From “The Transformed Nonconformist” (1954)
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12:2
“We are a colony of heaven.” Philippians 3:203
Both of these passages suggest that every true Christian is a citizen of two worlds: the world of time and the world of eternity. The Christian finds himself in the paradoxical situation of having to be in the world yet not of the world. Indeed this is what is meant by one of the passages just read in which Christians are referred to as a colony of heaven. This figure of speech should have special relevance for us in America, since the early days of our nation’s history were days of colonialism. Thirteen of the states of our union were originally British colonies. Although our forefathers had relative freedom in forming their institutions and systems of law their ultimate allegiance was to the King of England. And so although the Christian finds himself in the colony of time his ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. In other words, the Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is the Christian duty to revolt against it.
Now there can be no doubt that the command of our text—do not conform—is difficult advice for any modern person. The pressure of the herd is ever strong upon us. Even our intellectual disciplines attempt to convince us on the necessity of conforming. Some of our philosophical sociologists have gone so far as to tell us that morality is merely group consensus. In sociological lingo, this means that there is little difference between mores and morals. In plain language, it means that you tell the difference between right and wrong by a sort of Gallup poll method of finding what the majority thinks. The answer of certain psychologists to all maladjusted people is, simply, to learn to conform to this world. If we only dress and act and think like other people, then we shall be happy and mentally healthy.
Yet the command of our texts still stands before us with glaring urgency: “Be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” As Christians we are a colony of heaven thrown out, as pioneers, in the midst of an unchristian world to represent the ideals and way of living of a nobler realm until the earth should be the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. I’m sure that many of you have had the experience of dealing with thermometers and thermostats. The thermometer merely records the temperature. If it is seventy or eighty degrees, it registers that and that is all. On the other hand, the thermostat changes the temperature. If it is too cool in the house, you simply push the thermostat up a little and it makes it warmer. And so the Christian is called upon not to be like a thermometer conforming to the temperature of his society, but he must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of his society.
In spite of this imperative demand to live differently we are producing a generation of the mass mind. We have moved from the extreme of rugged individualism to the even greater extreme of rugged collectivism. Instead of making history we are made by history. The philosopher Nietzsche 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.
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 non-conformist. 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. The church has too often been an institution serving to crystallize and conserve the patterns of the crowd. The mere fact that slavery, segregation, war, and economic exploitation have been sanctioned by the church is a fit testimony to the fact that the church has too often conformed to the authority of the world rather than conforming to the authority of God. Even we preachers have manifested our fear of being non-conformist. So many of us turn into showman and even clowns, distorting the real meaning of the gospel, in an attempt to conform to the crowd. How many ministers of Jesus Christ have sacrificed their precious ideals and cherished convictions on the altar of the crowd. O how many people today are caught in the shackles of the crowd.
Many of us think we find a sort of security in conforming to the ideas of the mob. But my friends it is the nonconformists that have made history, Not those who always look to see which way the majority is going before they make a decision. not those who are afraid to say no when everybody else is saying yes; but history has been made by those who could stand up before the crowd and not bow. The great creative insights have come from men who were in a minority. It was the minority that fought for religious liberty; it was the minority that brought about the freedom of scientific research. In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist, an acclaimed preacher who served as the primary spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. from 1955 until his assassination. He advocated a policy of nonviolent resistance, and led numerous marches, protests, and boycotts. “The Transformed Nonconformist” was preached early in his ministry at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and he reused the text often in his later ministry. He is commemorated on the calendar of the Episcopal Church on April 3.