With the recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and the escalation of racial division and rancor in our society, I couldn’t help but think of the civil rights struggles we had in Birmingham when I was a little kid. They were a little before my time, but I have seen plenty of video of marches and fire hoses and police dogs and church bombings, and four little girls who tragically lost their lives just trying to go to Sunday School.
I was reminded also of the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. more than a half century ago. I read it first in college, as a literary classic actually, and was struck by its power and poignancy as I read it again this week.
If you’ll remember, the “letter” was written to Birmingham area clergy, who Dr. King charged with being complicit to the racism and segregationist policies throughout the Birmingham area because of their silence. As he sat in jail after his arrest for his part in a civil rights protest, he charged those pastors with going with the flow instead of standing up for what was right, however unpopular it would have been.
One line in the letter stood out in particular: “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.”
The charge was clear. Instead of having an influence on society, the church merely reflected society. Instead of being salt and light, as Jesus called us–to be different to make a difference–the church was more comfortable in the background, trying not to make waves. Instead of being a thermostat that determined the temperature, the church was a thermometer that just showed you what the temperature already was.
In many ways, Dr. King’s words still ring true these fifty-four years later, whether on the subject of civil rights, or on issues of morality and societal ethics. Too often, we in the church–that is, us–are content with just trying to mind our own business, while the world goes to hell in the proverbial handbasket all around us.
To borrow from the King James, “brethren, this ought not so to be.”
God has called us to be agents of change for the positive good of our culture. He has given us the truth (His word) and the power (His Spirit) to have an eternal influence on our surroundings. That kind of “climate control” requires that we see ourselves as a thermostat, responsible to change the climate, instead of a thermometer that merely measures it. We must choose to move out of our comfort zones to allow God to use us, just as Dr. King suggested a half century ago.
Now, this does not mean that we join the fray on social media, taking our shots at one side or the other, and adding to the vitriol of the day. It does mean, however, that we seek to impact our world with the one thing that will change it: the life-changing gospel of Jesus and the ministry of reconciliation that comes with it. He has changed us, and He can change our world. Share His love and His gospel, and your own story of the change He makes in your life. You just may be surprised at the difference He makes through you.
Let’s stand up for what’s right this week, with the compassion of Christ for our world. I’m praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.