Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 16

The Transforming Center: Contemplation in Action

Learning From Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ruth Haley Barton

“Every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the things that dis-turbs me most about the way we talk about spirituality and related themes in religious circles today is the way we often create false dichotomies between being and doing, prayer and action, contemplation and missional engagement with the world.

“Oh, she’s a contemplative,” we might say, while on the inside we might also be thinking, “So all she does is sit around and pray all day.”

Or, “He’s an activist . . . so that means he doesn’t pray very much.”

Or, “She’s a mystic . . . so that means she’s dangerous and theologically unsound.”

Or, “If we focus too much on spiritual formation, we will neglect evangelism and involvement with the needs of the world.”

“Soul stuff is soft stuff,” this line of thinking goes. “Let the contemplatives (or desert fathers) sit around and gaze at their navels while the activists fly over their heads and get the job done.”

I actually heard a statement like that made from the platform at a leadership conference, and for many reasons I have never forgotten it. First of all, it made me feel embarrassed about who I was—someone who was discovering the presence of God very powerfully in solitude, silence, and contemplation—and someone who was an activist and desperately did not want to believe that that meant “flying over the heads” of the desert mothers and fathers whom I had come to respect so deeply. I was frustrated that a respected leader would use his platform to further cement a false dichotomy that is rooted in so much fear and misunderstanding.

But the fear is real. The activists fear that if contemplatives emphasize prayer and the inner life too much, people will become self-focused and narcissistic and never get anything done. The contemplatives fear that activists don’t pray enough, that they are shallow, and that too much action causes people to become disconnected from the reality of God within. And then because we are afraid of falling into the excesses of one side of this polarity or the other, we subtly or not so subtly dismiss and diminish aspects of the spiritual life that must be held together in tension if our spirituality is to be healthy.

It is time we get beyond this.

01.  Beyond Either/Or Thinking

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a powerful illustration of what it looks like when a person fully integrates a life of prayer and deep spirituality with a profound commitment to decisive and loving action in the world. For King, it was never prayer or activism. It was never being in God or doing something for God. It was never missional engagement with the problems of the world or contemplation of the presence of God within. It was both, all the time. He was profoundly non-dualistic in this regard. “Life at its best,” he believed, “is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 13.

When we celebrate the life and work of King, it is important that we always remember it was his keen spiritual insight and attunement with the heart of God that made it possible for him to know what many Christians and other well-meaning individuals had somehow avoided knowing—that racism is an offense to the heart of God and contradicts the essence of the Gospel. “There is no longer Jew or Greek . . . slave or free . . . male and female; for all of you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.).The soul force to which he often referred was the “force” of God-directed action motivated by love and emerging from the soul of a person who was in touch with the Spirit of God witnessing with his or her spirit about things that are true. “To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”Strength to Love, 56.

It was strength of soul that made it possible for King to live within the paradoxes inherent in adopting and maintaining a nonviolent approach to confronting evil. “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”Strength to Love, 19. Folks, this is just not easy to do, and it was King’s spirituality that kept his activism grounded in such radical truth. Without strength of soul it would have been impossible for him to live these truths himself, let alone lead others in it!

02.  Prayer That Leads to Action

King’s encounters with God in times of prayer kept him in the game. His spiritual vitality was a powerful undercurrent that carried him beyond fear and concern for his own survival to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for him in his own generation. The day before his assassination, he spoke passionately about being strengthened by what can be described only as a mystical experience of “going to the mountain” and gaining a spiritual perspective on his life and the cause he was championing. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he thundered, “but it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.”

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned with that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

“And I’m so happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”From “I See the Promised Land” sermon (also referred to as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”), April 3, 1968, Memphis, TN.

King’s leadership in the fight for racial justice was more than mere human activism; he understood it to be his destiny that history and God himself had thrust upon him. His actions were an outpouring from God’s heart through the life of an individual who was willing to step up and step into the powerful flow of God’s purposes. And that action, which was met with severe disagreement and violent opposition, drove him to sink his roots deeper into the ground of his being, which was God himself.

03.  Action That Leads to Prayer

King knew that God and God alone gives us the interior resources to bear the burdens and tribulations of life, especially those that come as we fulfill our call to serve others and to stand for what is right in this world. Had he not known how to move from action back into prayer—how to tap into a deeper Source than mere human activism—we would have lost him to fear and discouragement; the forces of evil would have prevailed, at least for a little while longer. In a sermon entitled “Our God Is Able,” King tells a very personal story of how an intimate encounter with God sustained him in the darkest hour of his fight for freedom and equality:

Almost immediately after the Montgomery bus protest had been undertaken, we began to receive threatening phone calls and letters in our home. Sporadic in the beginning, they increased day after day. At first I took them in my stride, feeling they were the work of a few hotheads who would become discouraged after they discovered that we would not fight back. But as the weeks passed, I realized that many of the threats were in earnest. I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.

