What would people really be like without their heroes? Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been dead 50 years today. He was shot in Memphis, Tennessee at the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray. He was there to speak for the rights of Black sanitation workers. His murder was evil. But It was what he accomplished while alive that has kept his name relevant through the decades, perhaps even longer than he naturally would have lived. I want to briefly highlight just two things I appreciate from his life and ministry.
His Seriousness About Loving All People
I have read and listened to sermons and speeches by Dr. King that have often convicted me that I do not love all people. I have heard him expound the The Greatest Commandments; love God and love all people around us. He would ground this teaching in his sermons, addresses, and social movements. This was one of the foundations for his non-violent protests. But the point of conviction for me would often come when he would direct our love towards our enemies, which in his context were the same people who were committing injustice towards people of color! Who talks like that? Certainly not Dr. King alone. When Dr. King preached that we were to love all people, he was speaking from Scripture (Matt 22:36-40).
He Was A Cultural Prophet
With Scripture as his base, Dr. King spoke to many issues in American culture in his time. He spoke to issues within black culture, but also racism, segregation, poverty, and even war. In a way unlike any other theologian before him (Dr. King had a doctorate in systematic theology), he put together a theology of social ethics, an area of theology most neglected by White Christians. Dr. King pointed at White American Christianity’s blind spots and failures in social ethics. Dr. King is the reason why White Americans are not as racist as they could be today. Dr. King used the many tools of the civil rights movement (boycotts, sit-ins, marches, speeches) to change laws and policies that denied humanity to people of color. Through his life and ministry, Dr. King was discipling White culture with the same gospel and biblical truth they claimed to already believe.
Reclaiming Dr. King
There is something different about this year’s celebration of Dr. King. Just as much as I notice some of my White brothers and sisters silence on social injustices, so do I also notice their silence in the celebration of influential Black leaders, like Dr. King perhaps. I wondered why that might be the case? I’m not saying I’m upset about it. Over the decades many White Americans (White Evangelical Christians in particular) have misunderstood Dr. King to be some “Let’s just all get along…Kumbaya” kind of person. It’s a disgusting view of Dr. King, but it is the one they are most comfortable with. I recently heard Russell Moore say that; “the reason why so many in White culture are so comfortable with Dr. King is because he can no longer speak to them.” What I hope is happening, is that Black Christians are Reclaiming Dr. King and representing him as he truly was. God used Dr. King to speak to the cultural sin of America, that’s the Dr. King I know. There is much to learn and appreciate from his life.