Sometimes those of us who live inside of our comfortable Christian communities need to stop and remind ourselves of our calling, and of the very forthright warnings of our Lord Jesus about the hazards and consequences of following him in the path of obedience. I have been thinking of that on this 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer”—that enterprise by a host of young adults to register black voters in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. Granted, there were all kinds of forces at work in that enterprise, but it was primarily young adults who were formed within the black Christian community who were so very much at the heart of it.

The sheer injustices that were part of the segregationist culture of that region were not new, and were the subject of discussions within Christian gatherings, not only in black churches, but also in some of the white churches. It was quite safe to discuss this among those who agreed with each other. It was, however, quite another to confront that injustice in the bastions of white racism, and to challenge it with public demonstrations. In that cold war era anyone who proclaimed such a quest for equality was easily labeled a ‘communist’ or a ‘socialist.’ It was much safer and easier simply to remain silent and to let the status quo remain undisturbed.

But … the time came when younger black adults, college students primarily, and a much smaller number of white students began to think pragmatically about how to bring light into that darkness, how to effect real change. Their conclusion was that non-violent protests and demonstrations would make the injustice visible, and would have some economic consequences that might produce change. Of course, that is exactly what happened. Even though there were many from all over the ideological and religious spectrum who participated, the church became the rallying point, and often the victim of violence, church burnings, church bombing (such as in Birmingham where children were killed) that ultimately began to get results.

When the summer of the voter registration strategy took place, the leadership trained the mostly college students, mostly white, from mostly northern colleges at a campus in Ohio, but an essential part of that training was to let these idealistic young adults know how dangerous the effort would be, and that they could get beaten, jailed, or killed (all of which happened to many).

I bring this historical episode up here on this blog because Jesus and his apostles were also quite candid and explicit in making known that to be called into Jesus’ kingdom of light, and out of the kingdom of darkness, was also a call to “storm the gates of hell”—all of the destructive and enslaving ramifications of this fallen culture, which had been the domain of the Prince of Darkness: meaningless lives, injustice, human cruelty, torture, hopelessness, irrationality, absence of any authority or guiding line—any truth that would set men and women free.

Jesus would warn that to come after him was to deny oneself, take up the cross and follow. The apostles would teach that if we suffer with Jesus we shall also reign with him. John would write that the saints overthrow the works of the devil by the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and that they did not love their lives even unto death (Rev. 12:11). To “storm the gates of hell” is to expect satanic resistance and counterattacks, to expect, maybe, not peace but a sword. It is to forsake all that we have for the accomplishment of the realization of God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

To obey Jesus mandate to herald his gospel of the Kingdom, is to actively engage the reality of a malignant darkness that comes in all of its economic, social, and religious norms of the darkness, and culturally its entrenched patterns that dare us to protest. But all of this is implicit in our obedience to Christ’s commission—and it is not safe. But it is liberating and fulfilling even when initially it can have disturbing and painful consequences. We dare not filter out this dimension of Christ’s teachings. Jesus came to set men and women free.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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