There is no question that our nation is currently deeply divided about a great many issues. In our effort to enshrine him, some may have lost sight that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. too addressed a nation that was divided. With all the media focus on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination this past fall, the 50th anniversary of another great national tragedy received little notice. On September 15, 1963, white racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four young African-American girls who were attending Sunday school.
Dr. King’s charged eulogy for these small children was and may still remain one of his most controversial speeches. Claiming them as martyrs for the cause of justice, Dr. King said:
“these girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism … they have something to say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”
Do these girls have something to say to our deeply divided nation today? In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Paul addresses serious divisions in the church at Corinth. The reports that Paul was hearing indicate the congregation has split into various factions (1:11). One group reported they were part of the Paul faction, and another, the Apollos faction. Still others claimed to belong to Cephas, or even Christ (1:12). Paul dismisses such factionalism as nonsense. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks rhetorically, “Has Christ been divided?” In fact, Paul thanks God that he baptized so few in the congregation, precisely so that he can’t be claimed by one group or another (1:15-16).
Paul’s desire for this community is that they be united. When Paul calls the community “to be united in the same mind and same purpose,” he is using language that was common in Greco-Roman philosophical and ethical discussions of friendship. However, we must note that he is not calling for them to give up their distinctions. Paul clearly recognizes that in the church in Corinth, there is great diversity. They are educated and uneducated, high and low status people (1:26), Jew and Gentile, slave and free (7:17-24). The congregation at Corinth was rich in ethnic and social diversity. It was composed of the population of one of the Roman Empire’s a major transportation node. Paul’s call to have the “same mind and purpose” is not asking individuals to relinquish their distinctive identities and vocations. He does not seek to erase the diversity in the church of Corinth.
Paul grounds the Corinthians’ unity in the power of the cross of Christ (1:17), and his point is that Jesus’ undeserved capital punishment has the power to transform a broken and factionalized little church into a community that has a shared, transformative purpose. Dr. King’s eulogy of the girls who died in the Birmingham bombing articulates this same basic concept.
“History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city …These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”
Now more than ever, our nation continues to be factionalized, broken, and divided. As in Paul’s little church in Corinth, so also today we divide ourselves into camps: “pro-gay” and “pro-marriage,” “gun control” and “gun rights,” “pro-life” and “women’s rights.” We could make a long list of such factions today.
Recently, the United Methodist pastor, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was stripped of his credentials for presiding over the marriage of his gay son back in 2007. Media reports abound about the widening split between the between the pro- and anti-gay marriage camps in The United Methodist Church. Clergy, laity, and academics are girding their loins for a battle that threatens to split one of the major mainline denominations. While the church is fighting, those who suffer will be the poor, the marginalized, the innocent victims of war, greed, and oppression for whom the church has a special advocacy role.
This week, as we reflect upon Dr. King’s legacy and 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, the call to unity does not mean giving up what is distinctive about us, or forcing others to give up what is distinctive about them. It means finding a common sense of purpose in a transformative and diverse community.
Too often, we retreat to our factions and voice our opinions in the self-confirming echo chambers of those with whom we agree. Let us keep in mind that we are called not to retreat to the factions where we are most comfortable, but to courageously engage one another with truth and love.
While it is my personal position that the church and its clergy have an ordained duty to impart God’s blessing upon the marriage covenant that homosexual couples are called to make, I hope I will have the courage to honestly and lovingly engage those who disagree with me, so that we can move on with the business of transformative, life-giving ministry.
As we all recognize, the gargantuan tasks facing our nation today demand that we engage in nothing less than common purpose and attuned minds. The unmerited suffering of the innocents calls us to nothing less but engaging those with whom we disagree with courage and love.
Doug Hume is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at Pfeiffer University, where he is principally responsible for teaching Biblical Studies courses.