The Oscar-nominated biopic Selma tells the compelling story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s struggle for justice, giving us a glimpse of what it takes to create heaven on earth.
The Ringing Call for Justice
Many of Dr. King’s adversaries were Bible-believing, church-going Christians. Any thinking person may be tempted to resist a God who stood behind their racism. But King saw God standing beside him—not behind his adversaries.
He knew there were two ways the Bible was being read in the American south and he knew that one of them was the better way.
When he read the Bible he saw a dream that was driven by the prophet Isaiah’s vision, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
True Christianity is deeply concerned with justice for all, not merely for its own.
It condemns persecution of all religious groups because the value of worship is always compromised without the freedom to worship.
It defends the right of its dissenters to ask difficult questions because if something is true it can survive any scrutiny.
It seeks a society with freedom for all religions because worship that is forced is not worship and love that is coerced is not love.
Justice mattered to Luther because he knew it mattered to God.
The Humble All-Powerfulness of God
While the injustices in the American south yesterday and India today might make us wonder whether God is at work in the world, the nature of God should make us wonder whether we are asking the best questions about His involvement.
“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form,” says C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.
One of the least appreciated things about God is that He cannot do all things because He is good. If He could do anything, He could be loving and evil at the same time. But He is bound to His goodness and it is impossible for Him to violate His own nature.
Along with goodness, reason itself is rooted in the nature of God. It is as impossible for Him to be loving and evil at the same time, as it is for Him to make a world where we are free but always choose what is good. Both are unreasonable and impossible. They are plain contradictions and they remain impossible even for God to do them.
C.S. Lewis says, “His omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him but not nonsense.”
In a strange way, human suffering reveals God’s goodness because it shows that He made the world with integrity—giving human beings the freedom to go their own way and an angel the freedom to become an adversary.
The Haunting Spectre of An Adversary
Selma tells the story of a battle for justice, not a cakewalk. It was a victory that was earned through perseverance—not without cost, sacrifice and the loss of lives.
The New Testament does not make light of the struggle against evil. It acknowledges that it involves struggling, wrestling, resisting and fighting a battle that does not invite involvement without cost.
Imagine if you were at home and you heard that two men were shot in the street in broad daylight. It may leave you bewildered because such things are not expected in civil society. But if your home was in Europe during the second world war and the two men were shot by invading enemy forces, you would know why they were killed. There is a war going on.
It would not be easier to endure the pain but it would be simpler to understand the reason.
In his book God at War, Gregory Boyd shows how the New Testament views the world as a battlefield for an ongoing war between God and rebellious forces of darkness led by the adversary—literally known as the satan.
In this view, the world is not a peaceful planet. It is a world at war.
Unlike popular caricatures of a red fiery midget with a little pitchfork, the adversary is an intelligent, powerful angel who was free to worship God but wanted to go his own way.
If an evil adversary rages against God and his creation, disease, disaster and danger (besides the will of man) are not simply to be found, they can be expected.
Until the war is over.
The Bitter Glory of the Gospel
Selma was a crucial turning point for democracy. It followed one hundred years of struggle and marked the beginning of the end for a long era of injustice.
God at war with the adversary is not a war between equals. It is a war between a powerful King and a pretender to the throne.
We have already seen the turning point in the war, though we are yet to see the final victory. Our great assurance in the remaining battle is that a risen Jesus points to a returning one—a victorious one.
The Necessary Intervention of People
When David Oyelowo, the actor who played Dr. King, was asked why Americans should watch Selma, he said, “Because you see someone who doesn’t just talk about their faith; you see someone who walks it out, with sacrifical love. The Bible says, Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.
That is not only what Dr. King did ultimately (in being assassinated); it’s what he did for those 13 years that he led the civil rights movement. Every day he sacrificed seeing his kids. He had to endure death threats. He had to endure ill health. He often went into the hospital for exhaustion, because he was constantly putting himself on the line for others. That’s what the Bible tells us to do.”
The human condition already has divine intervention but it does not have enough human intervention. Perhaps it’s because we feel too powerless, too cynical or too indifferent. But the Bible gives us a new paradigm for engaging with a hurting world with the hope of a new and coming creation.
Jesus entered into human suffering to redeem us from it so that we can engage with human suffering without being consumed by it.
Luther’s way of engaging injustice was rooted in the conviction that justice should matter to us because it matters to God. It was driven by his confidence in God’s power to overcome evil with good.
The Gospel is good news for a hurting world but it is not simple news. It does not pretend to be palatable but it is necessary, compelling and important news. With its insistence that history will go the way of God and He will bring justice to the very ends of the earth, it may even be the best news.
Image Credit: Scott Ableman