Learning from Martin Luther King, Jr. on His Day

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As most of you probably know, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Like any monumental historical figure apart from Jesus, he was (only) human. And also like any monumental figure,  while some are slow to find fault with him out of veneration, others use every fault they find to undermine his every word. But since we know the gospel, we’re free to admit that he (like the rest of us) can be both fallible and formidable in causes of righteousness. And formidable King was!

There’s much we can learn about our history by reading and listening to King’s work. And not just social and political history – but the history of the American church, as well. It’s in that vein that I’d encourage everyone to read an exchange between a few Christian and Jewish community leaders from Alabama (letter here) and a jailed Martin Luther King, Jr. (his response here).

Just as King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” shouldn’t be co-opted for scoring political or ideological points today, we also shouldn’t disregard it as a relic of the past that’s unable to bestow timely and godly wisdom to the church. While I encourage you to read the full back-and-forth I linked above, below are simply three (among many) pieces of that wisdom written by a man seasoned in the costly work of righteousness and acquainted with the Scriptures. The challenge they might bring to our consciences and convictions ought to give us pause.

In bold are my headings/takeaways. Underneath are the excerpted words of King. I hope it stirs your thoughts and affections for Jesus, both as the Christ who leads us into grace and as the King who leads us into righteousness.

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1) If we’re honest, our desire (or lack of it) for certain wrongs to be made right can have far less to do with the moral absolutes involved than how much those wrongs (or the cost of righting them) might personally affect us.

I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration.

“We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.'”

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2) Time alone doesn’t heal wounds – only the persistent work of God through the faithfulness of his church over time.

“I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said, ‘All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but is it possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry? It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.’

“All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God.

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3) Chopping our world, communities, and lives into bits labeled “sacred” and “secular”only serves to keep the gospel out of the parts we don’t want Jesus to touch.

“I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

“I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.”