I have long appreciated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the right leader at the right time in our nation. Like one of his inspirations, Abraham Lincoln, he was assassinated. Like Lincoln, that assassination served a deeper, unintended purpose. What Edwin Stanton said of Lincoln, must also be said of King: “Now he belongs to the ages.”
On this national holiday, it is fitting for us to remember, to go a little deeper in understanding, and then go a little further in committing ourselves to the still unfinished mission of peace and justice for all in a nation that says it is the home of the brave and the land of free. And certainly our home of York, PA has quite a work ahead of us on this.
May we, the people of God at Living Word Community Church, be just a part of a great movement that believes in these great truths, “that all people are created equal” and should enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of flourishing.
Here are six things to remember about King.
He was a Christian.
His Christian tradition was the black church and the black church’s engagement with the Gospel of Christ. As a teenager, he was resistant to real faith. But in his late teens, he found his way back to a real spiritual life with Christ. This grew and deepened in his seminary years. King was fundamentally set on the pastoral ministry as his calling. To preach and pastor and care for a congregation was his first calling and passion. As a Christian, he had a deep sense of the moral arc of history and that sense was rooted in the biblical worldview of Scripture.
He was a prophet.
He had a profound regard for justice. His mission was to undo injustice in our nation. He had a deep love for his people who still suffered discrimination and oppression (a sign of most prophets). He had moral clarity about good and evil, about what is right and wrong. He knew racism was wrong. Racism was not only bad for the one on the receiving end, it was even more evil for the racist. Prophets are those God raises up to say the hard things we prefer to ignore, avoid, and minimize.
He was a scholar.
MLK was brilliant. He had earned his Ph.D. by age 25, but his deep thinking was not that of an academic. He was a “street” theologian. He made great ideas accessible for the average person. He didn’t talk above us, he talked with us. He took beautiful and profound truth and hung the fruit of his reflection on branches low enough for all of us to reach.
Today we would call King a public intellectual or a public theologian. Or a people’s theologian. Or a practical theologian. He created a think tank on the issues of justice and peace, but it was not a think tank located in an ivory tower of the university but on the streets of America. I believe King illustrates what the church today needs more than ever. We need more thinking activists like King.
He was a preacher.
And a magnificent one. White congregations who have never heard the power of black oratory are missing something. That tradition of preaching has a musical cadence, a rhythm of words that builds to a crescendo of call and response. It is a preaching that motivates and excites, and offers comfort and hope. It inspires and soothes. It is prophetic and pastoral. Of course, not all black preachers or every sermon preached is like this, but still, that is the tradition. And of that tradition, King was a master communicator.
He preached/spoke 450 times a year for several years. Can you imagine the creativity, the energy, the stamina needed to sustain that output?!
Of course, his greatest speech is I Have a Dream. Click here for a PDF version in the historical archives of our nation. You can also google for videos and find short and full versions quite easily.
But if you want to listen to two of the best speeches you don’t know about, click here for a website to listen to them.
He was a leader.
He led during painful times, when our nation was still deeply discriminatory against the black race. He led from the context of southern racism, which meant he had the daily experience of being treated as an inferior.
He was a visionary leader. As all such visionaries, he saw a better future. He saw a necessary better future. He saw the way to that better future. While he was not the sole originator of the many tactics used during the time of civil disobedience, he certainly refined and used them masterfully.
He was a collaborative leader, with humility to recognize the need he had for a team of peers. King shows us the way of the great team and not just the great leader. Yes, he was a great leader, but he was a great leader on a great team, and without the great team, his own leadership would have been much less powerful.
He was a citizen of the United States.
King loved this nation. It was his mission to be a unifying force, but first he had to be the prophetic force that revealed what was wrong before we would be sufficiently together to make it right. His concern was for dignity, freedom, fairness, compassion, justice, righteousness, truth, shalom-peace–not just for the black person, but for all. And he had the spiritual insight to know that until all enjoyed these things, our nation was at risk.
So, use this holiday for a time of growing in your own citizenship capacity. Read a little, listen a little, reflect a little, and allow Christ to speak to you–a lot.
For a full-length book recommendation, I still suggest, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen Oates. You can buy a new copy for about $10 and a used copy for less.