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Martin Luther King, Conformity, and the ‘Age of Jumboism’

In late 1954, Martin Luther King had just been installed as the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He preached a sermon on Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of Go.” (KJV). In the sermon, he addressed the spirit of conformity that marked the 1950s, but his words seem immediately relevant to the church today.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Library of Congress, Public Domain.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Instead of making history we are made by history. The philosopher Nietzche once said that every man is a hammer or an anvil, that is to say every man either molds society or is molded by society. Who can doubt that most men today are anvils, continually being molded by the patterns of the majority?

Along with this has grown a deep worship of bigness. Especially in this country many people are impressed by nothing that is not big—big cities, big churches, big corporations. We all are tempted to worship size. We live in an age of “Jumboism” whose men find security in that which is large in number and extensive in size.

Men are afraid to stand alone for their convictions. There are those who have high and noble ideals, but they never reveal them because they are afraid of being nonconformist. I have seen many white people who sincerely oppose segregation and discrimination, but they never took a real stand against it because of fear of standing alone.

I have seen many young people and older people alike develop undesirable habits not because they wanted to do it in the beginning, not even because they enjoyed it, but because they were ashamed of saying “no” when the rest of the group was saying “yes.” Even the Christian church has often been afraid to stand up for what is right because the majority didn’t sanction it.

In King’s day, it was embarrassing and risky for many white Christian leaders to speak out about civil rights. Even today, Christians who keep talking about the need for racial reconciliation, or who point to ongoing instances of racial injustice, are likely to hear, “Why can’t you just move on?” (If they’re on Twitter, they are also likely to get hit with a flood of alt-right abuse.)

We also know that as orthodox Christianity becomes a minority view, it is becoming more and more uncomfortable to maintain biblical stances on issues such as sexuality. The temptation to be an anvil rather than a hammer becomes ever more pressing for the church.

King’s note about Jumboism, conformity, and the worship of bigness has cascading implications for a church today that struggles to understand its minority status in Western culture. Respect for bigness entails a pressure to conform to the expectations of mass culture and media. Thirst for popularity can also fatally distract the average church and pastor from the one main thing: faithfulness to God and to the Word of God, and loving care for the flock that God provides, however big or small that flock may be.

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