Some Things You May Not Have Known about Martin Luther King

I’ve recently been working through Martin Luther King’s “A Testament of Hope”. Here are some quick thoughts from my notes on this holiday honoring Martin Luther King.

My overall thoughts are that MLK challenged practices in “Christian” America that were anything but Christian. I am continually scandalized at what “Christian America” could consider Christian not that long ago! The challenge for me today is humility & repentance for the perpetual challenge, facing even those of us inside the church, of setting ourselves up as superior to others and seeing God’s Kingdom as big as it truly is.

So now, some other random thoughts:

MLK says much about peace that conservative Anabaptist’s agree with & Evangelical Christian’s can learn from

For example he notes on page 10 “Always avoid violence…” and he meant exactly what he said. Also: “violence, even in self-defense, creates more problems than it solves…” [p58] MLK spent much effort convincing others that the proper Christian response was one of love and not violence.

I am impressed by the many meetings (noted in “Stride Toward Freedom”) the black leaders of Montgomery had to train in extremely practical ways (It reminds me of Mennonite bible school sessions on nonresistance!) on how to respond with love and respect in challenging situations. A question I have: If we are going to “learn war no more” (as the ancient Jewish prophet noted) wouldn’t it stand to reason that we will start “learning peace”?

Surprisingly MLK might not have been as gung-ho about Boycotts as you might expect

I always had the impression that MLK was an all out, no questions asked “boycott” supporter. But then I came across this: “I had to recognize that the boycott method could be used to unethical and unchristian ends…From then on I rarely used the word ‘boycott’…” [p428]. This was at the beginning of the events in Montgomery, which was at the beginning of MLK’s career as a civil rights leader.

MLK only had 20 minutes to prepare for “the most decisive speech of my life”

The Dec 5, 1955 speech launching the “noncooperation with the evil” of the Montgomery bus system was prepared in 5 minutes of prayer and 15 minutes of study [p433]. MLK had considerable concern about only having 20 minutes to prepare when he normally spent 15 hours preparing for a sermon. One of his main concerns was ensuring that he communicated & encouraged the Love of Jesus for all in the response. Listen to it here:

MLK had words of truth for his fellow blacks

“Many of us [Negros] live above our means, spend money on nonessentials and frivolities…” [p150] In a magazine interview MLK was asked why donations largely come from non blacks and he noted:”We have to face and live with the fact that the Negro has not developed a sense of stewardship…”

I recommend reading “Stride Toward Freedom”

This is the narrative of what MLK called the non-cooperation with the Montgomery bus discrimination. It is very accessible and a good story to be familiar with.

Point of Disagreement: Nonresistance vs Nonviolence

In “Stride Toward Freedom” [p335] MLK notes “Nonresistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and deadly complacency.” A question for those of us who use the term nonresistance might be: Is our nonresistance actually more passivity than loving the enemy? Is what I call nonresistance  actually a complacent attitude?

As I have thought about the difference between King’s “nonviolence” and conservative Anabaptist “nonresistance” I think the difference is not “action” versus “passivity”. This seems well demonstrated by the stories we tell. The “action” of Dirk Willems actively rescuing his pursuer. Or the “action” of the Mennonite pastor who heard his roof being destroyed in the night by hoodlums and who welcomed the troublemakers in for a good breakfast, thereby “loving them” into appropriate behavior.

Neither is the difference a willingness or unwillingness to be involved in nonviolent civil disobedience. Anabaptists have continually shown themselves willing to “obey God rather than men”. From the subversive act of baptizing only believers in the 1500’s to a willingness to reject portions[1] of the Pennsylvania Child Care Act in the 21st century because it is deemed to inappropriately place the State between brothers & sisters speaking truth to each other and is seen as compromising the structural integrity of an autonomous church, conservative Anabaptist’s are no stranger to “obeying God rather than men”.

The crucial difference between King’s nonviolence and conservative Anabaptist’s nonresistance seems to be who is being demanded to change. The conservative Anabaptist’s “protest for justice” includes demands only of themselves and to others only a offer and call to voluntarily join the Kingdom.

I am challenged to ensure that what I call nonresistance is living the Power of God’s Love, and that this love is something that is seen as “Overcoming Evil”. In another passage MLK makes a comment that might indicate he is not as far away from “nonresistance” as even he thinks: “History has proven…unmerited suffering is redemptive…” [p222]

[1] – I say “reject portions” very advisedly. Conservative Anabaptists agree with the goal of the Pennsylvania Child Care Act: to protect children against abuse. This cannot be over emphasized. It is only the means that causes disagreement.

