For everything there is a time. A time for building up, and a time for tearing down. On Sunday next some will hear a reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about how all the many skills and talents people have should be used for building up the community. He meant the community of the nascent church, but it’s good advice for how we should conduct ourselves in every place. On the other hand, they will also hear a reading from Luke in which Jesus deliberately tore things down with such vigor that his life long friends and neighbors were said to have wanted to kill him. Which is it to be? Maybe both.
Paul was advising a new community that had no tradition on which to build. Their former religious beliefs, if any, had been left behind. The surrounding society didn’t have a comfortable way to accommodate their new religion and its ways of living. It was new construction. But Jesus was speaking to a community grounded in tradition, a tiny hilltop village that had known him from infancy to adulthood. He had to deconstruct age old traditions that determined the meaning of scripture, prophecy, ways of life, and personal identity in order to build something new on the underlying foundation. Retaining what could be used, the rest had to go, and it tore at how the people of Nazareth understood society and their place in it.
Sometimes old ways of believing and living are unable to bear the load of new ways that are necessary for the community to survive and prosper. Painful as it may be, they have to go.
These readings from Ephesians and Luke are particularly timely as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. this week. In his time there were people determined to let nothing change about the roles white society had established for blacks, and others. There were well meaning folks who wanted something better, building on what was already there, when the time was right, which is wasn’t yet, so be patient. They were the clean up, paint up types who wanted to make things look better without actually changing anything. There were others so fed up they wanted to demolish everything, but had no plan for what would come next. And then there was King.
Starting from the center, he was a cautious radical who examined all that he could, evaluated consequences, and then acted boldly, going for what builders might call a gut rehab. Strip away everything that couldn’t bear the burden of a more just and equitable society, and rebuild with new construction. Retaining what of the old would add to building up a renewed community, he antagonized traditionalist who wanted nothing changed, demolishers who wanted it all torn down, and well meaning fixer uppers happy with just a new coat of paint.
We honor his memory now because he chose the wiser path, one that spurred progress, yet continued to shine into the dark places we thought hidden from view. These last few years have made us realize how well hidden they were, and how ugly they are when allowed to emerge with new energy. Traditionalists want to return to a way of life no longer in existence, which they hope to do by demolishing what King worked hard to build. Projected in terms of traditional American family values, it’s voiced in language making clear their desire to retain white (male) hegemony in an otherwise multicultural, multiethnic society. King’s dream is just fine as long as blacks and others are willing to enter into white society without disturbing it too much. The new paint crew is OK with that.
They’re in the ascendency at the moment, inspired by Trump’s surprise election to the presidency. Socially conservative, they’ve found unlikely allies in a few left wing radicals still fulminating with rage, still clueless about building a better community, but willing to help demolish. What seems to be missing are centrists who wanted to do the right thing but were tentative about how much and how soon.
According to a fascinating Pew report from October 29, 2017, in 1994 Republican and Democratic voters were not far from each other on the important issues of the day, neither overly liberal nor overly conservative, they debated each other from the center. That continued in a more of less stable way until the 2014 election when Democrats became significantly more liberal, and Republicans more conservative, but on what? It’s unclear, and we all have our convicted guesses. What is clear is that by 2017, whatever the center was, it isn’t any longer.
King’s letter written from jail to the clergy of Birmingham chastised them for hanging in the center so long that they ended up standing for nothing. It was something he had to come to terms with in his own life, so he knew whereof he spoke. He demanded that they come down on the side of justice, not as liberals or conservatives, but as community leaders confronting oppression and racial injustice that undermined the integrity of community itself. The task was to demolish oppression and racial injustice, not sometime, but now, replacing them with new standards and values in which oppression was not tolerated and justice could be defined only in terms of equality at every level.
They were strong words then, and they’re strong words now. The nation listened with half an ear then, and not much more since. We can do better. Celebrating King without responding to the wisdom of his counsel is like ignoring Paul’s advice on how to build community, and joining the crowd threatening to toss Jesus off the cliff. Think about it.