Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
January 14, 2024, Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday
Scripture: Galatians 5:13–15
As we observe the MLK Holiday, we recognize King as an exceptional historical figure who made a lasting contribution to the work of justice and democracy. But I want to remind you that King was not a lone figure in the Black freedom struggle, nor was he exceptional because his giftedness was so unique that he was otherwise an exception to the rule of how Black people were viewed. King was birthed from a people who already knew they were nothing like the stereotypes and propaganda used to demean and oppress them. The Black people who heard his message embraced the light of freedom from God and were ready to live free, equal, and fully. That light of freedom is the spark and presence of God within, the same spark and presence that was in Jesus, that same spark and presence in those first followers, the same spark and presence in the countless nameless, faceless black people who heard the summons of Dr. King, the same spark and presence that kindled their imagination and sustained them in hope.
[Read Galatians 5:13–15]
Last week, a colleague of mine posted on social media that there wasn’t an MLK event scheduled in his community and that he was glad about it. And even if one was planned, he said he wouldn’t go anyway. He went on to say that he was tired of the “fake speeches. Fake statements. Fake marches. Fake prayer breakfasts. Fake accolades. Fake activists. Fake pastors. Fake leaders . . . who will [the next day] go back to being the monsters that Dr. King fought against.” I don’t mind telling you that I was disappointed by my colleague’s perspective and thought he might have been a little too hard on genuine efforts to observe the King holiday. But the more I followed my discomfort and disturbance, the more I began to see and understand the hurt, pain, and disappointment that lay behind those words. It is much easier and less disruptive to our comfort, privilege, and the status quo to admire the messenger even as we ignore or refuse to heed the message. The current backlash against Black history, Black equality, and Black dignity and the persistence of disparate treatment of Black people, indigenous people, and immigrants in the justice system, economic system, and the provision of human needs are stark reminders that many do pay only lip service to King’s dream of freedom, justice, and dignity for all. This world, especially free societies and free people, often with the support, indifference, or acquiescence of the church, continues to bite, devour, dominate, and destroy the vulnerable.
And so my friend may not be that much out of step with the Apostle Paul, who warned the church in Galatia what happens when people embrace a false gospel that encourages them to misuse and abuse their God-given spiritual and human freedom. As Paul wrote in his letter, Jesus rescued humanity from this present evil age, from bondage to enmity, hatred, and violence that distorts, demeans, and destroys God’s good creation. So, we are free from the snare of the ugliness and destructiveness of a world that rejects God’s reign. Jesus ushered in a gospel of freedom amid a destructive theology of supremacy.
The occasion that led the Apostle Paul to write his letter to the Galatian Christians was the division and social anxiety arising out of difference. Some Jewish Christians were demanding that Gentile Christians become like them. They were demanding that Gentiles take on the cultural and religious markers of Judaism to be included in the church, such as circumcision and dietary restrictions. Because of their social anxiety about change and difference and the presence of others culturally and socially unlike themselves, they minimized the critical and most significant thing they had in common: being followers of the way of Jesus. And as always happens when a group of people considers themselves first, better, or superior, if there is not outright rejection or separation, the price demanded for inclusion is to require that others deny who they are to become like those who hold power to accept or reject.
Church folk inadvertently, some intentionally, espoused a theology of supremacy, enlisting God in a project of domination, discrimination, and segregation based upon difference, where God is nothing more than a guarantor of the status quo of division, inequality, and violence to the advantage of those on top. But that theology of supremacy is subversive and insidious. Church folks could not even see it working within them. Still, anytime we dominate and oppress others who are not like us, anytime we look the other way when others are devoured and destroyed by more powerful people, anytime we rest comfortably amid the injustice around us, anytime we throw our hands up in resignation and hopelessness that change is impossible, we forget that God called us to freedom. Motivated by the love of our neighbor, we can know justice.
And so Paul writes to remind the church that the gospel they received, the good news that God raised Jesus Christ and freed humanity from the present evil age with all of its violence, oppression, hostility, and bondage, is the only gospel there is. Any other message that leads to the re-creation and perpetuation of the world’s way of legalism, persecution, and faithlessness runs the risk of moving us backward. God’s work in Jesus means that we are all children of God through faith. And I know you remember Paul’s memorable description of the implication of Jesus: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
We are free. We were called for freedom. God has given us the light of freedom that shows us the way forward. And some obligations are incumbent on those who have been made free: serve one another through love. All of our obligations can be met; the law of God down through history is fulfilled in one commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To do anything less, to insist upon cultural, religious, racial, or any other kind of superiority, will lead to violence and oppression. If we are not moved to love others as we love ourselves, we will bite, devour, and consume our neighbor rather than serve them.
So, if the King holiday is to be more than symbolic and performative, easily forgotten and dismissed as we turn our attention to Valentine’s Day, we must lean into the light of freedom. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King talked about being compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his hometown, about being an extremist for love and justice, and about the urge for freedom to which all oppressed people will inevitably respond. This is why King’s life, words, and dream about justice and freedom for every person all flowed from his unwavering emphasis on love and nonviolence. He knew how Americans used their freedom to bite, devour, dominate, and destroy Black bodies. He knew that our country was enthralled by a destructive theology of supremacy that relegated its Black citizens to inferior status in every area of life. King preached to a people who had often wondered if God ordained the degraded position of Black people. To even agitate for equity, dignity, and citizenship could mean the loss of jobs, farms, homes, government benefits, or even life or attacks on their homes or families. Shaped so entirely by a theology of supremacy, white citizens, preachers, and politicians fought to maintain the status quo of white control and Black disenfranchisement because they largely believed it to be so. To them all, to us all, King preached and lived a gospel of freedom.
This gospel of freedom means that the oppressed and oppressors alike have been called to live free from the old ways, the old divisions, the old hates, and the old enslavement. The light of freedom is a gift both to the enslaved and their captors, the rich as well as the poor, from the margins to the center, all God’s children. All are rescued from a system and society organized around one group dominating and oppressing another group, an existence that demeaned and diminished all God’s children.
And yet, every day, we are tempted and influenced by a theology of supremacy. We have seen a reemergence and re-articulation of divine justification for poverty, racism, xenophobia, genocide, and oppression. Whether it is the concerted effort to deny and ignore the history of Black people in the United States, or new emphasis on discredited theories about Black people having lower IQs than white, or the persistence of destructive belief in Black inferiority, criminality, and pathology, a destructive theology of supremacy seeks to drown out the liberating gospel of freedom. If we want this King holiday to be more than a day of admiration of a man we believe to be exceptional, more than just a day high on rhetoric and symbolism, we must use God’s gift of freedom to love our neighbor as ourselves. Embrace the light of freedom and transform the world with love and faith in action. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. We must let freedom ring, not just for the few, for the privileged, but in King’s own words:
“Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”