There is much handwringing in American Christianity about what feels like the church’s growing loss of status and power in our culture. Everyone knows that membership roles are shrinking among the mainline denominations, and there is quite a bit of concern—I would even say panic—among conservative Catholics and evangelicals about the increasingly aggressive behavior of the reigning secular liberal elite. Concerned contemporary Christians seem to look back at mid-20th century American Christianity as a high water mark for power and influence in American culture.
Instructive, then, to re-encounter these famous words from Martin Luther King Jr., penned originally in the margins of a newspaper article and then on various scraps of paper, coming together as what we now know as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (h/t to Diana Butler Bass for quoting portions of this letter recently on her Facebook page):
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen….
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. . . Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
In MLK’s estimation, mid 20th century American Christianity, pervasive and prominent and respectable as it was, was actually a vitiated, utterly weak, and ineffectual body of people. A strong and powerful church, on the other hand, could be a rag-tag minority on the fringe of empire. Its strength lay not in its numbers but in its conviction.
I think about this upside-down sort of power often when I consider the so-called culture wars. Near as I can tell, no party to such wars is interested in reclaiming the joy of suffering for the sake of the gospel. That’s a good way to tell, I think, that such wars have very little to do with the faith that made Christianity possible in the first place.