An Extreme Love Song
Updated: Jul 16
King in the Wilderness
A recent documentary about the live of Martin Luther King called “King in the Wilderness” describes the last days of MLK, before his assassination on April 4, 1968. It presents a somewhat disheartened man… a misunderstood man. He has fought and won many a fight, but he is also a man very aware that the message that God has given him goes beyond the scope of his work with the black community.
He talked about nonviolence and peace… but realized that peace also applied to responding to the war in Vietnam. He talked about improving the living conditions of poor blacks in the South… but realized that he needed to also deal with those conditions in the North and with other racial ethnic groups… including those who were white and poor.
When he decided to be more inclusive, to address the war in Vietnam and to include other groups in what they called the Poor People’s Campaign, he found a resistance that made him sad and frustrated. He was used to the resistance he faced when he had to write the Letter from Birmingham jail, but this resistance came from his own people, from the people that had supported him.
They were questioning his approach of nonviolence as weak and ineffective. They wanted to fight fire with fire. They were against his questioning the government that had granted the civil rights bill on Vietnam. They thought that he should stick to his original message and not broaden the spectrum of impact. As a result, he spent his last days on this earth feeling alone, and as if walking in the wilderness.
The extremism of the message
If you take a closer look at what MLK’s message, what he is doing is a natural consequence of what he was proclaiming. If you believe in nonviolence, then you cannot support a war. If you believe in fighting against the systems that produce injustice, then the consequences of that fight are going to affect all of those that are oppressed and that are poor. He discovered that you cannot pick and choose who benefits and who doesn’t.
To me, is like the whole issue of being pro-life. If you take the concept to its ultimate consequences, then you cannot be pro-life and pro death penalty… because that implies killing a living thing. King discovered that messages have consequences beyond what we expect, and affect even those that we did not think about.
In our Christian world we talk about love and grace and about their consequences. But, we cannot dictate who God loves. And grace cannot be conditioned or limited. God might give grace to someone that we think undeserving… but that is the measure of God’s grace: unconditional, unlimited, revolutionary, extreme.
Mary’s song of revolution
In an article called “Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her”, D.L. Mayfield suggests that Mary’s song that we just read tends to be omitted in some circles of the Christian faith, because it is too revolutionary. Mayfield cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was executed by the Nazis, who says that the Magnificat is “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
The first part of the Magnificat is usually used to write songs in English, Spanish and Latina. Magnificat, anima mea, sing the choirs as they remember Mary's praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
We sing with Mary, without giving it a second thought… but would we want to sing the rest of the song when we are the well fed? When we are the ones that have money? When we are the ones that have power? When we benefit from systems of oppression?
Mary was a young woman. She had no position of power. Mary belonged to a people that were being oppressed by the Roman Empire. Mary was not a married woman and was with child. Three strikes… and I’m sure we could find more. She belonged to the poor, to those without power. And even in those circumstances, Mary received a special assignment from God, an assignment that fulfilled God’s promise to God’s people.
But if you listen further to her song, this promise goes beyond celebrating her luck in being chosen as the vessel of the Messiah. And for us... the promise goes beyond rejoicing about the birth of a cute little baby in a manger. It goes beyond individual forgiveness of sins. It goes beyond personal salvation.
Listen again to her song: “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
As Mayfield questions: “How does the Magnificat feel if you aren’t one of the lowly, if you aren’t as vulnerable and humble as Mary?”
God promises to change the lives of those who suffer. God promises to lift up the lowly and to put down the powerful. God raises the poor from the dust. God, in Mary’s song, is on the side of the poor, the hungry, the weak and the sad.
We may not like this part of the song. We might feel uncomfortable with a God that speaks about scattering, bringing down or sending people away empty. We might even think that God could not say such things, because they are too extreme. A God that shows preference for the poor? A God that dislikes those that are rich? Can we sing with Mary under such circumstances?
If the answer is yes, then we must recognize the ultimate consequences and impact of the song. As Paul Simpson Duke states, “The lifting of the lowly comes in tandem with the falling of the powerful.” God is at work to scatter the proud, to dethrone the powerful, to banish the rich, while feeding the hungry and lifting the lowly.
Duke states that Mary’s song belongs to all of those who want and need redemption, to those that fight against poverty, warfare, injustice, racism and oppression. It belongs to those that trust that God will fulfill God’s promises.
Mary’s song belonged to MLK and to those that continue to work and hope for peace, for joy and for love.
In his letter, King’s responds to being called an extremist. He challenges those who are questioning him with Jesus and with other examples of those who in some shape or form trust in God’s promises and are faithful to God’s message as Mary did. Was not Jesus an extremist for love? Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel?
They all had to believe in the ultimate consequences of God's message, in its power to transform realities that were working against God's vision of the kindom, in order to be true prophets of change.
The important thing for MLK was not extremism. The important thing was what we are extremist for. He challenged then and us “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
Will we sing Mary’s song with the knowledge of its ultimate consequences and impact? Will we be extremists for love, truth and goodness and challenge an environment that seems dominated by hate, lies and revenge? Will we act in in remembrance of God’s mercy or choose only the parts of the song that are cuter, nicer, not controversial or extreme?
MLK once said “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear”. This was an extreme choice, when facing all of the hate and violence he faced. It was a choice that came with the sacrifice of his life.
May our songs this Christmas and in the coming year, reflect God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s goodness and God’s justice in their ultimate consequences. May our moral and spiritual beliefs be our guide and impact every aspect of our lives in ways expected and unexpected. Not doing so is too great a burden to bear. May God help us to do so.