January 21, 2018
“Ultimately, you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” (1)
I read these words of wisdom during sermon preparation a couple of weeks ago, and was struck both by their truth and their powerful implications, however difficult. They come from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” preached for the first time at his on church, Ebenezer Baptist, on Christmas Eve of the year 1967.
At this point in the sermon, Dr. King is talking about peace, going on to note the failure of many who speak of peace to achieve it, to note the number of leaders who have engaged in the violence of war in the name of peace. The problem, he says, is that “they are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.” He then concludes that “ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”
These are challenging words. Dr. King is calling his congregation, and all those who hear these words, to envision a just peace and to live into it, even when the world around them — including those they confront — insists on violence. Of course, Dr. King’s call for peace was also a call for justice, and his insistence on nonviolence guided the work of the Civil Rights Movement throughout.
They also offer important guidance for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Illinois –Wisconsin, and the anti-racism, pro-reconciling work to which we are committed. These words ask us to lean heavily on, to live into that which we are working for, to imagine what reconciliation might really look like. They ask us to imagine a reconciliation that must necessarily include political, educational, medical and economic systems that serve all of us as well as new ways of relating to each other and to our differences. They ask us to imagine reconciliation and then live into it.
Yet there is danger in trying to live into reconciliation when it is so painfully clear that we are not yet reconciled. It cannot mean that we always expect niceness from each other. It cannot mean that we always trust that those in leadership and authority will do what is right without being held accountable. It cannot mean that we expect our intentions to override the effects of what we do and say. It cannot mean that we live as though we are already reconciled and there is nothing left to do.
Reconciliation as a means, reconciliation as a strategy must mean that we are willing to see the brokenness in our relationships, in our systems, and in our own ways of relating to one another, and yet to live in the conviction that something better, a new wholeness, is possible. It must mean that we be willing to hear the anger, fear and grief of others, and to be honest about our own, knowing that such emotions are not a threat to our safety, but a necessary part of being in relationship with each other. It must mean that that we engage the experiences and perspectives of others, particularly when they differ from our own, as opportunities to learn and change, trusting that there is truth within them.
These are only a beginning, only a few of the ways that we might live into reconciliation as a strategy. Yet the more we are willing to plant these and other seeds of reconciliation, the more we will see them grow into a reconciling world.
(1) This, and all the quotes in this piece, come from “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Washington (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991 ), 255.