This month, I had the special opportunity to serve as a speaker at a city-wide celebration of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I prepared my comments, I spent some time reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy as a prophetic evangelical leader. Peter Heltzel’s thoughtful volume, Jesus & Justice: Evangelicals, Race & American Power, provided helpful food for thought in this area.
As a social leader, public intellectual, and fierce advocate for peace and justice, Reverend Dr. King was thoroughly situated in an evangelical tradition of Christianity adherent to Biblical orthodoxy, belief in Jesus Christ as a necessary source of relationship with God, and a commitment to sharing the Gospel. Yet, this is not the same evangelical tradition embodied by the Reverend Billy Graham, as Heltzel explains, or today’s so-called evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Jr.
In today’s religio-political landscape, evangelicalism is often synonymous with a homogenous world-view focused on personal piety or right-wing conservatism cloaked in Biblical rhetoric. Carry a gun, kick out the immigrants, hate the gays, and kill the Muslims – sadly, these are the sentiments that many of us associate with the term, “evangelicalism” today.
Fortunately, this time in which we honor Dr. King’s contributions as a powerful faith-rooted leader for peace and justice, provides us with a refreshing reminder that there are multiple traditions of evangelical Christianity. Prophetic traditions of evangelicalism, arising most especially from the lived-out faith of people of color in the U.S. and around the world, call us to saving relationship with Jesus Christ and right relationships with those around us. This is the Biblical tradition of evangelicalism that we so clearly see in the words of Micah, Amos, Jeremiah and Jesus, whose people also lived in contexts of marginalization and oppression.
Those who read and understand the Bible from below are best positioned to understand the true meaning of an upside-down Kingdom that honors humble peace-makers and rebukes self-righteous autocrats. While we often struggle to distance ourselves from “those evangelicals,” at the top, let us more so embrace the deeper streams of prophetic evangelical faith – those of the prisoners and the poor, peasants and farmers, rejects and rebels, survivors of slavery and apartheid – that nourished the roots and routes of Reverend Dr. King, Jr.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
Johonna Turner (née McCants) is an educator, cultural worker and scholar. She serves as Assistant Professor at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding where she teaches undergraduate, Masters’ level and training courses in conflict transformation and restorative justice. Johonna is animated by a passion to advance peace and justice within marginalized communities by building the capacity of neighborhood churches and investing in the leadership of young people. She resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia with the love of her life (aka her handsome husband).