The Martin Luther King Jr. School of Social and Spiritual Justice and Advocacy. If there were such a school that offered it, I would enroll for a two week intensive course on identifying, advocating and striving for social justice in America and around the world. Does anyone doubt we need this, the world needs this? Does anyone doubt that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a consummate practitioner of peace and peace making?
In fact, aside from our Lord Jesus, who within our historical horizon better exemplified a way of non-violent and peaceful, though costly, protest that eventually proved devastating to a culture that in various places had enshrined, supported, and justified the demeaning of persons made in God’s image, persons of color? If you think about it, whose life-work has had greater transforming impact upon the awareness of and relationships between persons of differing cultures in America? There have surely been others, but just as surely I think Dr. King was a pioneer without peer in his day, and remains enormously important for understanding viable ways forward in the face of unfinished business. At the least, a humble and teachable consideration of his message, method, and manner makes sense for any who grieve continuing racial tension and strife, and who long for God’s kingdom values to prevail.
Yes, I reference God’s kingdom values. Because the message, method and manner of Dr. King were founded on bedrock kingdom-of-God realities. All human beings are made in God’s image, and are to be cherished as such. Before there were differing tribes, races and nations—there were image-bearers. All members of the human family share that primal heritage. For people of faith, of confident trust in the Lord Jesus our Messiah, it is this essential fact of humanness that grounds the preciousness of every person. It is not commitment to an abstract ideal of fairness or equity—as though all the kids have to be treated the same. Rather, it is understanding (stemming, actually from revelation!) that we are all made after the same mold to reflect the same image. Our common human origin grounds our insistence that dignity, respect, creative potential, and the “right” of all to be valued and protected—and more are God given and must become normative among all people.
Yes, I referenced God’s kingdom values. Because the message, method and manner of Dr. King were designed to enact the way of the kingdom as embodied in Jesus. As for the message, we can hardly read the letters and sermons and public addresses of Dr. King without encountering the teachings and truths of Scripture, and particularly the prophetic writings of the Old Testament and the gospel writings of the New. But King’s message wasn’t like most politicians and even some preachers, who “use” Bible verses to say what they would say anyway. King’s language, appeals, rhetoric are laced with both allusions and actual citations, and reflects the tone and atmosphere of the Scriptures. For those of us who believe that the Word of God is powerful, this explains the dynamic of so much of what Dr. King had to say. As for the method and manner, the daring proclamation of “The Dream” (the speech, yes, but also the vision variously elaborated as well), not to mention its specific content, the dramatic stand against unjust authority, with its insistence on non-resistance and acceptance of the consequences of “disobedience,” the placing of life itself on the line for what was right, and so much more—all reflect the way of Jesus, whose way is the way of the kingdom of God, the way that will, we dare to assert, prevail at the last.
Of course, his detractors will point out that Dr. King was not perfect, neither in word or deed. But no one is. My point is that here is a preacher who had a message that his country and world needed to hear, though much of it didn’t want to hear, who proclaimed it and sought to live it and lead others in living it. And, as a result, our world has not been the same. My other point is that the reason for that difference is the coherence between his message, method, manner and what we find in God’s word—written and then embodied in Jesus.
Those of us who are serious about following Jesus, whatever our color, would do well to read about, ponder on, and model after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps some of you can suggest particularly good books, articles, even course of study for the rest of us to consider.
I am writing this on the final day of a long trip to Central and Southern Africa. By mid-week I will have recently been in three different African nations in addition to my own nation. I must confess that in all four there are deeply disturbing tensions and divides between different tribes. I cannot say in all candor which nation is most deeply disturbed. Seriously, I really cannot. But I do believe that the only hope –not just for peace but for shalom–is the Kingdom way of Jesus. Today we salute Dr. King and should follow his example, as he followed Jesus’.