Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope
by Patrick Lafferty
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
The official dedication last month of the newly finished Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington opened to understandably great fanfare and adulation, both for the massive granite work and the man who inspired it. Rendering King as if stepping out from the rock itself, the monument incarnates the famed civil rights leader’s words that most typified his crusade for justice, “out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Both those who walked alongside him in the darkest days of the effort, and those who ultimately benefitted from his sacrifice, gathered upon the National Mall to celebrate his legacy now immortalized in stone.
But amid the celebration came some unvarnished criticism of the monument, and from those you’d least expect to cast a pale upon the festivities. The celebrated author and poet, Maya Angelou, thought the inscription, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,”—another of King’s memorable sayings—cast him in a regrettably arrogant light. Some wondered why white granite was chosen to portray a black man, while others expressed dismay that the stone came from Communist China, a nation whose human rights record is at best pockmarked. Even one New York Times cultural critic distilled his disappointment in the lamentful questions, “Is this [monument] the Dr. King of the “I Have a Dream” speech? Or the writer of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech?” The thread running through the criticism: the nobility of the effort notwithstanding, the monument simply fails to capture the essence of the subject.
The phenomenon isn’t confined to the making of monuments either.
Scott Manetsch is a professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He’s recently written an article renewing the question a book co-authored by Mark Noll asked several years ago, Is the Reformation Over? Both article and book ask whether what the reformers sought to accomplish in their reforms has adequately permeated the church, in both its teaching and practice. More narrowly, Manetsch, Noll, and others ask if a central feature of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification—what forms the basis of our salvation—has genuinely made inroads into the Roman Catholic church, the ecclesiastical structure upon which the likes of Luther, Calvin, and countless others sought to bring change?
Since the question they raise has led them to article- and book-length treatments, I won’t dare to summarize their respective answers. But I will note a resonance between the 500 year-old Protestant-Catholic dispute and what’s transpired not even a month ago regarding the new monument upon the Mall.
To the outsider, the doctrinal differences between Protestants and Catholics on justification may seem like a pedantic intramural squabble over, at best, semantic differences or theological minutiae. But Manetsch notes that Calvin understood the discrepancies over what secured man’s salvation ultimately centered on competing visions of the very nature of God. Just as some pilloried the composition of King’s monument for its obscuring of his essence, so Calvin argued that to portray salvation as, in part, a work of man—as the Roman church had done at the time of the Reformation—is to rob God of His proper glory. Unless you understand salvation to be entirely a gratuitous act of God you fail to capture God’s essence.
But failing to capture God’s essence does more than misrepresent Him, Calvin contended. For to place any measure of the burden of salvation upon the backs of men is to
“. . .rob all consciences of calm and placid confidence [in divine grace]. . . . Any part of this righteousness, however small, if placed in works will totter, as resting on an insecure foundation . . . . It is a plain matter, that we cannot come boldly before the tribunal of God, unless we are certainly persuaded that he is our Father: and this cannot be without our being regarded as righteous in his sight.”
Calvin in no way sought to diminish the importance of real holiness growing in the believer—only that God’s great grace should be highly and fittingly esteemed for how He made His favor to us in no way contingent upon us. Otherwise, the teaching on salvation fails to ennoble the full honor of God.
And that, brothers and sisters, despite the appearance of mere theological gymnastics, has everything to do with how you handle your anger, and deal both urgently and diligently with matters requiring reconciliation—as Mark has explored the last two weeks in Jesus’ teaching on the subject.
The capacity to tread lightly in matters of anger and pursue reconciliation with all haste finds it most complete compulsion in the utter kindness of God—a kindness so full and immeasurable that it made you His eternally—at only His cost. His unadulterated, unmitigated love in Christ must be what most compels us to honor Him, and what most horrifies us at the thought of offending Him. Our hope for obedience rests on the fact of Christ’s complete obedience, in love, for us.
Moreover, when our hearts fail and we succumb to anger or neglect the hard work of reconciliation, it will be the inestimable grace of God that compels us to see our failures to obey in light of His perfections. Then we find the strength to acknowledge the guilt and danger of ongoing sin. Then we find the motivation to confess and seek the aid of His Spirit—and particularly His Spirit’s work through the Church—for a heart that can set aside whatever pride or fear that fuels our anger or sustains our estrangement.
It matters how well you capture and how highly you esteem the grace of God. For then, from the mountain of despair over sin comes a stone of hope for redemption—through Him Who is the cornerstone (Matthew 21:42).