King Day: ‘I Come Not to Bring Peace, But a Sword’

Well, I’m posting past midnight, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is just past. But in doing some reading on the Montgomery bus boycott, I came across a sermon he gave in March 1956. His point of departure was a recent court decision that ordered the University of Alabama to admit black students and the violence that met the first enrollee. King reacted angrily to the university’s decision to ask the student to leave school to restore peace to the campus.

It’s hard to choose an excerpt because the entire text is full of truth and fire. But here’s where he gets to the heart of his subject:

Yes, things are quiet in Tuscaloosa. Yes, there was peace on the campus, but it was peace at a great price: it was peace that had been purchased at the exorbitant price of an inept trustee board succumbing to the whims and caprices of a vicious mob. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of allowing mobocracy to reign supreme over democracy. It was peace that had been purchased at the price of capitulating to the force of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God. …

In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, “Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”

Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.”

Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” — not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.

I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.
If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.

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