Tough Minds and Tender Hearts: An Open Letter to Young Clergy

On August 28th, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King memorial was to be dedicated at the National Mall. Due to Hurricane Irene, the dedication has been postponed. Nevertheless, King's presence marks the first non-presidential, private citizen and clergyperson to be honored on our nation's most hallowed grounds.

And yet, ironically, his presence there underscores the absence of his theological influence in many churches. King's correlation between the Beloved Community and the Kingdom of God, for instance, is largely unacknowledged, unappreciated or unknown to clergy born after 1980. Given the vast numbers of Christians in America, this absence is of civic note. Neglecting King's theology increases the likelihood that our democracy will forego a dedicated minority of clergy who insist upon active citizenship as an expression of Christian discipleship.

As we ponder King's legacy, let us add a moment of interrogation to our justified moments of celebration. How might we, in his words, ensure that young clergy can "bring the Christian message to bear on the social evils that cloud our day"? Revisiting King's "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart" sermon can aid us in this matter, presenting a vision of preaching that fully engages the head and the heart.

King's sermonic thought comes from Jesus' commissioning of the disciples in Matthew 10:16. The text reads: "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." Interpreting the passage as a formula for action, King equates serpents with toughmindedness, doves with tenderheartedness. The former signifies "incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment"; the latter represents "genuine compassion, a sharing in the joy and sorrow of one's fellows." King wields these traits together in two ways: 1) Highlighting contrastive themes within the Bible-living as sheep in the midst of wolves, living in the world but not being of it and so on; and 2) a Hegelian rhetoric which strives for "a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony." After defining his terms, he unveils the main idea: Segregation demands a loving and yet critical response from Christians. His conclusion: The creative synthesis of nonviolent resistance offers the best route to integration.

Dr. King preached a great sermon for his time. But what, if anything, might the Kingian couplet mean for young clergy in an age of austerity, a post-Civil Rights and supposedly post-racial era?

Today, clergy who aim to think clearly and love meaningfully must reimagine the doctrine of providence. Many Christians, particularly black ones, encounter notions of divine providence through praise and worship music. Exuberant and well-intentioned worship leaders exhort congregations to praise their way through pain; to know that when the praises go up, blessings invariably come down; to trust that God will either change an individual's circumstances or an individual within that circumstance. We might call this version of the doctrine "privatized providence" -- the idea that God mysteriously orchestrates all things, and above all else, is after the hearts of human beings. In the midst of massive unemployment, persistently high rates of default on student loans and an affordable housing crisis, privatized providence instructs us, as individuals, to praise our way through the storm and otherwise trust that God won't let trouble last always.

This is a powerful and pervasive, yet partial, response. Such an explanation warms the heart, but leaves tough minds wanting more. In Dr. King's terms, it provides no rationale for one to "move creatively toward the goal of freedom and justice." We might instead speak of "public providence," which differs from privatized providence in three important ways. Public providence, with the Nicene Creed, affirms that God became human in Christ "for us and for our salvation." God in Christ renews and transforms individuals within, and not in isolation from, community.

Secondly, it views the church as the ekklesia, a distinct assembly of Christ-followers, which moves within a broader national and global public. Privatized providence envisions the church as an aggregation of believers; public providence claims that the church itself is a public. Following Dr. King, it views the ekklesia as a community of transformed nonconformists whose love of God, neighbor, enemy and stranger compels them to seek just sociopolitical arrangements.

Thirdly, public providence argues for ever-expanding circles of moral compassion and conceptual clarity. When politicians narrowly define national priorities and economists ignore those who are willing but unable to obtain housing, healthcare, and decent wages, tender-hearted clergy draw a wider circle -- one that insists on equity and economic productivity, in America and abroad. When foggy preaching ambiguously handles the topic of social suffering, toughminded clergy bring a foghorn, exposing the policies and practices that, in part, contribute to disproportionately high levels of joblessness, foreclosures and poor health in black and brown communities. Such adverse outcomes are largely preventable -- they are neither inevitable nor divinely ordained.

Privatized providence perceives the Christian life as an individualized benefit plan. Public providence maintains that we are blessed to be a blessing; that the Gospel, among other things, is still about good news to and among the poor.

Soft-mindedness and hard-heartedness are afoot in America, even in the Church. In the spirit of Rev. Martin Luther King, let us redouble our effort to love intently and think critically.