It’s Easier to Build a Religion than to Build a Better World.

by Herb Montgomery | April 20, 2018

Picture of Cathedral

Photo by Alexander Watts on Unsplash


“Yet, it is far easier for those with power and privilege to merely worship Jesus, to preach a gospel about Jesus, and build a religion around Jesus, than it is for them to hear the gospel to the marginalized and pushed down that Jesus taught and build a better world now.” 


“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46)

On April 4, many people around the world observed the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One poem that I return to each year on both April 4 and January 21 (MLK Day) is Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.’s poem “A dead man’s dream.” It’s quoted in full by Vincent Harding in Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero:

“A dead man’s dream”

by Carl Wendell Hines Jr.

“Now that he is safely dead, 
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images 
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments 
Than to build a better world.
So now that he is safely dead, 
We, with eased consciences will 
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he 
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.”

(Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., “Now That He Is Safely Dead,” in Drum Major for a Dream, p. 23.; quoted by Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero , rev. ed., Kindle Edition Locations 2430-2431)

Why do we turn those who threatened their social order into revered or even worshipped heroes after they’ve died? Why do so many of us praise these controversial figures from our history rather than following them? Today those in power ignore King’s radicalness, especially from 1965 to 1968, and his ideas during those years are still not taught to new generations. Yet King is lifted up by those in power as an American hero. If the King of 1968 were still alive today, he would be one of the loudest critiques of America’s capitalism, continued racism, and militarism (both domestic and foreign). The line in Hines’ poem that jumps out at me each time I read it is “it is easier to build monuments than to build a better world.”

The pattern of turning into heroes those who once spoke unpopular truth to power is part of the Jesus story as well. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s version of the story, those in power who were threatened by Jesus’ gospel to the poor and marginalized, built monuments to the prophets of old even though their actions repeated the very history that killed the prophets who critiqued those in power within their own society to an early death.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs.” (Luke 11:47-48)

In this week’s featured text above, the question is asked, “Why do you call me Lord (worship or revere me) and not do what I say?” This could be said about those who have revered the Hebrew prophets, Dr. King, Jesus, and many more in history, but not followed their teaching.

Consider just three areas of Dr. King’s teachings that are not ignored but profoundly contradicted by those in power today who publicly revere his memory.

King’s Anti Capitalism

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” (Speech to the Negro American Labor Council, 1961)

“We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.” (Report to SCLC staff, May 1967)

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” (Speech to SCLC Board, March 30, 1967)

When King was saying these things he wasn’t labelled as an American hero to be celebrated with an American federal holiday. King was labelled as the greatest threat to America. One of many reasons being King’s critique of the U.S. economic order that makes a few in our society inconceivably wealthy while forcing others into poverty. The head of the F.BI.’s domestic intelligence division, J. Edgar Hoover, labelled King “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” (Aug. 30, 1963, post-speech memo: “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.”)

King’s Anti Militarism

Again In the book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, Vincent Harding writes about how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day originally included the pomp of the very military King decried and was instituted by the very government whose global policies he denounced. 

“Now that King seems safely dead, now that he has been properly installed in the national pantheon—to the accompaniment of military bands, with the U.S. Marine Corps chorus singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and the cadenced marching of the armed forces color guards— we think we know the man’s impact and influence. Didn’t President Reagan sign a bill authorizing a national holiday honoring this teacher of nonviolence (shortly after the president had sent the comrades of the singers and musicians to carry out an armed attack on Grenada, one of the smallest countries in the world)? And didn’t Vice-President Bush go to Atlanta to help inaugurate the King national holiday in January 1986 (presumably taking time off from his general oversight of the murderous Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary forces who were being brutally manipulated in this government’s cynical attempt to destroy what was one of the most hopeful revolutions for the poor in the Americas)? [Harding, Vincent. Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, rev. ed. (Kindle Edition Locations 1271-1278).

King’s Anti-Racism

The actions of the current US administration have given rise to hate speech and the expression of a myriad of violent phobias. Dog whistles have caused those like David Duke to see in the administration a champion for making America White again, and those in the administration have repeated and publicly condemned those who walk in the path of King’s legacy (Colin Kaepernick is just one example) and protest modern expressions of the very same injustices King protested. 

Yet on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination, both the American President and the Vice President tweeted:

“Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans. #MLK50 Proclamation: 45.wh.gov/DrKing50th” —President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2018

“50 years ago today, Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short – but that did not stop his immortal words, his courageous example and his faith from inspiring generations of Americans. Today we honor the man and the Dream. #MLK50” — Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) April 4, 2018

(An article worth reading on this is Dave Zirin’s article, “Donald Trump and Mike Pence Have No Business Speaking About Martin Luther King Jr.”)

In this context, read again Jesus’ words in Matthew:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31)

Jesus

This brings me to another thought this year that weighs heavily on me: We have done a very similar thing to the historical Jesus that we have done with Dr. King. Today we could, in Hines’ fashion, say about Jesus and the religion that has been created around him, “It is easier to build a world religion than to build a better world.”

Recently I sat in my local town hall and listened to a panel of young people including my daughter representing our local March For Our Lives campaign. These young people posed questions to those who are currently running for political election in our May 8 primary. 

One of the candidates had me on the floor. In a pious yet uninformed spirit, this candidate said that the problem in our societies is not that we need more laws but that we need a “return to God.” They said they were a “Christian” and that they felt the way to solve’ our social challenges was for “our society to return to the path” of Jesus—by implication the way or teachings of Jesus.

While I agree that Jesus’ teachings of liberation from systemic oppression, and survival, resistance, reparation, and transformation can still speak to society’s challenges, I was concerned about the contradiction between the candidate’s statement and everything else they stated. If I had to choose between someone who religiously worshiped Jesus as they passed through this world on their way to “heaven” and a secular candidate, atheist or agnostic like Kurt Vonnegut, for example, who was genuinely aligned with Jesus’ actual ethics and teachings and wrestling with how to apply them to our life with the marginalized and oppressed, I’d have to pick the latter. There are many sectors of the Christian religion that deeply contradict Jesus’ actual teachings. Consider just the following passages from the early church.

Anti Capitalism

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33)

“The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.” (Acts 11:29, emphasis added)

“They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:45, emphasis added)

“And put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:35, emphasis added)

“That there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales.” (Acts 4:34)

Nonviolence, Mutual Aid and Enemy Love

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even gentiles do that?” (Matthew 5:38-48)

Solidarity with the Societally Marginalized

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30)

 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Conclusion

Some who called Jesus “Lord” did also embrace his teachings. And there are some today who embrace him, too. The story of Zacchaeus represents them:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’” (Luke 19:8)

Yet, it is far easier for those with power and privilege to merely worship Jesus, to preach a gospel about Jesus, and build a religion around Jesus, than it is for them to hear the gospel to the marginalized and pushed down that Jesus taught and build a better world now.

Both King and Jesus were radicals and both have been moderated or muted since their deaths.

Both leave us with the call to engage, apply, and live out their teachings—to “follow” them—not simply build monuments to them.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

HeartGroups Application 

1. Which teachings of Jesus’ do you find challenging, if any?

2. Which teachings of Jesus do you think challenge the pursut of justice today, and which teachings do you see as supporting our justice work today?

3. Discuss your answers with your HeartGroup this upcoming week. How can your group more deeply engage the teachings found in the Jesus story as we make our world a safer, just, more compassionate world for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Wherever you are, keep living in love, in resistance, survival, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

Another world is possible.

I’ll see you next week.


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