MLK Jr.’s commandments for cultural change
In April 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. spelled out a radical strategy to change the culture of his time in his book, Why We Can’t Wait. Each participant in the Birmingham protests was required to abide by Dr. King’s “Ten Commandments.”
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.
3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
Here’s the first chapter of You Can Change Your World: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ten-Point Plan that Waterbrook/Random House was very interested in to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Unfortunately, it didn’t materialize, so here it is just for you!)
Model the Most Successful Culture Changer
“Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.”
When Dr. King formulated his “ten commandments” for the Birmingham demonstrators to abide by, it was no accident that “meditate on the teachings and life of Jesus” was number one. Throughout history, cultural change has been inspired by God’s Son: the abolition of slavery, the early women’s right movement, and the majority of relief and development efforts in Third World countries.
Likewise, the civil rights movement and the Birmingham campaign, were organized by followers of Christ. After Alabama banned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1956, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights that same year to challenge Birmingham’s official segregation policies.
The pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church faced death threats and repeated bombings of his home and was eventually arrested and jailed for violating the city’s segregation laws in 1962. While in jail, Shuttlesworth appealed to Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King had founded the SCLC with support from fellow pastors: the reverends Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, and C.K. Steele.
Dr. King, a third-generation preacher of Jesus Christ, responded to the call for help. In his classic defense of his non-violent strategy, Letter from a Birmingham Jail penned April 1963, Dr. King notes his biblical roots:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Was not Jesus an extremist for love—”Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice—”Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ—”I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist—”Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist— “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist— “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist— “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment (Why Not Now, 92).
However, neither Jesus—nor Dr. King—taught extremism and radical non-conformity for the sake of simply being extreme or radical. Christ’s revolution involved radical, personal change that would act as “salt” within the culture—changing it from the inside out subtly, but pervasively. The radical message of loving one’s neighbor—and enemies—would season and permeate the Roman culture, which opposed Christianity with brutal persecution, until the Empire itself was declared Christian.
This same approach, delineated by Dr. King’s “ten commandments” would have the same effect in defeating segregation that had gripped the country for hundreds of years.
So, while Dr. King described Jesus as an “extremist,” it is difficult to grasp just how extreme Jesus appeared to His contemporaries when He taught this parable:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!'” (Matthew 25:34-40).
Jesus was indeed extreme in the way He viewed and treated children and women and how He dealt with the first-century Roman Empire and Jewish religious life. The Holy Land had been under various conquerors since Babylonian, Persian, and Greek possession from 586 BC-150 BC. Then, in 64 BC, Roman general Pompey conquered Judea.
Roman family life was dominated by the oldest living male known as the paterfamilias or father of the family. He had total and complete control of his family since only he could own property. No matter how old the sons, they could not own property and received an allowance, or peliculum, to manage their own families until the death of their father. The paterfamilias’ authority was so complete that if his children angered him, he could disown his children, sell them into slavery, or even kill them.
The value of children
Children had no inherent value to the Roman culture into which Jesus Himself was born. After birth, a midwife would place a newborn baby on the ground. If the paterfamilias deemed it worthy of life, he would pick it up announcing that the baby was accepted into the family. If the newborn was deformed or if the paterfamilias deemed that the family could not support another child, it would be “exposed” or deliberately abandoned in a specific area where it would either die of exposure or be picked up and sold by a slave trader.
Children raised in Jewish homes fared a bit better, but still it would have not been uncommon for Jesus’ disciples to view children with little value.
One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him.
But Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.” And he placed his hands on their heads and blessed them before he left (Matthew 19:13-15).
Not only did Jesus welcome children into His presence—and was “indignant” with the disciples’ response (Mark 10:14)——He elevated them as role models for His followers:
About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:1-3).
And Jesus warns of dire consequences to anyone who mistreats a child:
“But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Jesus taught and practiced the rights and values of children.
The value of women
While the paterfamilias wielded formal power, the materfamilias—mother of the family—exerted influence behind the scenes. She was required to live in complete submission to her husband, but managed the household’s day to day business and, if in the upper class, was expected to fulfill the role of “trophy wife” with modesty, grace, and dignity.
Because infant mortality took the life of nearly one out of four newborns—and half of all children died before age ten—the Roman state offered legal rewards to women who successfully raised children. After three live births, women were recognized by the state as legally independent from male control and could take responsibility for their own lives.
In the Jewish culture however, a man would often pray, “I thank God I am not a Gentile, a dog, or a woman.”
Jewish boys began formal education at age five, learning to read and write by the rabbis at the local synagogue. At ten, boys began instruction from the Torah, the first five books of the modern Bible, and the mishna or oral laws. Most education was complete by age eighteen, although young men could seek advanced education as scribes or doctors of the law.
However, any education a girl received was “home schooled” by her mother. In contrast, Roman culture educated both boys and girls.
Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father, and married women were not allowed to leave their husband’s home. They were not allowed to talk to strangers, testify in court, or appear in public unless double-veiled.
Jesus not only refused to conform to the cultural conventions of the treatment of women, but violated Old Testament laws as well as the humanly-instituted laws of the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadduces.
For instance, in Mark 5:25-35, Jesus not only talks to the woman who had suffered from apparent menstrual bleeding for twelve years, but risks becoming “ceremonially unclean” by having her touch him while she was bleeding.
In John 4:7-5:30, Jesus breaks several conventions by speaking to the woman at the well. Not only is she a woman, but a Samaritan, whom the Jews considered unclean half breeds.
But worse, Jesus openly taught women as his disciples! While His twelve apostles were all men, He had numerous women disciples or followers including “Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples” (Luke 8:2b-3).
