SERMON: Transformed Nonconformist, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Transformed Nonconformist Martin Luther King, Jr.

Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)

“Do not conform” is difficult advice in a generation when crowd pressures have unconsciously conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.  Many voices and forces urge us to choose the path of least resistance, and bid us never to fight for an unpopular cause and never to be found in a pathetic minority of two or three.

Even certain of our intellectual disciplines persuade us of the need to conform.  Some philosophical sociologists suggest that morality is merely group consensus and that the folkways are the right ways.  Some psychologists say that mental and emotional adjustment is the reward of thinking and acting like other people.

Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority.

I

In spite of this prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists.  The Apostle Paul, who knew the inner realities of the Christian faith, counseled, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability.  We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.

Every true Christian is a citizen of two worlds, the world of time and the world of eternity.  We are, paradoxically, in the world and yet not of the world.  To the Philippian Christians, Paul wrote, “We are a colony of Heaven.”  They understood what he meant, for their city of Philippi was a Roman colony.  When Rome wished to Romanize a province, she established a small colony of people who lived by Roman law and Roman customs and who, though in another country, held fast to their Roman allegiance.  This powerful, creative minority spread the gospel of Roman culture.  Although the analogy is imperfect – the Roman settlers lived within a framework of injustice and exploitation, that is, colonialism – the Apostle does point to the responsibility of Christians to imbue an unchristian world with the ideals of a higher and more noble order.  Living in the colony of time, we are ultimately responsible to the empire of eternity.  As Christians we must never surrender our supreme loyalty to any time-bound custom or Earth-bound idea, for at the heart of our universe is a higher reality – God and his kingdom of love – to which we must be conformed.

This command not to conform comes not only from Paul but also from our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, the world’s most dedicated nonconformist, whose ethical nonconformity still challenges the conscience of mankind.

When an affluent society would coax us to believe that happiness consists in the size of our automobiles, the impressiveness of our houses, and the expensiveness of our clothes, Jesus reminds us, “A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

When we would yield to the temptation of a world rife with sexual promiscuity and gone wild with a philosophy of self-expression, Jesus tells us that “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

When we refuse to suffer for righteousness and choose to follow the path of comfort rather than conviction, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

When in our spiritual pride we boast of having reached the peak of moral excellence, Jesus warns, “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”

When we, through compassionless detachment and arrogant individualism, fail to respond to the needs of the underprivileged, the Master says, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

When we allow the spark of revenge in our souls to flame up in hate toward our enemies, Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Everywhere and at all times, the love ethic of Jesus is a radiant light revealing the ugliness of our stale conformity.

In spite of this imperative demand to live differently, we have cultivated a mass mind and have moved from the extreme of rugged individualism to the even greater extreme of rugged collectivism.  We are not makers of history; we are made by history.  Longfellow said, “In this world a man must either be anvil or hammer,” meaning that he is either a molder of society or is molded by society.  Who doubts that today most men are anvils and are shaped by the patterns of the majority?  Or to change the figure, most people, and Christians in particular, are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.

Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position that stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion.  The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.  Along with this has grown an inordinate worship of bigness.  We live in an age of “jumboism” where men find security in that which is large and extensive – big cities, big buildings, big corporations.  This worship of size has caused many to fear being identified with a minority idea.  Not a few men, who cherish lofty and noble ideals, hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.  Many sincere white people in the South privately oppose segregation and discrimination, but they are apprehensive lest they be publicly condemned.  Millions of citizens are deeply disturbed that the military-industrial complex too often shapes national policy, but they do not want to be considered unpatriotic.  Countless loyal Americans honestly feel that a world body such as the United Nations should include even Red China, but they fear being called Communist sympathizers.  A legion of thoughtful persons recognizes that traditional capitalism must continually undergo change if our great national wealth is to be more equitably distributed, but they are afraid their criticisms will make them seem un-American.  Numerous decent, wholesome young persons permit themselves to become involved in unwholesome pursuits that they do not personally condone or even enjoy, because they are ashamed to say no when the gang says yes.  How few people have the audacity to express publicly their convictions, and how many have allowed themselves to be “astronomically intimidated”!

Blind conformity makes us so suspicious of an individual who insists on saying what he really believes that we recklessly threaten his civil liberties.  If a man, who believes vigorously in peace, is foolish enough to carry a sign in a public demonstration, or if a Southern white person, believing in the American dream of the dignity and worth of human personality, dares to invite a Negro into his home and join with him in his struggle for freedom, he is liable to be summoned before some legislative investigation body.  He most certainly is a Communist if he espouses the cause of human brotherhood!

