In December of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech at Western Michigan University that is considerably less well-known than “I Have a Dream” or some of his other remarkable public addresses. In it he says,
“There are certain technical words within every academic discipline that soon become stereotypes and cliches. Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.”…Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities, we all want the well‐adjusted life in order to avoid neurosis.
But I say to you, my friends…there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence.”
I’ve been stewing on this idea of maladjustment since I came across this speech and then attended a conference on creative maladjustment in January, and I’m setting it before you as well during this season of Lent. It hardly seems possible that a phrase spoken over fifty years ago could be so relevant to our own situation, but I’ve come to the conclusion that creative maladjustment may provide a pathway for us to follow Christ in a complicated, tumultuous time.
We enter into this not only with the words of Martin Luther King, but also with the biblical text from even longer ago. In the other Gospels, the stories of Jesus’ baptism and temptation and the beginning of his preaching are longer, more detailed, and somewhat distinct from one another, but here we get them all in one rapid sequence, with the abrupt and vivid descriptions that are typical to the Gospel of Mark. Baptism, temptation, ministry. Jesus is baptized, and the skies are ripped open. The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, not gently guides; the Greek word means something like throws or forcibly ejects. And then, just as suddenly as he had gone, Jesus is back and preaching the good news he carries for the world.
Nothing about any of this goes the way one might expect. Jesus resists the easy path at every turn. This big miracle happens, the sky is torn open, a voice booms out of heaven, it’s the perfect moment for Jesus to take on all of people’s expectations for a Messiah and grab the energy and momentum of that moment and stay in that limelight. But he does the opposite. He heads out into the wilderness alone.
Then he’s out in the wilderness, without supplies or companionship, and he is tempted for forty days, offered every opportunity for relief, comfort, and power. But he doesn’t take them.
And then he returns to the public, his “moment” having long passed, and begins to preach good news. But his good news isn’t what anyone would expect good news to be. It is good news, that the reign of God has come, but it’s good news with an edge – a call to repent, to change, to turn from the path you’re following and and choose another. To choose the path of Jesus, which is more often than not a path that leads away from the easy and the expected. This is a path of resistance.
I didn’t want to preach about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Obviously, I wish there wasn’t another shooting to preach about, but there always seems to be one more. And I’ve already preached that sermon, about guns and responding to the very real fear of who may be next. I’ve only been here nine months, and I’ve preached at least twice about shootings, and I didn’t want to do it again.
But then I saw a video of Emma Gonzalez, one of the students who endured that mass shooting, speaking at a rally yesterday. My heart both sunk and swelled when she said, “Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you’ll fail, and if you do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something!” And I realized that she was preaching some good news. It’s not easy news, especially for “the adults,” the people with the power to do something. It’s news that comes straight out of the desperate wilderness experience, and it has that edge, that challenge. Change. Repent. Do something.
She also told the crowds, “We are the kids who end up in textbooks, not because we end up as statistics on mass shootings in America, but because we are going to be the last mass shooting.”
May they and we make that true. Please. Now that would truly be some good news. But it’s not news that would be received as “good” by everyone. For some, it will be a threat. To accomplish her promise, a whole lot of people will have to follow a path that is neither easy nor expected. It will be a path of resistance. And those who follow this path will be maladjusted. We will not go with the grain. We will be maladjusted to a culture that sacrifices the lives of its children. We will be maladjusted to the idolatry of violence. We will be maladjusted to a government that talks about arming its teachers but won’t give them funding for pencils.
Martin Luther King was, in his time, speaking primarily about racism, which is still a reality that we face. But he was also speaking more broadly about the need to resist all the forces of society that lead us toward injustice and oppression.
“(There is a need for) men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation would not survive half‐slave and half‐free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We know these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights” that among these are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.” Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”
Our witness to the world will depend upon our ability to resist, to maladjust. To say NO to the temptations of easy comfort and irresponsible power. To confront violence with loving, creative resistance. To teach our children, our communities, and our government that we do not bow to the power of the predator. To emerge from the wilderness, sustained by God’s proclamation that we are beloved, tended by angels, preaching the good news even when it’s hard to say and hard to hear: that the reign of God is near, if only we repent and turn our hearts. That the reign of God is near, where predators lose their power and prey lose their fear. Where the wolf lives with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the kid, and the calf and the lion together, and seventeen children shall finally lead us.