By James M. Decker
In my last essay, I wrote of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his call to be extremists in service of righteousness in our communities. But late in his letter, Dr. King tackles another topic that is on my heart to cover—the weak voice of the modern Christian church.
Dr. King writes of the Christian church in 1963 in a manner eerily fitting the Christian church of 2019. He writes that early Christians rejoiced at “being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.” He said the early church was not a “thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion,” but instead was “a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” He rightly noted that when early Christians arrived in a town, local leaders charged them as “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” The Christians were unwavering, convicted to obey God rather than the threats of men.
Dr. King points out that the early Christians were instrumental in ending hideous cultural traditions like infanticide and gladiator contests, while the modern church was a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound…an archdefender of the status quo.” He wrote that, rather than being disturbed by the church’s presence, the powerful of a community are “consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”
56 years after Dr. King criticizes the Christian church of the 1960s, his words should cut each of us to the bone, as if they were directed at the Christian church of the 2010s. On the state and national scale, Christian groups and leaders possess substantial influence, but what do they do with that influence? Do they use that influence to be the thermostat of Dr. King’s analogy, actively changing the temperature? Or do they have a tendency to succumb to the temptations of power faced by all flawed humans, wielding their power and influence in such ways that to continue to maintain their power and influence and the trappings that come with it?
More important to each of us reading this, what is the church doing on a local level? And by that, I mean: what are WE doing on a local level? Are we the thermometer, going with the flow of popular opinion? Or are we the thermostat, responsible for changing the temperature? Are we defending the status quo, giving silent or vocal sanction to the power structures of the community? Or are we the disturbers of the peace and the agitators, putting an end to hatred, injustice, and need within our realms?
There is an old saying that the job of a good journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I believe that to be true. I also believe that’s the job of the local church and its leaders. The afflicted are everywhere among us—dealing with financial need, depression and mental illness, domestic violence, among other things—how are we comforting them? Are we comforting them at all? Do we occasionally acknowledge the need, having a moment of inner angst, and then move on with our day? Do we even realize it at all?
How are we afflicting the comfortable? Are those in our power structures being held accountable to improve hatred, injustice, and need in the community? Are we actively engaging our city, school, law enforcement, and other government officials, asking them to take action on matters clearly within their power? And if they do not actively work to improve their community, is our silence condoning their inaction?
When people complain about the state of society, one of my great frustrations is the tendency to use “they” as the culprit. There is not “they” in our city, our state, or our nation. There is only a “we.” There is no mysterious third-party force roaming around without our awareness. If you think our society has declined, “they” didn’t change it, “we” were party to that by our actions or inaction. If you think your community needs improving, “they” aren’t gong to change it, “you” and “we” have to change it.
A thermometer merely records the temperature in a room. It doesn’t change it. A thermostat changes the temperature to a new desired outcome. Dr. King’s comparison of the local church to a thermometer and a thermostat was a perfect analogy in 1963 and it is a perfect analogy in 2019. If you want to be a thermostat, fine, just know that you’ll only record the temperature, not change it. If you want things to change in your community, you must take the role of a thermostat, acting as an “agitator” and “disturber of the peace” like the early church so eagerly did.
It’s time to be a thermostat.
* * *
James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.