The Dream of Social Holiness on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a reverend and civil rights leader who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech to an audience of over 250,000 at Washington on August 28, 1963. Many know the famous lines but haven’t heard the speech, so we’ve included it here for you.

Most people know by now that John Wesley wrote a letter of encouragement to the 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce in which he decried the co-existence of slavery with religion, diagnosing it a villainous “scandal”. One can only imagine what Wesley’s message and ministry might have looked like during the American civil rights era, when some Christians dared conceive of a kingdom of heaven where, against the force of the Sermon on the Mount, and against the Holy Spirit’s leading in the early church, table fellowship was divided based on color.

One part of Dr. King’s address proves especially insightful. Commenting on the presence of whites in the crowd he claims, “Their destiny is caught up with our destiny; their freedom is inextricably bound with our freedom.” How could this be? Were not the whites free all along?

What Dr. King was getting at is that oppression of the other is oppression of the self. This is both the paradox of sin and of salvation: fulfilling the lust of the flesh will turn oneself inward and ultimately bring about the unexpected results of disillusionment, isolation, and unbearable pain (See C. S. Lewis’s, The Great Divorce). The gospel however offers us the opportunity to gain life by losing it. By engaging in the self-giving love of neighbor, a person becomes truly and wholly human.

While some indict the methodist revivals for not producing the sustained and systemized theological thought of other movements, the fundamentally Wesleyan emphasis on the reality of sanctification proved to be fertile ground for spiritual awakenings. By preaching a message that God not only has a privileged attitude toward us, but actually makes us holy, the impassioned preachers of the 18th and 19th centuries awakened many to the incumbency of social holiness (read about it here). If God does not just view us as holy from a distance, but actually makes us holy, then surely we cannot love our neighbor from a distance either.

This was in fact the claim of God for Israel in the law, in the Psalms, and in the prophets. John Wesley himself said that Christianity is “essentially a social religion, and. . . to turn it into a solitary religion indeed is to destroy it.” (Sermon on the Mount, IV) This means that solitary, or private holiness, simply does not exist. Every work of the flesh is relational, as is every fruit of the Spirit.

Take, for example, the Seven Deadly Sins: in lust we objectify a person made in the image of God and strip them of their personhood; in gluttony we eat beyond our satisfaction to the neglect of those who hunger; in greed we abuse resources given us for the relief of the poor; in sloth we set our own rest above the peace of others; in wrath we destroy the opportunity for a person’s renewal; in envy we dehumanize others by reducing them to their traits and belongings; in pride we exalt ourselves which can only be done at the expense of the other.

We cannot conceive of justice or holiness that isn’t inherently social. This was the stipulation of Yahweh under the old covenant, the proclamation of Jesus’s kingdom in the New Testament, the inspired insight given to John Wesley as he stood in solidarity with Wilberforce in 1791, and finally, the remarkable claim made by Dr. King in 1963. The God who justifies us from his judgment seat comes near by his Spirit and sanctifies us as well. Therefore we cannot love our neighbor from afar.

If the scandal used to be that slavery and religion could co-exist, today it is that holiness could be conceived of by some as something other than social. Today we remember those prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. who called God’s people to be holy as he is holy, and today we press on in full faith that God will do it (1 Thess 5:24).

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Andrew is an acquisitions editor for Seedbed books and director of online resources for Seedbed. When not editing he enjoys design, photography, and gardening. He lives with his family in Tennessee.

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