By teaching women, Jesus is flagrantly defying the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic teaching from 200 BC to AD 200:
If a man gives his daughter knowledge of the law it is as though he taught her lechery (m. Sotah 3.4).
He that talk much to womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at last will inherit Gehenna [hell] (m. Abot 1.5).
But in Luke 10:38-42, Jesus commends Mary, the sister of Martha, for sitting for His teachings.
While Jewish males were referred to as “sons of Abraham,” Jesus refers to the women cured of an evil spirit as a “daughter of Abraham.” The only time this phrase is used in Scripture is found in Luke 13:16.
Even though women were not allowed to testify in court, Mary Magadalene was given the responsibility to testify to Christ’s resurrection (John 20:17). Luke records, “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women who told the apostles what had happened” (24:10).
The value of the poor
Roman conquests and the importation of slave labor had created a wide gulf between the rich and the poor. The Jewish upper class consisted of temple priests and the priestly aristocracy including the Sadducees, a Jewish sect. The middle class was comprised of traders and merchants; artisans working as stonecutters, mason and sculptures; and craftsmen working with metal, wood, and textiles. The Pharisees—another Jewish sect—as well as teachers and scribes were also included in the middle class.
The lower class of Jews consisted of common laborers such as weavers, stone carriers, slaves often forced into slavery because of debt, and the unemployable such as the ill and disabled. Slaves ranged from those who were worked to death in physical labor or killed as entertainment in the arenas to trained professionals who had been taken as prisoners during Roman conquests and were valued for their knowledge and skill. None, however, had any legal rights and were viewed simply as property, as were any children born to a slave.
Because the Roman economy was so dependent on slave labor, eventually laws were enacted to provide legal protection—but only to maintain their usefulness as a cog in the system. While many slaves came from the conquest of foreign lands, others were kidnapped as children and adults, then sold as slaves. Some were enslaved to pay debts. Orphaned children also were forced into the slave market.
Treatment of prisoners
David Greenberg describes the treatment of prisoners:
For most of human history, prisoners of war, including women, children, and elders, were killed, tortured, enslaved, or held for ransom. The prisoners’ helplessness allowed the captors to indulge the darkest human fantasies. Cuneiform tablets from ancient times, discovered by archaeologists, bear messages such as: “I have captured many men alive; with some I have had their hands or arms cut off, with others their nose or ears. I have put out the eyes of many—torn out the tongues of others—cut off their lips.” During the Punic Wars, the Romans and Carthaginians crucified each other’s generals. Only as laws of war evolved in modern times—producing The Hague and Geneva Conventions of the last century—did these practices begin to subside.
While non-capital criminals were confined in what were basically holes in the ground, non- citizens faced brutal punishment. (Roman citizens were exempt from flogging or crucifixion, facing a kinder, gentler death by beheading.)
Political prisoners as well as criminals often faced the humiliores—the lunch break during the gladiators games—when Roman justice was applied with burning at the stake, crucifixion, or ad bestias in which the condemned faced one or more wild animals. The leadership, as well as ordinary Roman citizens, viewed the brutal treatment as a proper way to maintain law and order and to restrain and suppress forces that threatened the pax Romana.
It was into this culture that Jesus taught fair and loving treatment of “the least of these.”
This same desire for the welfare of all people—men, women, and children—motivated the civil rights movement. And it was the teachings and life of Christ that were to be meditated upon most of all in Birmingham’s campaign. Unfortunately, not all pastors and parishioners shared Dr. King’s vision. He wrote:
I have watched . . . churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between sacred and secular.
How we have blemished and scarred the body [of Christ] through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists (Why We Can’t Wait, 94-95).
Twenty years earlier, Dr. King had written in the May 1944 issue of The Cornellian:
We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule.
The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff.
America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon—a Negro—and yet a man!
The message and methods of Jesus Christ go far beyond changing laws—whether by force or freedom. Jesus taught a change of heart toward God and one’s neighbor:
Jesus replied, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matthew 5:43-46).
No wonder, then, that the first strategy for the Birmingham campaign was simply to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.” The power of Christ’s teachings and life are eloquently summarized in “One Solitary Life” by James Allan:
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life.
Best Practice: The Salvation Army
The Salvation Army’s mission statement is to “preach the gospel of Jesus,” which includes meeting “human needs in His name without discrimination.”
William Booth embarked on this mission in 1852 with a series of preaching meetings to reach the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the destitute. Thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, and drunkards eagerly responded.
Booth hoped to direct his converts into established local churches, but he quickly discovered that his converts didn’t feel comfortable or welcomed. And regular churchgoers were even more uncomfortable with the poorly dressed, unbathed converts. As a result, Booth founded the East London Christian Mission.
From its humble beginnings, his “Salvation Army” has grown to one of the world’s largest providers of social aid, with an annual budget of nearly 3 billion dollars. In the United Kingdom, it is the largest non-government provider of social services. In the United States, it is the second largest charity.
Ministries include alcohol and drug treatment, family services, and disaster relief. Since the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the Salvation Army has been one of the first agencies to the scene of a disaster. When Hurricane Katrina struck, the Army quickly set up 178 feeding stations and eleven field kitchens that served 5.7 million hot meals and 8.3 million sandwiches, snacks, and drinks.
It now operates in over one hundred countries around the world meeting human needs in Jesus’ name.
Putting It into Practice
What was Jesus’ approach to changing culture?
What specific ways can Jesus’ methods be utilized in changing today’s culture?
Copyright © 2010 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.
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