Yesterday in the ward I attended we sang “When in the Wonderous Realms Above,” for the sacrament. This hymn has as its refrain, “Thy will, O Lord, be done.” The third verse goes like this: “We take the bread and cup this day / in memory of the sinless One / and pray for strength that we may say with Him / ‘Thy will, O Lord, be done.'”
I’ve been reflecting on this line and it seems to me to be particularly appropriate for Martin Luther King day.
On the surface, a plea for us to say with Jesus, “Thy will, O Lord, be done,” can sound like a plea for passivism. Don’t get involved, don’t try to change things, just submit, accept the status quo as God’s will and let his will be done. There is a certain appeal to that kind of thought. If the status quo is God’s will, it relieves us of responsibility for the status quo. If it’s God’s will, then who are we to oppose him? Trying to force change could even be tantamount to kicking against the pricks and fighting against God.
The trouble is, though, if we learn a bit about God’s character, we become aware pretty quickly that most often the status quo does not represent his will. God loves justice and mercy. He loves freedom, he loves equality. He is a God of love. It doesn’t take much to see that the state-sponsored racism that persisted during the 1960s and the culture-sponsored racism that persists to this day is hateful to God.
Dr. King understood that say to God, in the name of Christ, “Thy will be done” and to do nothing to bring about his will, is to take the Lord’s name in vain. If we are going to say “Thy will be done,” then we must be prepared to do whatever it takes to bring about his will. Yes, Dr. King was a civil rights leader, and yes, he loved the declaration of independence’s promise of equality, but he was also a preacher, and his words call down the biblical justice of God more than they appeal to civic virtues. To him, civil rights was not just a civic duty, it was a religious obligation. That, I believe, is at least part of what inspired him to follow the path of radical non-violence. Because he was trying to bring about God’s will, and God is love.
Dr. King is often called a prophet, and rightly so, in my opinion, because his message to this nation was a call to repentance–and what is more prophetic than that? From Samuel (“Thou are the man!”) to John, the Baptist (“Ye generation of vipers!”), from Enoch to Alma, the role of a prophet is foremost to preach repentance. None of this is to say that atheists or others who don’t believe in the Christian message can’t do good work and be honored for the good work they do. It is to say that those of us who call ourselves Christians cannot neglect the unfinished work that Dr. King started, because it is work that we, as disciples of Christ, are specifically called to, as he explained so well in his letter to fellow clergy from Birmingham jail.
When I was younger, I think I thought of Jesus’ moment in the garden of Gethsemane, before he went on to Golgotha, was one of just submitting, of becoming a passive victim for our sake. And yes, he did submit to God, and to the demands of an unjust law, but if you pay attention to his life as recorded in the gospels, he was anything but passive. Yes, he was nonviolent, in the sense that, “as a sheep before the shearers is dumb he opened not his mouth” in the moment that he was taken. But his whole life was one long provocation against the authorities of his day, Roman and Jewish. His path to the cross did not start in Gethsemane, it started years before when he began provoking those rulers who ruled without justice or mercy, and those leaders who led without sacrifice. By submitting to the demands of an unjust Roman law, he indicted Rome itself. And his resurrection, as Patrick Mason has eloquently explained, represented a victory not just over death as a metaphysical monster, but a victory over Rome and all its coercive power. The cross transformed from an instrument of torture, a symbol of Rome’s power, to a symbol of life and of Rome’s powerlessness. It turns out, Jesus was a messiah that would liberate Israel from Rome after all, just not in the way that his followers expected at first. He overthrew Rome by overthrowing the mortal world itself.
So when Jesus said “They will, O Lord, be done,” he was not just accepting the status quo. He was putting his own self, body and spirit, on the altar, to be consecrated as an offering to change the status quo, and calling those that would follow him to do the same. So if we say with Jesus, “They will, O Lord, be done,” unless that prayer is just a vain repetition, we must be willing to put some action behind those words.
In this light, and on this day, Kooyman’s lyric seems all the more poignant to me: “We take the bread and cup this day / in memory of the sinless One / and pray for strength that we may say with Him / ‘Thy will, O Lord, be done.'” To say “Thy will, O Lord be done” and truly mean it is something that will bring each of us to our knees and break us, leaving us with no choice but to “pray for strength” to say that prayer “with Him.”