Jesus, when eulogizing his First cousin John, asked the attending crowd what turned out to be a series of rhetorical questions. He followed these questions up with the answer we find in Matthew 11:9 (NIV). He says “What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Although I cannot theologically confer the words of Christ to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I like to imagine God pleased with His path. Dr king prepared a path for righteousness and justice as did John the Baptist in preparing the world for its savior.
I am awestruck every time I watch what most would consider to be the pinnacle of Dr. King’s influence: the march on Washington. Standing on the steps of the hallowed Lincoln Memorial Dr. King delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech. I am riveted when I listen to him speak boldly and candidly on behalf of the sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee. I am deeply moved when I read the infamous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Indeed from the pulpit to the page, Dr. King sits on the mountaintop with some of the greatest literary activists of Earth’s history.
However, I would argue that if his life was not congruent with his tongue it would not be long before his oratorical ability and his literary prowess would be a mere conglomeration of sounding brass and clanging cymbals. Yes, we are easily inspired by ones’ ability to arrange words in a manner that stirs in our souls the desire to rally the proverbial troops to get the job done. Whether it is the melodic speech of the 44th President of the United States, or the rhythmic voice of ones favorite pop/rap artist, it doesn’t take much to get us going. However, we are quick to jump ship when we find that one’s actions are not congruent with ones words.
From corrupt politicians to pocket snatching preachers we have become calloused and indifferent to leaders who attempt to swoon us with their words only to slap us with their actions. Such was not the case when we examine the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. In an era when equality dripped as slow as molasses and injustice ran free as a flowing river there was one man whose actions functioned as the mitochondria of his words.
Dr. King was a father, a husband, a friend, a theologian, an icon, but most of all an indiscriminate friend to the least of society. Where did he get his uncanny drive to continue amidst hostility and assault? On what rock was his foundation established? I could extrapolate bits and pieces from all of his known manuscripts. I could list a number of individuals as well as historical documents that influenced his thinking. However, there is one document written first in 1892 and most recently ratified in 1957 that truly moved the drum major, the pledge of Allegiance. It is the final line of the pledge that I believe encapsulates the mission and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It reads “One nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty, and justice for all”
Dr. King was a proud American who sought social and civil reform for his beloved nation. His message was one of unity and cohesiveness for mankind. He understood that while it was not possible for everyone to reach the pinnacle of success it was important to him that they at least have the same opportunity afforded them. As a historian, Dr. King understood that the unity of a nation was a must have variable that greatly determined its rise or fall.
As a theologian, Dr. King, though a prolific agent for social change, understood that we should reckon with the truth that any nation not guided by a strict moral code cannot stand long. King did not use his influence to promote his denominational preference but understood as well as the forefathers of this nation that the past, present, and future of this great nation lies in its submission to the governing principals as prescribed by the early puritan settlers. The very character of God was communicated to Moses some 4000 years ago. It is the principals of the ancient Decalogue known as the Ten Commandments woven into the fabric of this nation that still provide foundation in America.
Still stitched in the very currency we exchange is the now controversial phrase “In God we trust”. Without these principals exalted there becomes an abundance of every crooked and perverse thing. I submit to you today as did Dr. King did over 50 years ago, that a code of success that is never translated from paper to practice is as null and void as a blank check written with insufficient funds to match. In essence, while this nation may one day desire to disassociate itself with its God, it was never Gods intention to disassociate Himself from her. Dr. King’s life of sacrifice and legacy of Christ centered justice will forever remind us of that great truth.
The fuel of the oppressed to make it yet another day lies in the hope of one day being free. Liberty was the theme that consistently drove Dr. King to continue when dogs were loosed in the streets during protest, and Molotov cocktails were thrown through his living room windows. Each demonstration of oppression fed his peaceful rebellion. I submit to you today that if we believe for one moment that Dr. King’s dream of liberty was exclusive for the people of African descent then we need to re-evaluate our understanding of his mission. Dr. King desired to have keys made to unlock every chain of oppression that had fettered any individual within the human race! Understanding that freedom is not free he sacrificed his time, talents, family, and eventually his own life to see that his proclamation of freedom become a reality.
Justice for All
In his letter written while in the Birmingham jail Dr. King makes a statement that gives the reader clear picture into his political and social philosophy at the time. Now, one of his most quoted phrases, Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King was unafraid to expose the injustice that affected him and countless others. A leader is often born out of a need. There was a definite need for reform in his era. I believe Dr. King was a successful leader because he was well acquainted with the griefs of those who followed him. He was unwilling to relent in his pursuit of fair treatment for all people.
While the majority of America pledged its allegiance to the ideals of the nation, Dr King and so many others pledged their allegiance to seeing those ideals become a reality. He was ever mindful of the mountains he had to climb, and received strength and motivation when he looked back at the valleys from whence he came. Such should be our resolve. Such should be our motivation. The legacy of his writings, his service, and even his sacrifice, live on in the lives of every one of us.