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Politics isn’t dead at funerals

Rev. Jack Van Ens

During a Princeton study leave, I watched on TV portions of the uplifting six-hour funeral service commemorating Coretta Scott King’s witness and work. With four presidents attending, a mix of scriptural comfort and stirring political calls for justice rang out. King, along with her husband, practiced Christianity where Christ’s personal renewal is inseparably united with social transformation. Profession of faith in Christ and pressing for political justice went hand in hand for the Kings. Some question whether a few speakers showed bad manners by lampooning a sitting president during the funeral service. Wasn’t publicly chastising President George W. Bush out of bounds in a church where the world tipped its hat to King? Former President Jimmy Carter, a born-again Baptist who speaks Christ’s truth to political power, showed listeners how prophetic zeal lurks beneath his soft Southern drawl. He fired a salvo at the Bush administration for completely missing the target, bypassing the poor ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.”This commemorative ceremony this morning and this afternoon is not only to acknowledge the great contributions of Coretta and Martin, but to remind us that the struggle for equal rights is not over,” Carter emphasized. “We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, those who were most devastated by Katrina, to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans.”When Martin Luther King led worship at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, thundering that the U.S. must pull out of Vietnam, most of the Christians I grew up with labeled him a communist reactionary. No one hated King more than J. Edgar Hoover, who polished his kinky fetishes with a Christian veneer most believers admired. Hoover listened in on King’s private conversations because our nation needed wiretaps, he said, to protect America from Red saboteurs. Carter recognized that presidential power expands as citizens become more fearful. Does such fear justify warrantless wiretaps? Not for Carter. He countered, “It was difficult for them (the Kings) personally with the civil liberties of both husband and wife violated as they became the target of secret government wiretapping, other surveillance and, as you know, harassment from the FBI.”Many Christians argue that preachers should stick to the gospel and not apply Christ’s demands in the political theater where the Kings played out their civil- and Christian-rights drama. The Rev. Joseph Lowry, an ally of Martin Luther King, believes faith is not a private affair. Using rhyme so prevalent in black preaching, Lowry blasted George W. Bush, seated behind him. Lowry reminded us of Coretta’s vigorous protest against U.S. troops occupying Iraq. “She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar,” Lowry thundered. “We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we knew, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”Surprisingly, ace Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan applauded the political gospel preached at the funeral, though she did not side with Carter and Lowry. Writing in the Feb. 10 Wall Street Journal, Noonan didn’t mind Lowry using “the occasion to verbally bop the sitting president on the head.””So what?” she asks. “This was the authentic sound of vibrant democracy doing its thing. It was the exact opposite of the frightened and prissy attitude that if you draw a picture (cartoon) I don’t like, I’ll have to kill you.””It was: We do free speech here.”The funeral displayed a magnificent gospel, not a puny one. I learned of the Christian faith from those who believed in a “Calvinist world and life view.” What’s that? Jesus urged believers to be “the salt of the earth,” Matthew 5:13, not merely a spiritual condiment that spices up the inner life. So much interior Christianity of the heart alone is wide of Christ’s gospel mark. Preachers who are shy about speaking Christ’s truth to political power lack the Savior’s global imagination and salty taste. They bandy biblical slogans, parroting cliches. They possess zeal for a truncated Gospel that warms the heart but leaves injustice in the world out in the cold.I couldn’t linger watching the King funeral on CNN. I needed to do research in Princeton libraries with troves of books about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). He’s a Puritan preacher I portray on stage who caught the gospel tempo of Coretta Scott King’s funeral. Edwards tapped a political beat when preaching from the Gospel’s score.He epitomized a typology premier church historian Martin Marty describes as “public theology from the churches’ side.” By “public theology,” we mean preaching the gospel as it applies to testy issues in the public arena that often divide Christian communities. I play Edwards because he had the courage to apply Christ’s Gospel to the world, not just the church. Edwards mastered church-in-the-world Christian tradition. He applied its wisdom to pressing issues in the colonies dealing with just laws and personal freedom. Revivals in the 1730s and 1740s, ignited by Christ’s spirit through Edwards’ preaching, helped shape a social order pressing for justice reaching even Europe. Promoting the Gospel out of secure sanctuaries into the public domain is not popular. Coretta Scott King knew that. As it did for Christ, a salty tang longing for justice spiced her faith. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the tax-exempt, nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado


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