Today is Martin Luther King Day. It is appropriate to reflect a bit on his contribution before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He, like all of us had personal flaws, but I want to remember him for his powerful voice for social justice.
His voice came from his Christian faith and was shaped by the teachings of Jesus and the prophets of the Bible. He was a Baptist pastor. He had a degree from Morehouse College in Sociology, A degree in Theology from Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, and a PhD in Theology from Boston University.
The prophet Amos said,
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream!” NRSV Amos 5:24
The prophet Micah put it this way.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God?”
NRSV Micah 6:8
Jesus announced His mission with these words.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring food news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
Release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
NRSV Luke 4:18-19
The “Year of the Lord’s favor of course referred to the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25 which was a vision for an equitable economic structure that upset the existing structure which favored the rich and powerful.
Martin Luther King is best known for his call for racial justice. He also called for economic justice and protested systems that perpetuated poverty.
Toward the end of his life, he spoke powerfully against the militarization of our society, and he opposed the Vietnam war. He spoke against what General and President Dwight David Eisenhower several years earlier had called the “military-industrial complex.”
This is what Eisenhower said on January 16, 1961. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
These issues are as relevant today and as destructive of God’s plan for humanity as they were in the time of the prophets and of Jesus and the 1960s when Martin Luther King spoke.
But rather than talk about him, I will let him speak for himself. He was an eloquent speaker.
I will dip into his letter from a Birmingham Jail and other speeches for vignettes. I will post this on the Landis Homes web page so you can reflect with more time. I’ve made a few minor edits of the quotes for clarity.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
“We need a social analysis that deals with the underlying causes, not merely effects.”
I would suggest that what he meant is that we need a way to understand society that deals with individual beliefs, attitudes, and actions, for sure but that also deals with the way society is organized and structured. That includes understanding the social and economic rules which determine how resources are distributed and which determine how people are valued.
Back to King.
This was his response to being called an extremist by the pastors of Birmingham.
“The question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or extremists for the extension of Justice? Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness.”
“There was a time when the church was very powerful, when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. … The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion. It was a thermostatthat transformed the mores of society.”
“Slavery (and I would add discrimination and prejudice) to use the terminology of Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-Thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.”
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu who worked tirelessly against Apartheid in South Africa, said, “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Back to King.
“I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
“Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every person it meets.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
“Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of people and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
“In contrast to ethical relativism, Christianity sets forth a system of absolute moral values and affirms that God has placed within the very structure of this universe certain moral principles that are fixed and immutable.”
“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked when they encountered the man who had been robbed and left for dead was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
“Violence never really deals with the basic evil of the situation. Violence may murder the murderer, but it doesn’t murder murder. Violence may murder the liar, but it doesn’t murder lies; it doesn’t establish truth. Violence may even murder the dishonest person, but it doesn’t murder dishonesty. Violence may go to the point of murdering the hater, but it doesn’t murder hate. It may increase hate. Violence is always a descending spiral leading nowhere.”
“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not-too-distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
We will close with the first lines of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Show us how to be agents of your kingdom in our world.