Book Review: A Mennonite Thinks About Knowing

It is not every day epistemology is used as an argument for actually following Jesus but this is what Steven Brubaker does in his new book “A Mennonite Thinks About Knowing” published by Faith Builder’s Educational Programs. If Brubaker has done his job well the common perception that conservative Anabaptists are unconcerned with epistemology may be inverted in that they have a profound interest in “first things” (reality) and merely not as much interest as they might in “second things” (accurate descriptions of reality)

The book starts by defining truth using a widely accepted definition: “accurate descriptions of what is”. It then goes on to emphasize that Jesus & the New Testament not only define truth as a description of what is but also as “reality itself” using texts such as “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) The book notes that “our understanding of truth should encompass both the substance (the thing itself) and the accurate description”.

our understanding of truth should encompass both the substance (the thing itself) and the accurate description

The book also takes a look at different models of how beliefs relate to each other (balance, tension, knife-edge & road-ditch) and notes a useful model that avoids some problems of the others is that of first & second things. This model emphasizes which of the related items is “more basic, primary or fundamental than the other” instead of setting related items against each other as some of the other models tend to do. Using this model to compare “reality itself” with “descriptions of what is” the conclusion is quickly drawn that the former is a first thing and the latter a second thing. The examples of Jesus and writings about Jesus and being and doing are given to show the explanatory power of this model.

Instead of limiting our defense of the truth to logical arguments, we offer love as the preferred apologetic

This view of truth leads, by what might be an unfamiliar path, to a very characteristically Anabaptist insight: “Instead of limiting our defense of the truth to logical arguments, we offer love as the preferred apologetic.” The book also takes an interesting look at the problems that result when the first & second related truths are reversed, confused or separated.

What I’ve outlined are some of the ideas that stuck out to me from chapter 1 and the chapters that follow look at what reality is, coming to terms with reality, knowing by describing and participating and confidence in knowing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book on epistemology from a Mennonite perspective. It is very common for Christian apologetics to primarily focus on an accurate description of what is and it is interesting to hear a careful explanation why there might be reasons to look further for a more complete conception of truth. We can describe the agape of God and we can allow God to make agape a reality in our lives and clearly the reality is a “first thing”. The world could use more of this inversion I think. The book does an interesting and nuanced job of describing when Christians can agree and disagree with both modernists and postmodernists. This book makes the clear Christian case that Jesus is at the center of any worthwhile effort at finding truth. If epistemology is of interest to you I recommend you read this book.

If you want to read the eBook right now, below is the link.

Book Review: Keeping the Trust, Issues Surrounding the formation of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church

Keeping the Trust: Issues Surrounding the Formation of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church will be an eye opener on another era if you grew up in my generation in an EPMC or resulting church group. This book is of interest to me for several reasons: I grew up in an EPMC congregation which positively shaped me in many ways, I am now a pastor at a congregation that was deeply shaped by the EPMC events and the book was compiled/written by Kenneth Auker, a respected school teacher of mine.

Here are some random thoughts on things I found interesting in the book:

It is almost hard for my generation to fathom that at one time Lancaster Conference and EPMC bishops/ministry were brothers in the same conference, working on the same problems and challenges as brethren. A glimpse into this on page 214:

When an audience member took a personal jab at Isaac Sensenig during a meeting about who gets the Myerstown church building, David Thomas (Lancaster Conference) tells them “you can’t talk to my brother like that”. Later in the meeting an audience member is harsh with David Thomas and guess what? Isaac says ” you can’t talk to my brother like that”.

Some also ask how the plain suite came to be standard practice in plain Mennonite churches? p222

The plain suite, although widely worn at one time, was never a requirement at Lancaster Conference.

[My note: the conservative groups wanted to emulate those in Lancaster Conference who were in full support of the Biblical standards and so plain suites became almost ubiquitous]

And for what is surely scandalous for many conservative Mennonites of today, Lancaster Conference did not have a prohibition on growing tobacco up to 1954.

The 1954 version of the Lancaster Conf. Discipline did not forbid members from growing tobacco…but did “urge them to abstain from use, distribution, and sale of tobacco”…Isaac Sensenig quit growing tobacco in 1954 incurring considerable personal cost for conscience sake…p262

On page 262 the Lancaster Conf Bishop statement on TV makes points of concern reminiscent of Neil Postman and his later book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”.

I’d say this book is a must read for anyone interested in the history and background of conservative Mennonite churches. I was made much more aware of conference leaders like David Thomas (moderator during the period), Jay Paul Graybill and others. I saw Isaac Sensenig, David Wadel, Jesse Neunschwander, Aaron Shank from an angle I never saw before. The inline frank & personal memories of young people and others during the time is great for getting a sense of the times. (I only wish the writers names were right with the callout instead of at the end of the book)

The book gives the sense of disappointment and heartache of both Lancaster Conference and EPMC leadership that the “amiable schism” even needed to be. Sometimes this combination may not have been conveyed by EPMC leadership to the next generation because the message of concern about drift drowned it out. I think the heartache balanced with concern helps those of us who have not personally experienced the events have a much more sympathetic & understanding picture of what shaped those coming out of Lancaster Conference. I was also struck by the huge effort taken to ensure that in every way possible this would be an “amiable schism”. I’ll admit that the great efforts and passion to make it an “amiable schism” brought tears to my eyes and a little pride in my heart [you know, the good Mennonite kind] that Mennonites loved God and the Church enough to pull it off. Sometimes how you do something is as important as that you do it.

If you are interested in the conservative wing of the Mennonite church this book is a must read.

The book is printed by Eastern Mennonite Publications and available at their book store in Ephrata and I’m sure other stores. (did you just look on Amazon? come on…)