Van Ens: Easter’s hope built a resurrection city on Earth (column)
A few days after Easter, our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. His life and death divided Christians over the meaning of the hope Easter brings.
Is this hope concentrated on resurrecting what’s here and now, as King believed? Or does Easter’s hope focus on the hereafter for deceased Christians?
During the spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, where he supported striking sanitation workers. Previously, he organized a Poor People’s Campaign to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
Not quite two months after King was gunned down on a Memphis motel balcony, colleague Ralph Abernathy rallied poor people to protest in Washington, D.C. Their march replaced polite talk about “justice for all” with a tent community erected on the National Mall called “Resurrection City.”
“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy announced, “and we will stay until we get it.”
King and Abernathy possessed a perspective on Easter’s hope that clashed with how white evangelical Christians interpreted benefits from their Savior’s resurrection. King’s supporters and detractors quoted the same scripture conservative Christians recited but debated its meaning: “We have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).
Evangelicals pictured the Gospel’s living hope as a circle. Its focus was God’s grace, by which Christ triumphed over death and gave believers entry to heaven. Their “Resurrection City” didn’t consist of tents erected on the National Mall. Instead, evangelicals expected to reside in a celestial city after death.
These Christians rejected King’s resurrection message for racial justice, which they suspected was part of a communist plot to corrupt traditional Christianity. Others grew angry, saying King preached a mutant social gospel that led to integrated schools and neighborhoods. Some conservatives formed private Christian schools for white children because they believed the Bible supported segregated education.
In contrast, King’s Easter hope looked elliptical — a flattened circle with two foci, grace and justice. In the here and now, the resurrected Christ favored racial relations that brought equality to all.
Evangelicals interpret Easter’s “living hope” as God’s promise of eternal life. In contrast, King’s Resurrection City on the National Mall favored the federal government’s lead in restoring rights to impoverished people.
King envisioned “God’s Resurrection City” in “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” a speech he delivered the evening before being assassinated. “It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all its symbolism,” declared King, stirring evangelicals’ rage, “but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”
Now was the time to resurrect shelved promises about social equality. King declared, “It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.”
Easter’s hope embraces a gospel where grace and justice now work in tandem to resurrect rights for fair housing, job opportunities and health care among poor people.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.