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Positively Maladjusted:
Martin Luther King and "Transformed Nonconformity"

For Sunday August 24, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Exodus 1:8–2:10 or Isaiah 51:1–6
           Psalm 124 or Psalm 138
           Romans 12:1–8
           Matthew 16:13–20

Times Square, New York.
Times Square, New York.

           In graduate school twenty-five years ago I wrote a paper on the preaching of Paul Tillich (1886–1965), and in the process read several collections of his sermons. When my professor Pieter DeJong described hearing Tillich preach, it occurred to me that reading his sermons paled in comparison. So I was surprised to learn that Strength to Love, a book of sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), is a bestseller for Fortress Press, even though they published it in 1986 and other publishers did so much earlier. King's book brings back memories.

           Fresh out of grad school, I taught a course on contemporary cultural issues — CCI, as the students called it. William Tyndale College had been founded in inner city Detroit in 1945, and when I was there black students constituted 35% of our enrollment. Racism was more than an academic issue for my students. For my section on racism the class read a favorite sermon of mine by King from the book Strength to Love. The sermon is based on Romans 12:1–2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (NIV). With typical eloquence and brilliance, King captured this powerful text in just two unforgettable words that I have always loved: transformed nonconformity.

           King observes how the pressures for cultural conformity, to “condition our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo,” are immense. Nevertheless, followers of Jesus have a higher loyalty than conformity to social respectability. Living in time and for eternity, Christians need to discover ways to live very much in the world but not of the world. We should never abandon the world, nor should we embrace it. We must make history, says King, and not be shaped by history.

New York Stock Exchange.
New York Stock Exchange.

           Liberal Christians tend to forget that the world is fallen, that God calls us to be “strangers and aliens” in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11), and so they often conform and assimilate to culture. Conservatives forget that the world is ultimately "very good" (Genesis 1:31), and so they separate from and condemn culture as irredeemably evil. We should steer a middle course between these two extremes; we should love and engage the world without separating ourselves from it or allowing ourselves to be uncritically integrated into it.

           Most people, says King, “are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.” Social scientists tell us, for example, that believers divorce at about the same rate as the general population, we watch the same films and television shows, we read the same books, we give about the same percentage of our income to charity as others, our teenagers have pre-marital sex at about the same rate as other kids, and so forth. The church, King reminds us, has defended slavery and racial discrimination, wars and economic exploitation. We participated in the Holocaust.

           We swallow cultural propaganda hook, line, and sinker. We believe that sexual pleasure should be unlimited, that politics is the most important news, that poverty (not wealth) is the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, that a risky investment provides so-called security, that physical health is my right, and that whatever is technologically possible is scientifically imperative (even though it might be morally ambiguous).

McCain and Obama.
McCain and Obama.

           Even for those who choose the path less traveled and who try to swim against the tide, non-conformity by itself is nothing special. Here in California where I live, non-conformists are everywhere. They ride funny bikes, experiment with alternative energy, eat organic foods, dress down instead of dressing up, and generally flaunt what they think is an independent spirit, but which often is merely a different type of social conformity. Sometimes, says King, non-conformity is little more than exhibitionism. In contrast, the non-conformity that Paul describes in Romans 12 has a specific direction, which is Christ-likeness through what he calls a “renewed mind.”

           The French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) worked with marginalized teenagers on the streets of Bordeaux in the 1950s and 1960s. His goal, he always said, was not to make those marginalized and disenfranchised kids “adjust” to the normal patterns of society. Making them "fit in" would only make them cultural conformists. Rather, Ellul said that his goal was to help the kids move from being “negatively maladjusted” to society to becoming “positively maladjusted.” He wanted them to become non-conformists.

           King says something very similar: “There are some things in our world to which men [sic] of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men [sic] of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.” Christian non-conformity, in other words, has a specific direction.

B-2 Stealth Bomber.
B-2 Stealth Bomber.

           Hope for our world rests in creatively and positively maladjusted believers, says King. This week’s text from Exodus 1:8–2:10 provides an example of nonconformity in relation to the powers of this world in contrast to conformity to God’s redemptive purposes. The Israelites were in Egyptian bondage, increasing in number and power, when Pharaoh gave the order for infanticide—to terminate all the male Hebrew births. But the midwives defied the state authorities because, the text says, “they feared God” rather than Pharaoh (Exodus 1:17). Later, when asked what had happened, they covered up their civil disobedience by lying (v. 19).

           Non-conformity isn't easy. King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, paid the ultimate price when James Earl Ray assassinated him as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis hotel. When I suggested King’s sermon to a small group Bible study from my church, one couple took a cursory look at what King had to say, judged that they had no interest in his message, then quit the group. But Paul is clear about the general direction of the journey with Jesus: transformed non-conformity.         

For further reflection

           * In their various books, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that Jesus's alternate reign and rule subvert cultural conformity. Whether ancient or modern, most societies have normalized a status quo of political oppression that marginalizes ordinary people, economic exploitation whereby the rich take advantage of the poor, and religious legitimation that says, "don't try to change things because God wants things this way." It's easy to think of other aspects of cultural conformity that Jesus would subvert, like ethnic stereotypes, media propaganda, gender roles, consumerism, degradation of planet earth, voting patterns, our obesssion with sports, ideas about work and calling, etc.

Image credits: (1); (2); (3) Darryl Wolk's blog, Newmarket, ON, Canada; and (4)

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