Friday, April 6, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Missional Retrospective on Martin Luther King Jr.

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The General Board of Global Ministries, now located in Atlanta, Georgia, has decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) as part of its biennial board meeting in April 2018. Global Ministries’ raison d'être in Atlanta is to make living connections and missional friendships with institutions, organizations and movements for mutual collaboration and ministry. Being relocated to Atlanta, the birth place of Rev. Dr. King, Global Ministries’ choice of remembrance testifies to The United Methodist Church about Global Ministries’ commitment for mission and witness in response to the biblical call to reconciliation, justice, and transformation of the world. Global Ministries also has a great interest in cross-cultural appraisal of Rev. Dr. King’s mission. This step is an encouragement to missiology to interpret Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s multi-faceted life and work for today’s mission and ministry.

I was honored to be part of the planning committee for the opening worship that will be held on April 12, 2018, in which Bishop Gregory V. Palmer will be the preacher. The liturgy we have organized reflects several themes of missional significance, including Rev. Dr. King’s legacy; his messages of desegregation, racial justice, and reconciliation; repentance of the structural evils of racism (both historical and present to this day); solidarity with the victims of institutional and other forms of racism; the dignity of every person; and hope for a better future. Our effort was to weave these themes into the worship service, with the church’s mission today in mind.

Missional Re-envisioning of Atlanta’s legacy
Atlanta played a significant role in the history of the civil rights struggle, and while for some, it was the “the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement,” others referred to it as “the city too busy to hate.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change stands today as a living testimony to ongoing work and mission in human rights and human dignity. It is unique that some significant historical black educational movements emerged in Atlanta , including several of the city’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities—Atlanta University, Spelman, Morris Brown, Morehouse, and Clark Colleges, and the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), in which consortium the famous Gammon Theological Seminary also participates—all of which created an unparalleled space for activism in civil rights and equality.

Perhaps it is important to note that following the civil rights struggle, Atlanta wished to be a role model city where the right to pluralism and the practice of religion and religious freedom are acknowledged; Atlanta is now notable for a dynamic interfaith movement and has become a place that offers spaces for followers of various world religious traditions. Initiatives in Tibetan Buddhism at the Emory University and The Swaminarayan Mandir, one of the largest Hindu Temples in the US that is situated in the suburbs of Atlanta, are two examples.

Atlanta also has its own share of continuing pains and agonizing racial struggles such as on segregation policies in housing, lack of infrastructure in predominantly black communities and issues of environmental racism. So Atlanta is not perfect, but darkness cannot overcome Atlanta’s light. Atlanta’s legacy in human rights may inspire other cities as well to become cities of peace and harmony. It also calls on churches to take the peace movement seriously in contemporary times accompanied by new challenges.


How did Rev. Dr. King cross cultures?
Rev. Dr. King’s mission laid the foundations for a vibrant global movement in developing human responsibilities, civil and human rights, and peace. His teachings and ministry have influenced work in minority rights, social equality, ethnic reconciliation, and the construction of a theology of peace on the part of secular thinkers, activists, and Christian practitioners worldwide. His cross-cultural influence is great and inspires us even more in today’s globalized world.

King supported the independent struggles of African nations to free themselves from colonialism and was a proponent of Pan Africanism. Prof. Jeremy Levitt, a scholar of International Law in the Florida A&M University College of Law, asserted that King had strong connections in Africa, among them Kwame Nkrumah, first prime minister and president of Ghana, Nnadami Azikwe, first president of Nigeria, Tom Mboya, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Kenya, and Oliver Tambo, leader of South Africa’s African National Congress. King’s famous phrase, “Certainly injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” referred to Africa’s struggle against colonial rule, because his position was that so long as problems exist in Africa or Asia or in any region of the United States, we must take them seriously. Revered by African leaders for his work in the Civil Rights Movements, King and his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, responded to a personal invitation from Ghana’s new Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to attend the nations’ independence celebrations in 1957.

I read about Rev. Dr. King and his movement in my own language (Sinhalese) while I was in high school in Sri Lanka. I was missiologically fascinated by his emphasis on social equality, God’s image in every human being, social justice, the rights of all people, and non-violent social change. As a theologian and pastor, Rev. Dr. King played a significant role in my own biblical hermeneutics and missional praxis. Later, I realized that reading about Rev. Dr. King’s life and mission has had a strong influence on many Asians who stand for the rights of minorities, reconciliation and forgiveness, restorative justice in the contexts of civil and ethnic wars, and justice to the poor and marginalized.

The way in which Rev. Dr. King applied Mahatma Gandhi’s Ahimsa (Non-Violence) principle and his relationship with legendary Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, are solid inspirational proofs of his cross-cultural collaborations during times of evil, crisis, and conflict in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh and King both were part of the movement against the war in Vietnam.

Rev. Dr. King’s influence on Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar of India, popularly known as Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was a jurist, social reformer, and politician, must be acknowledged, although it is little known. He was known as the Father of the Indian Constitution and worked tirelessly to eradicate social evils such as untouchability, caste domination, and the caste system itself. Ambedkar was a Dalit himself, renounced Hinduism, and became a Buddhist. Recognizing the connection between Ambedkar and King, in 2017 the Karnataka government in India invited Martin Luther King III to mark the 126th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s birth. On that occasion, King III said that he believed Ambedkar and King were “…intellectually, philosophically, morally and spiritually cut from the same cloth.” He said as well, “They were brother revolutionaries whose minds and hearts were driven by justice and compassion.”

I have observed that the missional praxis of Dalit theologians reflects a great interest in Rev. Dr. King’s theological and political thoughts. Dalit theologians are attracted to King’s application of social egalitarianism and social liberation and engage in comparative theologizing between Black theologies and Dalit theologies. The social gospel dimension of King’s thought also has been of inspirational and significant interest to Dalit Christians.


Now is the Time!
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a costly prophetic mission. Missiological appraisal of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death raises several disturbing and challenging questions and calls us today to go beyond a simple memorial. This is where our ecclesial, missional, and pastoral comfort zones are being challenged and our missional calling refreshed.

1. Christian communities are called to evaluate our ministry and mission in racial justice and reconciliation critically. What is our response?

2. The Church is called to repent, apologize, change our lifestyles, and partake in God’s restorative justice. Does our mission engage in these efforts today?

3. How is the church’s mission called to take peace and reconciliation as a missional challenge and praxis given today’s context?

4. How should we take human responsibilities and human rights discourses into pastoral and missional praxis, both as a global church and as local churches? How can we join with the wider social and interfaith movements that work with similar interests in the common good?

Empower us, O Lord, though wounded, yet as healers, so that we can be your friends, to restore justice and humanity; to thirst for righteousness and truth; to create a new Heaven and a new Earth.

In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.—now is the time!

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