Scan the headlines and try not to be discouraged. This is our task. I struggle with that, and so I offer this remedy: draw comfort and inspiration from holy texts and profound thinkers. The lectionary epistle reading from 1 Corinthians for this coming Sunday has Paul in his favorite mood: apocalyptic. A new set of interpersonal and social relationships are now warranted “[f]or the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:31).
With the threat of nuclear war again raising its ugly head, with every tweet and news alert sending a frisson of anticipated calamity, we may feel as if the world is indeed passing away. But Paul’s hope was in the coming eschatological kingdom of Jesus, not in nuclear annihilation. His hope was in a kingdom of peace, not nuclear winter. The temptation of violence is to reduce our ethical decision making to kill or be killed. Paul’s temptation—far more laudatory—was to imagine that God's vision for humanity was being inaugurated today. Imagine what a difference that would make in our ethical understanding?
Writing almost 58 years ago in The Christian Century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on the power of nonviolence. “In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” (The Christian Century, April 13, 1960). A free version of the essay--to which Dr. King apparently made some edits-- can be viewed here, courtesy of The King Center.
He wrote that in April 1960. In a few months, the Cuban Missile Crisis would unfold, the hostilities in Vietnam would explode, and in three short years, the President of the United States would be shot down by an assassin.
But King had already faced systemic oppression, racism, violence, and injustice by 1960. It was not as if he were writing as a young naïf, awaiting the older generation’s “just you wait” condescension so he could become cynical like them. His embrace of nonviolence and his opposition to the war in Vietnam grew more strident in the years leading up to his tragic death. He wrote this by way of conclusion: “In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of our age something profoundly meaningful has begun. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born. In a real sense ours is a great time in which to be alive. Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future.”
We are invited to join the Apostle Paul and Dr. King in the distinctly Christian view of time and justice. This present world—with its sinful systems of injustice and oppression—is passing away. How might we stand in the gap as heaven and earth crash together, standing for nonviolence and justice in a world which has little patience for either? With God’s help, I am not yet discouraged about the future.