Disturber of the Peace

Our Lord Jesus preached peace, but “not as the world gives.” Peaceful Jesus was from the first a disturber of the status quo. Alas, too often Jesus’ followers have been on the side of peace at any cost, peace as the world gives in opposition to Jesus.
A remarkable moment in church history occurred right here in Alabama in the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As you know, Dr. King was discovered here in Alabama while he was a Baptist pastor in Montgomery where the church called him to the ministry of Disturber of the Peace, the “peace” wrought by people like George Wallace and Bull Connor.
I’ve got a copy of, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which Martin Luther King, Jr. justifies why he has organized marches and sit-ins that “disturbed the peace.”

Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation . . . Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

King explains that while he opposes violent tension, he believes there is “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension… the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of King’s protests was “to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”[1] The liberal recipients of King’s letter (one of whom was our bishop) hoped that Birmingham would desegregate without a fight. King eloquently told them they were wrong.[2]

The peace that King disturbed was no peace, but instead Birmingham’s police state, constructed by powerful people in order to oppress and terrorize black citizens. No transformation without disruption.
In my experience, churches always hope that it is possible to be faithful to the mandates of Jesus Christ without the pain of disruption and dislocation. We pastors tend to be reconcilers and peacemakers who are uncomfortable with disruptions.
This day let’s remember that Jesus Christ was unable to work our redemption without a disruption of the status quo that eventually led to his crucifixion in a vain attempt to silence him.
Let’s remember, as we go about our attempts to be faithful to Jesus, that few good works meet no resistance, and few transformations occur without disruption. As I’ve studied pastors who transform congregations I’ve noted that these pastors expect there to be resistance and this disruption and they learn to creatively use this dislocation as leverage in their leadership of change.
It’s good to be reminded, by recalling our history, that change is never painless, particularly if we are changing something that is sinful. One of the great blessings of being in the North Alabama Conference is that a few of our elders engaged in social activism and various forms of civil disobedience back in the Sixties and they are still around to tell us about it. Whenever I encounter institutional resistance, whether it be in our church at large or in an individual congregation, I recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was told to ease up on Alabama. In his sermon, “Our God is Marching On,” King vowed, “No, we will not allow Alabama to return to normal.”
Of course for us Christians, the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo is Jesus Christ. Since Jesus appeared among us, we’ve never been able to “return to normal.” And one of the ways Jesus continues to disrupt us in order to save us is through faithful disrupters like one-time-Alabama- pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Will Willimon

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