The "Ought" and the "Is" - A Reflection on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In January of 1955, in a speech titled “A Realistic Approach to Progress in Race Relations” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. boldly declared to an audience that was largely made up of clergy, “You must do more than pray and read the Bible” in order to destroy racism and segregation, “you must do something about it."  

He went on to say, "How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds!  We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism…This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage" ("Love in Acfion," Strength to Love 40).

Dr. King repeatedly called the church, it's leaders, and those within it to find the courage to walk in the footsteps of the one whom we claim to follow, Jesus.  King admonished us all that we must follow Jesus' example of extravagant love and radical welcome not only when it is convenient and comfortable.  We are called to live lives characterized by this love even when it is difficult and threatens to bring great discomfort.  

This is the radical call of the Christ. 

This is the radical impact of the message of the Gospel. 

As we read in 1 John, "By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, "I abide in him," ought to walk just as he walkedBeloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, "I am in the light," while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness" (1 John 2:5-11).

What would it look like if we were to truly walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the Christ?  

What would happen if the "agonizing gulf between the ought and the is" were closed within the walls of the church, in our individual lives, as well as in the world in which we live?

This is a question Dr. King asked long ago and is a question with which we must still wrestle.

Perhaps our journey could begin with giving heed to the voice of the voiceless, standing up against the systematic injustices in our society, and treating ALL people as humans of equal value deserving honor and respect instead of seeing the other as an object deserving our disdain. 

The Gospel of Jesus the Christ beckons us to action not mere contemplation. This is not the road to self preservation, but it is the road of salvation. The grace of God compels us all to join with Christ in bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free.


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