Set This World on Fire

A week ago Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was acknowledged along with his life’s work and mission. We acknowledge his work as a civil rights activist and his dedication to change through non-violence. We remember the racial injustice of the past and the progress we’ve made into the present.  Now, do we take a break until Black History Month or until next January?  Despite the prevailing myth of a present “post-racial” society, the winds of change and activism have sprung up once again. We see it through the protests in the news reports and social critiques in blogs and articles posted all over social media outlets.  America is begrudgingly becoming conscious again of our communal sin, or collective apathy and blindness to injustice and prejudice.

And the church? Secular society wants us to disconnect our faith with the rest of the world, to compartmentalize our religiosity. This phenomenon – secularism – has also entered the sphere of activism. It’s not to say that one cannot be a secular humanist and work towards ending oppression and dedicating one’s life to the betterment of man. Far from it, many of my atheist and agnostic friends are caring and compassionate people –passionate even on social justice issues. I applaud and welcome them as companions in the struggle for peace and freedom in the face of oppression and prejudice.

Regardless of this reality, we as Christians of all stripes cannot forget our role and responsibility to labor for justice, peace, and civil rights. We must remember the word of Christ  – “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40, NIV).  As Christians, who hopefully take on the title in recognition of our Savior and role model for a holy life in this world and the next, we must toil in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to be a people of the beatitudes. We are meant to remember them and live them.

Christianity is and always has been a radical and revolutionary faith that puts us at odds with society and with ourselves. Our faith is meant to eliminate our comfort zones and recognize our failings, so that Christ lives through us to the world. St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic, nun and theologian said:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…

We are the “Christ” in the world tasked with building the kingdom of God. For what is faith if it doesn’t transform your very being into a servant of God for the people of God. And if we look at our collective history as Christians, despite all the negative propaganda and agenda about our failings as a church, true or untrue, we have also served as role models of change. There are countless priests and pastors who spent their lives ministering to the untouchables of India and the lepers of the pacific islands. And even to the poor and marginalized on the south side and the diseased and hungry of the developing world. Just to name a few: there is Bartolomé de Las Casas, who stood up for the rights of the Indigenous in the Americas; John Woolman, Quaker and abolitionist; Harriet Tubman, the “Moses” of southern slaves; William Booth, the first general of the Salvation Army, and Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker Movement and social activist. And of course there is Martin Luther King Jr., activist and preacher.

There are droves of Christians from antiquity to contemporary times that dedicate their lives to the service of others and wish to see God’s Kingdom on earth. See, faith is not about restrictions. It’s about knowing that there is a love so encompassing and powerful that your failings are irrelevant to the divine mercy of God’s love. And because God is compassion, we also have compassion and become impassioned to do the work of the Lord.  Therefore, let us remember that we have a calling to be activists and fighters for a better world. We have our own special calling from on high. Let us live it fully. Because when we are with the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed we are also in communion with the suffering Christ.

We must remember the words of Rev. Dr.  King,

“…[the masses] have taken the Old Testament call righteousness and justice …  with the New Testament call to love one’s enemies and to bless one’s persecutors has formed one of the most creative and constructive revolutionary forces that our world has known in many a decade.”   (Sermon, Rev. Dr. King, Christian Movement in a Revolutionary Age).

King gave the world a true legacy, an example in which faith and passion can be used peacefully with love to create change; this concept so benign-sounding and simplistic is also so counter-cultural that it is revolutionary. King demonstrated a method and lived the example of what a Christian activist is and can be. Activism and social justice cannot just be the sole province of the secular humanist; it is a task onto which we must all travail. We are called to be the revolution – faith for the service of others and loving your neighbor, especially the oppressor and persecutor.

Thus, I ask you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to remember the Lord’s call to service and justice.  St. Catherine of Sienna, a French mystic and theologian said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” My God, how true are those words!  When we enter more fully in the Lord, Christ takes on us, we take on Christ and we discover and become a truer self. We are reconstructed to become recon-structors.  We are revolutionized into the person God has called us to be to be. Some are called to lead, others to preach, some to sing, and all to serve.

 Gerald Polanco

Ed. R.R. Tavárez