After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour . . . and was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not go to sleep. It seemed all my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.

I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I took my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears passed from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life. Let this be our ringing cry . . . that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better [people]. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.Strength to Love, 114. Emphasis mine.

King’s choice to orient himself toward God in the midst of the resistance that his action had stirred up became a pivotal moment in his life as a leader. It solidified his calling, transformed his fear into a deep sense of calm, and gave him the strength to go on. Were it not for his full engagement in the fight for justice and his groundedness in the life of prayer, he might never have had the kind of encounter with God that transformed him in the deepest level of his being.

04.  A Powerful Pulse

Martin Luther King, Jr., was an apostle of love and action.Coretta Scott King, from the foreword to Strength to Love, 9. He believed that every genuine expression of love grows out of consistent and total surrender to God,Strength to Love, 50. which is the basic contemplative stance, and that every action we take in the world must be motivated by love—the most durable power in the world. At the heart of his message was the conviction that love is the creative force exemplified in the life of Christ and is the most potent instrument available in the human quest for peace and security.Strength to Love, 56. In fact, he believed that the ability to love our enemies was an absolute necessity for our survival.

King’s soul was nourished and strengthened by a powerful pulse: his intimate connection with God (prayer) propelled him to courageous and unreserved engagement with the brokenness of the world (action). And action in the world always drove him back to prayer and radical surrender to God.

Friends, this is what mysticism is—the belief that God is real, that God can be encountered in the depths of one’s being, and that our human existence can be radically oriented and responsive to that Presence. By this definition, all the great ones of our faith were mystics. Mysticism is Moses hearing God’s voice in the wilderness and pushing through all manner of fear and resistance to do the thing he was convinced he could not do but that God had called without being radically in touch with the Source of our life through prayer and contemplation. And this kind of prayer is not possible until we stop hesitating and give in to the him to do. It is Elijah on Mount Horeb seeking a real encounter with God before returning to his call to be a prophet. It is Paul getting knocked off his horse on the Damascus road and then sitting in silence for three days until God told him what to do next. It is Peter seeing the vision of the unclean animals and changing the trajectory of his whole life to preach salvation to the Gentiles. It is John caught up in the Spirit on the isle of Patmos receiving the vision that would become the book of Revelation.

This is what contemplation is—being present to the One who is always present with us and being radically given over to that Presence. As Richard Rohr writes, “True contemplatives are paradoxically risk-takers and reformists, precisely because they have no private agendas, jobs or securities to maintain. Their security and identity is founded in God and not in being right, being paid by the church or looking for promotion in people’s eyes. These alone can move beyond self-interest and fear to do God’s necessary work.”Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), 24.

Friends, this is what real prayer is—saying the truest thing you know how to say to God and not being satisfied until you hear an answer that makes it possible for you to pick your head up off the table and go on.

05.  Where the Real Action Is

And what is the outcome of a life lived in this kind of powerful pulse? Love. Truth. Justice. Courage. Vision. Staying Power. And action. It is what I would like to call contemplative action.

Contemplative action is action that emerges from real encounters with God. It is doing what God calls us to do when he calls us to do it—no matter how afraid we are or how ill-equipped we feel. Contemplative action is the willingness to go beyond being primarily concerned for our own safety and survival to the place where we know that our real life is hidden with Christ in God no matter what happens to our physical life. Contemplative action is doing the right thing at the right time, in the right Spirit, completely given over to a Power that is beyond our own—even, and perhaps most especially, when the risks are very great. This kind of action is impossible authority of an invisible God as it relates to our life in this world.A reference to Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956), 24.

As it turns out, contemplation is where the real action is. Real action is not about the absence of fear; it is the courage to look fear in face and master it through love. King was often very much afraid, but he chose courage, which he defined as “the power of life to affirm itself in spite of life’s ambiguities. This requires the exercise of a creative will that enables us to hew out a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.”Strength to Love, 119.

Real action is not about our natural preferences. As King once said, “I don’t march because I like it. I march because I must.” Real action is not about our own personal safety. After King went public with his convictions, he was never safe again from a human point of view. Real action is not about what seems humanly possible. It is about saying yes to the God with whom all things are possible. “Neither God nor man will individually bring the world’s salvation. Rather, both man and God, made one in a marvelous unity of purpose through an overflowing love as the free gift of himself on the part of God and by perfect obedience and receptivity on the part of man, can transform the old into the new.Strength to Love, 133. Emphasis mine.

As we consider the possibility of living lives that fully integrate contemplation and action, it is good for us to learn from a man who had a God-given dream but didn’t keep it to himself for his own private inspirations. He emerged from prayer to describe that dream to the rest of us in ways that enabled us to see it and taste it and feel it. It is good for us to emulate a man who not only dreamed dreams and saw visions, but also had a God-honoring plan for carrying them out. It is good for us to be challenged and inspired by a man who made a difference in our world through contemplation in action.