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April 4, 2012

Risk Becomes Functionally Irrelevant: MLK and Everyday Missions

The day before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. shared the following thoughts with a crowd of activists in Memphis:

Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be--and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That's the issue. And we've got to say to the nation: We know how it's coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. . . .

It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do. . . .

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

One day later, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead. But on April 3 he told the crowd, "I'm not worried about anything," because "mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!" That's as worthy of reflection as his earlier speech about the content of our character and his letter about the arc of justice. To anticipate one's death and yet to not worry is remarkable, and particularly poignant in years like this one, when the anniversary of MLK's death overlaps with Holy Week and Jesus' atonement on the cross.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus endured the cross, with all its pain and humiliation and injustice, in joy. He was able to do so because his sights were set on the kingdom of God, which no worldly power could overcome. The greater good may seem far from reality, Holy Week reminds us, but it is God's dream, and so it will ultimately prevail.

We often lose sight of that reality--or, maybe more to the point, we outsource the dream of God to exotic people of faith like Martin Luther King or Moses or Jesus. We far too easily settle for a safe life. We wouldn't say it out loud--we wouldn't even allow ourselves to think it--but we see God's kingdom as not worthy of our personal risk.

So it's good to have reminders every now and then that God's dream is (or ought to be) the dream of all of God's people as well--not just the ancients (like Moses) and the superstars of the contemporary Christian stage (like MLK)--and that God's dream for the world is not exotic but everyday, touching our daily decisions and our most mundane interactions with people and institutions and other matters of God's concern. So today, of all days, and this week, of all weeks, it's good to reflect on safety, risk and a kingdom imagination. Leroy Barber, CEO of Mission Year, is an appropriate choice to lead us in that reflection, in this passage from his new book Everyday Missions: How Ordinary People Can Change the World.

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Safety drives many of our decisions, such as where we live, where our kids go to school, even where we will go to do something as insignificant as watching a movie. "Is it safe?" This question rings in our psyche over and over again. Of course, the reality is that what we mean by being safe is only what feels safe. While there are ways of minimizing our risk, there is nothing that can guarantee our protection and well-being. There are only gadgets and choices that make us think we are safe.

Meanwhile, when safety becomes a priority measure in our lives, I believe it traps us in the ordinary. Our kingdom imagination is limited when we stop risking for the gospel. The question for me is this: Are we willing to knowingly take risks? Are we prepared to turn over our fears and insatiable need to feel safe to God as an offering? Are we willing, for the sake of the kingdom, to face dangers head on, knowing that we cannot even pretend to protect ourselves from the consequences? . . .

What then is risk? It is not wild, indiscriminate actions, but rather the ability to count the cost of an action. Risk in a theological sense is understanding the reality of a given situation--its capacity to cause us inconvenience or even harm--and then surrendering that given reality to the larger reality that our kingdom imagination and our God-confidence offer us. Our personal risk is then placed in the context of the greater good--God's dream for the world we find ourselves in. Any risk is (or ought to be) acceptable if it is in service to the greater good, and if we trust that the greater good will establish itself regardless of the circumstances, then risk becomes functionally irrelevant.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at April 4, 2012 8:24 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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