Why Have Faith in Progress?

For the past few years, the main column of our newsletter has been entitled “Faith in Progress”—conveying the notion that through a constant push for the common good and a steadfast faith in God’s love for all people, we can and will create the beloved community. “Faith in Progress” then names three commitments: that progress is possible, that faith informs our progressive actions, and that one’s personal faith is always deepening. Today’s column is a reflection by Al Sharp on this notion of faith in progress through a look at the works of Martin Luther King Jr., a man who truly believed that social progress is always possible. It contains excerpts from Rev. Sharp’s sermon Sources of Our Hope delivered on Martin Luther King Day in January 2012 at Northminster Presbyterian Church of Evanston.

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Why have “Faith in Progress” as the title of this column? I can address this question by reflecting upon the life and perspectives of Martin Luther King Jr. What would he think about our life together today? What were the sources of his hope?

He would agonize over the fact that we in this country are more divided by wealth and income than at any time since the Gilded Age of the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. He would not be surprised that African Americans, along with Hispanics, are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden.

How did King in his time come to terms with constant struggle, lack of progress, dreams delayed? How can we? Most fundamentally, Martin Luther King believed in an ultimate reality that makes defeat temporary and redeems our failures. He trusted what Jesus has told us about God as love. “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship,” he wrote.

I believe this. This is the essential message of our Christian faith. God is love, and God loves creation. This is what Jesus told us most fundamentally. I have argued with skeptics over the years who point out that even when we make gains, each step forward carries the seeds of a new problem. Of course it does. “New roads, new ruts,” as they say.

What, then, is the source of our hope in a world where terrible things seem to hold sway over the good? It is this: it matters whether evil is being challenged in this world by truth, or whether truth is being threatened by evil. Goodness or love, on the one hand, is not the same as evil or darkness on the other. Evil is temporary, but goodness is not. Love endures. In the words of the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)

What can we say in a world where social and economic injustice endure? Here is how King himself put it: “Even though all progress is precarious, within limits real social progress may be made. Although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness.”

Within Protestants for the Common Good, we’ve helped to curb the payday loan industry, which used to be able to charge annualized interest rates of 700% and suck people into perpetual debt by rolling over loans that could never be repaid. We have helped to provide ex-offenders with a second chance by passing legislation permitting the sealing or expungement of records for those who have paid their debt to society and not re-offended. We have successfully worked with others to ensure that juvenile prostitutes are referred to social services rather than the criminal justice system. And, yes, we helped to increase the state income tax to 5% in the hope that we might help to preserve what little of our social services safety net still exists.

Martin Luther King was not self-deceived by illusions. The best collection of his sermons is a volume The Strength to Love, and the very first one is titled, “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” In it, he said, “Jesus knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world…where they would…meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism.” We, too, operate without illusions, lest we be discouraged when change does not happen. Persistence must always be our watchword.

God has given us our freedom, which brings with it the responsibility for fighting the injustices all around us. But for us, as for Martin Luther King, God is in our midst. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7) Our struggles toward peace and justice count, and will prevail, because they are consistent with the meaning that God has given to this world, to our existence in it, and with the love of God which has been placed in the hearts of us all.

This is why I, too, have “Faith in Progress.”

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