I Am From the Future


With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up Monday, I would like for you to engage in a thought experiment. It will require the use of some imagination. The first thing I want you to imagine is a time machine. Maybe it’s Doc Brown’s DeLorean or Doctor Who’s TARDIS or a time machine of your own creation. You need a time machine because you are being sent on a mission that will take you back in time. You are being sent to Montgomery, Alabama in 1850. Your task is to go to the First Conservative Church of Montgomery and convince them to change their position on slavery. Good luck.

So how would you go about it? What would you say? I would suggest that you simply tell the truth. Tell them you are from the future. Tell them about the future. Be prophetic. Tell them about a coming war that will be horrible beyond imagining. Tell them about a tall man born in a log cabin in Kentucky. Tell them about an Emancipation Proclamation. Tell them about a Fourteenth Amendment and the wrongs it will right. Perhaps you could take them much farther into the future and tell them other things. Tell them about a woman from their own town who will become famous because she won’t give up her seat. Tell them about a preacher from Atlanta named after the man who launched the Protestant Reformation who will one day be a pastor in their city. Tell them about this great man’s Dream. Tell them how he will die a martyr’s death and change a nation. Tell them where the future is headed. You might even tell them about the first African-American President (and then give them CPR!).

You might say it like this: “My dear Christian friends, I am from the future. I am a prophetic witness of that which is to come. The future does not belong to you. The future does not belong to your system. The future does not belong to slavery. Slavery has no future. And if you continue to align yourself with that which is destined to be abolished, the future will hold you in contempt. The future belongs to emancipation. The future belongs to equality. The future belongs to dignity. The future belongs to justice. And now I call you to rethink everything you have assumed, because the time for change is upon you, the future is at hand. I call you to anticipate and bless the coming future by embracing it now!”

You would not accept the excuses from the slavery-endorsing Christians who might say something like, “Slavery will change when Jesus comes back, but for now this is just the way things are, for now slavery is necessary.” You would not accept that! You would say, “No! The time for abolition is now! The future is upon you! You must change now!” If you were to preach such a message, you would in essence be saying, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” And you would be lucky to make it out alive.

But perhaps some would hear you. Perhaps some would believe your gospel. Perhaps some would believe that you are from the future and respond to your prophetic message by rethinking their lives, freeing their slaves, and helping them to recover the inherent dignity that belongs to their humanity. Those who did so might very well lose everything. It would not be a “practical” or “reasonable” or “successful” thing to do, but it would be the prophetic and faithful thing to do. Those acting on your word would be entering the kingdom of heaven in the present. But it would be as the Apostle Paul described it to the fledgling congregations in Syria: “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” Indeed the kingdom of God never comes in a new way without those who are committed to the present age persecuting those who are from the future. To be a prophetic witness to the kingdom of God nearly always requires passing through some kind of tribulation, for the simple reason that the principalities and powers do not easily cede their positions of privilege.

The Southern writer Lillian Smith was a prophetic voice who found out how unpopular a person can become if they are from the future. Lillian Smith was born in the Deep South in 1897, a time and place not far removed from slavery—racism was the order of the day and society was still rigidly segregated. Jim Crow laws made African-Americans second-class citizens. In 1944, Smith’s first novel, Strange Fruit, was published and became an instant best-seller. It sold three million copies, was translated into fifteen languages, and made into a Broadway play. Five years later, Smith published her second book, Killers of the Dream. This book was not a follow up novel, but an exposé of the sins of the South and a call for the civil rights of all people. It was shocking, and affronted too many southerners—including powerful moderates—to be financially or critically successful. The subject matter and Smith’s innovative style were met with hostility, or deliberate silence, by the literary establishment and the general public of Cold War America. Here is a sample of Smith’s untimely prophetic critique of the pre-Civil Rights South:

The mother who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their “place.” The father who rebuked me for an air of superiority toward schoolmates from the mill and rounded out his rebuke by gravely reminding me that “all men are brothers,” trained me in the steel-rigid decorums I must demand of every colored male. I learned it is possible to be a Christian and a white southerner simultaneously; to be a gentlewoman and an arrogant callous creature in the same moment; to pray at night and ride a Jim Crow car the next morning and to feel comfortable in doing both. I learned to believe in freedom, to glow when the word democracy was used, and to practice slavery from morning to night. I learned it the way all my southern people learn it: by closing door after door until one’s mind and heart and conscience are blocked off from each other and from reality.

It took tremendous courage and deep conviction to write those words in 1949 America—words that were hated and unheeded, and that nearly cost Lillian Smith her literary career. But a decade later Killers of the Dream provided inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. whose dream would not be killed…though the dreamer would be. Lillian Smith’s career was wrecked and Martin Luther King’s life was taken for the same reason—they were from the future.

As we in our own time imagine by faith the world to come, we are helped by the prophets. Assisting our imagination in rethinking the world is a primary task of the poet-prophets. They give us their prophetic metaphors to help us untether our imagination from the tyranny of the status quo. And none do it better than Isaiah of the Exile. His poetic portrayal of a future framed by holiness and bearing the fruit of peace has inspired multitudes who dare to dream of a better world. In his song, Isaiah sings of a future where idolatry and violence give way to true worship and neighborliness. This is the beautiful portrait of eschatological hope given to us in the second half of Isaiah (chapters 40–66). It is the prophetic future realized in Christ that we are to believe in, belong to, and move toward. It is the music from that distant land where the lion lays down with the lamb that we are to hear and dance to even now. Why? Because we are from the future.

Our first priority as the church is not to make all these things happen in the world through political action, but to be a prophetic witness to the hope of a world remade according to Christ. Every redemptive action—political and otherwise—must proceed from our faithful witness. In the midst of a hateful, violent and idolatrous world, the church is to be an enclave of love, peace and holiness. To be a faithful church, the church must be distinguished by holiness. Not holiness as puritanical moralism, but holiness as otherness—we are to be other to the values of this present darkness.

Christian holiness is not based upon a certain set of rules, but upon the fact that we are from another time. If we approach holiness as a legislative issue, we are prone to get it wrong. And even if we are not wrong in our judgment, we are likely to be ugly about it—haughty, condemning, and condescending. Holiness is not that. Holiness is not moralism. Holiness is not legalism. Holiness is not puritanical rule-keeping. Holiness is otherness. Holiness is prophetic untimeliness. Holiness is the transcendent beauty that comes from belonging to the redemptive future. Holiness is a preview of the world to come. Holiness is a picture of the beauty that is to be. To live now according to the beauty that shall be because the future belongs to God, is what the psalmist means when he calls upon us to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” We are holy when we are other. We are holy when we transcend the dominant paradigms of present corruption. We are holy when we are from the future.


(The painting is Obsolete Creates the Future by Gayle L. Curry)