustrate this, I will briefly discuss one of his best-known works, the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," which was written in response to a letter by seven ministers and a rabbi in the Birmingham area in April 1963.
On the surface, King's theology resembles modern, liberal Christianity. Having trained at Boston University he made extensive use of the theological language of his day to reach white audiences, drawing on the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. In his letter, he references both of them, as well as Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Buber. While referencing these authorities gives him credibility with his audience, the subtext of the letter itself bears the far deeper imprint of Paul's writing and life. From the opening paragraphs, when Dr. King talks about our being in an "inescapable network of mutuality," one is reminded of Paul's carrying the gospel throughout the Greco-Roman world, and also of the interconnectedness of many members, in one body of Christ (Romans 12:5).
In Birmingham, Dr. King and his followers began by trying negotiation with community leaders. However, when promises by local merchants were broken once again, they decided to act and begin a nonviolent campaign. As King writes, "So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community." Here, he evokes Romans 12 again, as "presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God," (12:1) is Paul's exhortation to the Church. He then describes the disciplined practice of nonviolence, and the challenge to accept blows without vengeance, embodies overcoming evil with good. He writes, "One day the South will recognize its real heroes.They will be the young high school and college students, young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders courageously and nonviolently sitting-in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience's sake."5
Throughout the letter, Paul's vision of community informs Dr. King's words; he extends hospitality to the clergy to whom he writes, adopting the language of their theological community, and commending the occasional steps they have taken in support of civil rights. Dialogue and nonviolence extend this hospitality to his enemies. Yet, more deeply, the letter argues for the church to challenge the status quo, "transforming" his readers "by the renewing of your minds" (12:2), by challenging them to re-envision Christ. As Dr. King makes clear, Jesus and Paul were extremists-extremists for love and justice, rather than moderates who valued order and security. To follow Christ, or emulate Paul, is to give up one's safety and protection. It is by gathering his readers under the text of Paul, and through Paul's nonviolent challenge, that he appeals to their self-understanding and seeks to develop a peaceful, just, and nonviolent community.
3. Beyond/With Dr. King
As we honor Dr. King today, we should think carefully about how we remember him. It is easy to remember the "I have a dream" speech, and even his harsh words in the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" are tempered by his hope and trust in the American ideal. The challenge, as he writes, is "to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."6 Over the course of the last three years of his life, King became angrier and less hopeful about the American project. In particular, the continued indifference of his white audiences to issues of poverty and systemic injustice, along with the brutal violence of the Vietnam War, led to both self-doubt and proclamations of judgment on the nation. As Lischer writes, in Vietnam Dr. King saw the United States "obliterating entire cultures in the name of God in pursuit of national vanity."7 America, as Dr. King said in one of his final sermons, is going to hell.8
Here, it seems, Dr. King encountered a barrier, where the hearts and minds of his audience could not be transformed. This final prophetic call still goes largely unheard today; the disparity in the perception of socioeconomic inequality between white and African-American Christians remains one of the strongest barriers to addressing this issue. The continued difficulty of white Christians not recognizing the problems of economic inequality and systemic injustice9, leads me to wonder what it would take for us to learn to hear Dr. King differently. The language of Paul and the Gospel may not illuminate these complex sociological issues.
It is my hope that this may be an issue where scriptural reasoning can provide some guidance, enabling us to listen anew. Dr. King gathered with both friends and enemies under the text of scripture, as a language in which they could share, and refashion, their identities and build community. But, perhaps, in order to hear Dr. King's message, as focused in the last years of his life on war and poverty as well as racism, we need to expand the tent of scriptural reading.
Scriptural reasoning may renew our minds in ways that would help us to hear and respond to his challenging, prophetic message. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we have distinctive ways of understanding the relationship between love, community, law, and justice. In particular, given the stronger emphasis on law and justice in Judaism and Islam, the shared study of scriptures might help the Christian community to more fully understand what our tradition calls us to do, in terms of giving bread and forgiving debts.
After all, Jesus' message of forgiveness was a calling for the jubilee year, in which slaves were to be freed and debts forgiven.10 The gospels do not make forgiveness something that allows injustice and violence to continue unimpeded. Reading together, may shed new light on the socioeconomic dimensions of the gospel that so often recede from view in American Christianity. Scriptural reasoning may help us to recognize that real reconciliation, between brothers and sisters who have injured, betrayed, and murdered one another, is a costly, complex process that cannot be covered over with words of repentance.11
This is only one issue for which scriptural reasoning could have pragmatic value. Above and beyond that, the very practice of reading together-sharing time, cultivating friendship and understanding-is intrinsically worthwhile. It is a way to be peaceful, to live before God, and to share fellowship with one another, while fostering understanding. It not only discloses what is common to these three traditions, but in the reading and reflection we glimpse the uniqueness of the participants, the abundance of creation, and the possibility of a world truly blessed by Abraham's children.
1 Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," recorded by Don Mabry, http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?op=viewarticle&artid=40, accessed Spring 2003, p. 9.
2 Here, I paraphrase The Tent of Meeting, by Peter Ochs, David Ford, Daniel Hardy and Basit Koshul, forthcoming.
3 King, "Letter," p. 9.
4 Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Word that Moved America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 184.
5 "Letter," p. 11.
6 Ibid., p. 6.
7 Lischer, The Preacher King, 181.
8 Ibid., p. 182.
9 See Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
10 See, for instance, John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 64-77.
there is no more relevant scriptural narrative than that of Joseph, which was
one of the central texts for group study at the scriptural reasoning meeting in
Canton. Also, hauntingly, at the National
Civil Rights Museum
in Memphis, Tennessee,
at the motel where Dr. King was assassinated, Dr. Ralph Abernathy's epitaph for
King is drawn from Joseph's brothers: "Here comes this dreamer. Come now,
let us kill him.and we shall see what will become of his dreams." (Gen.