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  To the conformist and the shapers of the conformist mentality, this must surely sound like a most dangerous and radical doctrine.  Have we permitted the lamp of independent thought and individualism to become so dim that were Jefferson to write and live by these words today we would find cause to harass and investigate him?  If Americans permit thought-control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue, we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism.

II

Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution that has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion.  The erstwhile sanction by the church of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is testimony to the fact that the church has hearkened more to the authority of the world than to the authority of God.  Called to be the moral guardian of the community, the church at times has preserved that which is immoral and unethical.  Called to combat social evils, it has remained silent behind stained-glass windows.  Called to lead men on the highway of brotherhood and to summon them to rise above the narrow confines of race and class, it has enunciated and practiced racial exclusiveness.

We preachers have also been tempted by the enticing cult of conformity.  Seduced by the success symbols of the world, we have measured our achievements by the size of our parsonage.  We have become showmen to please the whims and caprices of the people.  We preach comforting sermons and avoid saying anything from our pulpit that might disturb the respectable views of the comfortable members of our congregations.  Have we ministers of Jesus Christ sacrificed truth on the altar of self-interest and, like Pilate, yielded our convictions to the demands of the crowd?

We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians, who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word and refused to shape their witness according to the mundane patterns of the world.  Willingly they sacrificed fame, fortune, and life itself in behalf of a cause they knew to be right.  Quantitatively small, they were qualitatively giants.  Their powerful gospel put an end to such barbaric evils as infanticide and bloody gladiatorial contests.  Finally, they captured the Roman Empire for Jesus Christ.

Gradually, however, the church became so entrenched in wealth and prestige that it began to dilute the strong demands of the gospel and to conform to the ways of the world.  And ever since the church has been a weak and ineffectual trumpet making uncertain sounds.  If the church of Jesus Christ is to regain once more its power, message, and authentic ring, it must conform only to the demands of the gospel.

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.  The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!

In his essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson wrote, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”  The Apostle Paul reminds us that whoso would be a Christian must also be a nonconformist.  Any Christian who blindly accepts the opinions of the majority and in fear and timidity follows a path of expediency and social approval is a mental and spiritual slave.  Mark well these words from the pen of James Russell Lowell:

They are slaves who fear to speak
For the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose
Hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.

III

Nonconformity in itself, however, may not necessarily be good and may at times possess neither transforming nor redemptive power.  Nonconformity per se contains no saving value and may represent in some circumstances little more than a form of exhibitionism.  Paul in the latter half of the text offers a formula for constructive nonconformity: “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Nonconformity is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life and is constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook.  By opening our lives to God in Christ we become new creatures.  This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists and freed from the cold hardheartedness and self-righteousness so often characteristic of nonconformity.  Someone has said, “I love reforms but I hate reformers.”  A reformer may be an untransformed nonconformist whose rebellion against the evils of society has left him annoyingly rigid and unreasonably impatient.

Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.  The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing.  And this very transformation saves him from speaking irresponsible words that estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments that are blind to the necessity of social progress.  He recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility.

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.  Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism.  The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.

Some years ago Professor Bixler reminded us of the danger of overstressing the well-adjusted life.  Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted.  We must, of course, be well-adjusted if we are to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities, but there are some things in our world to which men of goodwill must be maladjusted.  I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.  We need today maladjusted men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, when ordered by King Nebuchadnezzar to bow before a golden image, said in unequivocal terms, “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us.  But if no, we will not serve thy gods”; like Thomas Jefferson, who in an age adjusted to slavery wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”; like Abraham Lincoln, who had the wisdom to discern that this nation could not survive half slave and half free; and supremely like our Lord, who, in the midst of the intricate and fascinating military machinery of the Roman Empire, reminded his disciples that “they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”  Through such maladjustment an already decadent generation may be called to those things that make for peace.

Honesty impels me to admit that transformed nonconformity, which is always costly and never altogether comfortable, may mean walking through the valley of the shadow of suffering, losing a job, or having a six-year-old daughter ask, “Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?”  But we are gravely mistaken to think that Christianity protects us from the pain and agony of mortal existence.  Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.  To be a Christian, one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tragedy-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way that comes only through suffering.

In these days of worldwide confusion, there is a dire need for men and women who will courageously do battle for truth.  We need Christians who will echo the words John Bunyan said to his jailer when, having spent twelve years in jail, he was promised freedom if he would agree to stop preaching:

But if nothing will do, unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughter-shop, unless, putting out my own eyes, I commit me to the blind to lead me, as I doubt is desired by some, I have determined, the Almighty God, being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows, rather than thus to violate my faith and principles.

We must make a choice.  Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds?  Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soulsaving music of eternity?  More than ever before, we are today challenged by the words of yesterday, “Be not conformed to this world: but be yet transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

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