Imagine a world where war and other horrors have been raging for centuries across the land.
Already nearly everyone has been afflicted with suffering and disease. And even for those few who are untouched by the battles between the land’s rich ruling despots and poverty-stricken peasants, envy, violence and racism dominate.
In the Killing Fields outside the main city of the rich rulers, death is the only reigning king. Bodies are littered in all the crags and holes torn in the earth by near-magical battle forces. Others lay dying, begging for food, water and shelter, and protection from further attacks.
You and others know of a Secret Power that is their greatest hope.
The mightiest Wizard in all the land has promised to work through you. Why? He is appalled at men’s inner wickedness that has given rise to these horrors. That is why this most powerful of all wizards has gifted you and others with this task: go to the Killing Fields, and to the cities, find the hurting and the dead, and heal them.
This power is of a different and mystical kind. It will work most effectively on not the wounded, but the dead. If applied to the dead bodies, whom some strange twist of “destiny” has favored, it will awaken them. They will come back to life. They may love, laugh and live again. They will be eternally grateful to the Wizard whose gift has brought them to life and saved them from death. Ultimately they will live forever, free of the consequences of evil and suffering.
So you stride onto the Killing Fields. But rather than coming first to the dead bodies, you kneel beside those who are wounded and begging for help. Why? Despite the secret power to raise the dead, the wounded are crying louder. Their needs seem worse. And after all, the secret power will only work on some of the dead bodies anyway; you don’t know which ones.
With elixirs, food, water and blankets, you do your best to make the wounded comfortable. Though many of them die despite your efforts, those who do get better go on to be grateful for your help, and maybe even help others. But someday they will die anyway and never have a chance at new life. Meanwhile in the Killing Fields, the slaughtered dead stay dead forever. You never even tried to let the Wizard’s secret power of regeneration work through your deeds.
And with that, this fantasy metaphor is complete, and perhaps by now, thoroughly transparent.
Wounded flesh, hearts of stone
This past Monday, people across America gathered in streets, churches and more to pay tribute to the late civil rights and religious leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a local journalist, I cover these events every year, and am re-led to consider King’s influence on people’s beliefs.
On that morning, a speaker at one such regional event commented on what he said was King’s commitment to preach the Gospel above all else. “Before I was a civil-rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel,” King said later in his life, according to the speaker. “This was my first calling, and it remains my greatest commitment.”
That profession was also evident in an earlier letter King wrote to the girl he liked, Coretta Scott (whom he later married). He told her he had finished reading the 1888 American “utopia” novel by Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, which apparently Scott told him about.
“I welcomed the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas,” King wrote.1 He went on to describe his own opposition to overt Marxism and Communism, yet saw benefits in socialism — he believed capitalism began with noble intentions, but had “outlived its usefulness.” King praised many of Bellamy’s points, with caveats — including what he saw as Bellamy’s failure to temper his idealism with realism, in this case, a Biblical truth:
Bellamy with his over optimism fails to see that man is a sinner, and that he is give [sic] better and economic social conditions he will still be a sinner until he submits his life to the Grace of God. Ultimately our problem is [a?] 2 theological one. Man has revolted against God, and through his humanistic endeavors he has sought to solve his problem by himself only to find that he ha3 has ended up in disillusionment.
Yes, “doctrine-cop” types such as me can complain about some of this, such as that King didn’t mention that God’s grace is not just something you submit to, but receive through faith, all as gifts from God Himself because of the sacrifice of His Son for His people. But altogether, praise the Lord, King got it right!
Still I wonder why, a few paragraphs later, he proceeded to write:
Let us continue to hope, work and pray that in the future we will live to see a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color. This is the gospel that I will preach to the world.
Regardless of how he started out, was his message drawn away from the Gospel of Grace to a “gospel” of societal prosperity, racial brotherhood and “better distribution of wealth” — hoping to heal sins’ wounds, but in effect ignoring the deadness of humans’ hearts?
And, though King may have believed in Christ’s true Gospel, the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), what is the legacy of most civil-rights successors?
Today, are civil-rights activists, more socially “liberal” Christians, poverty workers, politicians, stepping over the dead bodies, and urging Christians to be just as “progressive” as they are by downplaying humans’ spiritual death and instead focusing on the surface wounds of sin?
No one would ever deny the need to promote understanding between people groups, and combat segregation laws and other evils resulting from dead human hearts. Yet for Christians, we have enough workers to treat the suffering and the dead. It’s said that former generations have too often stepped over the wounded. Let us not now overcorrect and ignore the dead.
(Next week in part 2: true help for Haiti, and the need to reject society-prosperity “gospels.”)
- The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, edited by Claybourne Carson (University of California Press, 2007), pages 123-126. I looked this up myself to confirm the original speaker’s quote; these pages of the book can be viewed online. ↩
- These brackets are in the original. ↩
- Also printed in the original. ↩