Friday, January 12, 2007

Civil Rights Legend Calls Me Out

As a part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at my workplace, my employer hosted a roundtable discussion/seminar on prophetic voice and speaking truth to power. Many Nashville-area prophets were in attendance as was esteemed civil rights leader and fellow United Methodist James Lawson, who would give the sermon at the worship service that followed. Among other accomplishments, Rev. Lawson organized the Nashville sit-ins of the early sixties and the sanitation workers strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis, where he spent his final days. Lawson was also famously expelled from my alma mater, Vanderbilt Divinity School, for his civil rights activism. Many faculty left the school in protest after Lawson's expulsion. Ironically, Lawson now teaches at VDS.

Anyway, the seminar focused on speaking truth to power and prophetic voice, specifically with regard to the Iraq War and healthcare (two issues that King would no doubt be passionate about were he alive today). I made the point that, in my current ministry, I cannot simply take a stand on certain peace and justice issues. I must serve a denomination made up of people with very diverse opinions and whose official statements on touchy issues are often wishy-washy. If I advocate too strongly for a particular stance on an issue that United Methodists passionately disagree on, I push people away and risk losing my job. Some would say that my job requires me to sacrifice truth or compromise my values, but I don't see it that way. I think my job requires me to listen, to seek the counsel of others, and to direct people to the witness of Scripture and the church. From there, I encourage them to use discernment (both as individuals and in communities). I must also build a certain amount of trust with the people I serve. (I'd say more, but I like to keep work and blogging separate.)

Rev. Lawson disagreed. He didn't disagree during the seminar, but he repeated what I'd said during his sermon (in front of a much larger audience) and explained why I was wrong. He recalled church materials produced in the fifties and sixties that presented both sides of segregation and women's rights and allowed church members to discern which side was more in line with God's will. These materials essentially gave comfort to racist and sexist Christians; they presented a more godly, enlightened perspective, but didn't push it on anyone. In other words, James Lawson likened me to racist-enabling church publishers of yesteryear.

I see his point. And, when it comes to some issues—Darfur or materialism, for instance—I think that the church can and should say, "The Gospel is clear on this matter." But other issues are more complex, and I think that discernment in these matters is appropriate.

At any rate, I'm honored that a legend of the Civil Rights Movement dissed me in a public forum.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Josh - Lawson is an interesting person, isn't he? I've had the opportunity to hear him before. I'm with you, I would have said the same thing. I guess I think that sometimes we can be so confrontational that we lose our ability to reach people because we've effectively severed our pastoral relationship with them. Then we definitely can't change them. So which is better, biding our time, but hoping for a transformation over time? Or going for it because you can't possibly keep silent? I think both sides have + and -, but what I hate most is feeling like I'm compromising myself and what I believe in. Ah, ministry.

2:25 PM  
Blogger ColeWake said...

I wish I could have gone the sermon. I agree with a lot of what Rev. Lawson says, but I also agree with keeping my job. We both could do more at our employer to push for true justice and faith, but at what cost? and what is the cost if we don't?

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ouch! That seems rather harsh actually but I understand his point. I know very little about Lawson but I find myself wondering if he holds himself to the same high standards of equality when it comes to homosexuals - especially those in the church?

12:43 AM  
Blogger ColeWake said...

I don't know about Lawson but many of King's closest disciples (including his late Widow) have embraced the gay rights cause.

11:27 AM  

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