“….by any means necessary”:
Those words hung in the balmy June air of a New York ballroom some 52 years ago. Spoken by a man born Malcolm Little, known to posterity as Malcolm X. My suspicion is that many Christians aren’t very familiar with the work of Mr. X. He was a firebrand public and political figure that divided opinion wildly, and much is either forgotten or misremembered about his life. So much so, that I remember when I was 8 years old asking my mother who he was and why he was important, and her simply telling me he was a “radical Muslim preacher” (mind you, this was long before the idea of Islamic terrorism).
This infamous line was given amongst much internal turmoil in Malcolm’s life. He had just left the Nation of Islam, an organization that catapulted him into the national spotlight, and he had recently returned from Africa with the intention of forming the Organization of Afro-American Unity, modeled after examples he had gleaned while traveling abroad.
Abandoning the idea of black separatism, he began advocating more for a Pan-African or Black Nationalist position. He promoted individual morality and community organization as the optimal way to achieve civil rights, but it was his understanding that civil rights weren’t something to be bestowed upon one another, but were natural rights that were to be either relinquished by those with power or confiscated by those without “by any means necessary.” He would be murdered 6 short months later, in that very same ballroom, but his words and especially this line, remain with us to this day.
There is much to be cautiously respected in Malcolm X, the length of which is not the point of this article (and obviously much we must be skeptical of or outright reject). However, when I hear this line from Malcolm X, I hear the duplicitous nature of his plea, the desperate yet dangerous urgency for change, but I also hear the hollowness of his ideology and way off in the distance, I can also hear the soft echoes of the Apostle Paul.
The Original “By All Means”
Long before Malcolm X hammered the pulpits of America, there was the Apostle Paul, weeping over a wild and misguided church in 1st century Corinth. Paul’s dealings with the Corinthian church were hardly ever straight forward. The local gathering was awash in social immorality and spiritual immaturity. Through much of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we can hear the heat of Paul’s frustration, but also the warmth of his undying love for these new believers. In chapter 9, Paul is answering allegations leveled against him, and toward the end of the chapter, he delves a little into his theory of ministry. In 1 Cor. 9:19-23, we see Paul’s heart for the people.
We need to point out the implications of what Paul is saying and how the 1st century tri-cultural writer differs from Mr. Malcolm X on his understanding of “any means”.
Saved to Slavery
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all…”
Paul starts the monologue declaring that, though he is abundantly free in Christ, he has chosen to make himself a servant (or slave) to all. Paul embodies the role of a servant, placing the needs and thriving of others ahead of his own. He has quite literally been saved from a life of slavery to sin, into a life of slavery to the gospel. The difference being that the gospel which he serves is the sweetest, most significant, joy-producing master in the world, and in that situation he gladly makes himself subservient to its cause. The purpose is made clear in the next few words: “that I might win more of them (to Christ).”
Saved to Culture
“To the Jew, I became a Jew, in order to win the Jews.”
There are a few important things to note here. First, Paul was already a Jew. So why does he phrase it this way? Paul is saying that when and if he ministers to the Jewish people that he seeks to become a Jew, in so much as understanding their background, laws, and culture as a means to the end of gospel hope. He understands, though he is culturally Jewish, because of his multi-ethnic background, he may not be accepted as readily as others. So therefore, for the sake of the gospel, there might be certain non-gospel issues that he should avoid or at the very least tread lightly on. The “hipster-church” word contextualization wasn’t just invented by a bunch of angsty millennials, but instead was a tactic Paul used when sharing life and the gospel.
Paul played an important part in reconciling a nascent church that was at risk of splintering early on. He grew up in Greek city, held Roman citizenship and was ethnically Jewish. He was able to reach across boundaries and help different groups understand each other as a “Greek ally.” Paul understood that to minister to a person effectively, you have to understand who they are and where they come from.
Saved to Context
“To the weak, I became weak…”
There is a debate amongst commentators as to who Paul is talking about here. Is he talking about the mentally weak people, spiritually weak, emotionally weak, or a combination of all three? I think we may be asking the wrong questions here, however. Maybe we should ask how Paul knew they were weak in the first place? The answer is probably simpler than you think. He had a relationship with them. Or at least had talked with them enough to know where the tender spots in their lives were. Today, in the Reformed community, our desperate search for truth can sometimes blind us to our equally pressing need for graceful speech and outreaching love.
We are good at asking the vertical questions, “How can we say we love God if we don’t really know him” which is meant to encourage us to dig into sound doctrine and a deeper relationship with God. Well the same question could and should be made on the horizontal level, “How can we say we love our neighbors, if we don’t really know who they are?”
Paul understood that a person’s life and context were important when ministering to them. That if they were “weak” or “strong” affected the way he shared gospel life with them. He understood our proclamation of the gospel should be strong, but should also be wise, seasoned with salt and grace.
All Means to THE End
“…that by all means I might save some.”
For Malcolm X, the end that justified the “any means necessary” was the ultimate equality of races across the world, but then what? Social justice is an admirable cause, but what do we save people to? Equality? Then where do they go? Social justice still doesn’t deal with our deepest felt needs: our sinful hearts, our selfish desires, our desperate need for community, and fatalistic lack of hope. This is where Malcolm missed the mark. Racial reconciliation is a poor savior. It doesn’t do much for us even if we reach the mountain top, if that’s all there is…
But if our hope is in Christ, if our life is based on the Gospel and we’re willing to communicate that truth and power to people, “by any means necessary” then the secondary overflowing and hope of social justice finds its rightful place.
Informed by the gospel and the Imago Dei of others, we can love people as ourselves and that is the only truly sturdy foundation for social change. Malcolm thought that by finding identity in his race, he could find hope, that by finding purpose in “X”ing out his last name and identifying with his African roots, he could find peace, but the old Jerusalem can’t offer us this.
Though Malcolm so vehemently wanted the world to be reconciled under sheer force of will, or under threat of violence if necessary, it would always let him down. Ultimate reconciliation can only be found through the gospel. And we toil with that hope, knowing that one day all those in Christ will reach an eternal reconciliation in the New Jerusalem, where every tribe, tongue and nation will be forever reconciled under the loving banner of God himself.
Until that day, we need to, as Paul did, know the foundation. It’s the Gospel. The Gospel is fundamental to everything in a Christian’s life. It’s the groundwork and the building material. It allows us to meet God and to know God. The Gospel is fundamental because it gives us both identity in Christ (orthodoxy) and purpose in the world (orthopraxy). Paul understood this when he says that his “any means” has a purpose. “I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in it’s blessing.” Notice Paul doesn’t say, “I do it for more crowns in heaven” or “because it’s what I’m supposed to do.” What does he say? So that I “may share with them.” Who is them? The diverse group of brothers and sisters to whom he has breathed the life of the gospel, both Jew and Greek, both weak and strong.
This is profound. Diversity in the church and in our interactions is important, not just for “them” outside the church but more importantly for “us” inside it. We, inside the church, benefit by meeting other people who don’t think, talk or look like us, because we get to share with them in the uniting love of Christ. Diversity should flow forth from the proclamation of gospel truth, and reconciliation its side effect.
We should, therefore, use our social position to reach out to all. Paul used his privilege as a Greek-speaking, Hebrew-educated, Roman-citizen to advance the gospel and to contextualize it for as many people as he could. We should seek to use our privilege, where ever we may find it, in the same way. So that we can say with Malcolm X and the Apostle Paul that we are seeking change “by any means necessary”, but only if that end justifies those means and the only true end is and always should be Jesus and his glorious good news.