Six (6) Lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Life and Writings
The following was delivered at The Hills Church on Sunday, January 17, 2021 on the occasion of the 2021 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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Each year it is our practice as a church to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr.  Day, to recognize the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who fought alongside him during the last century to advance racial justice and equality and to rid the United States, and even the world, from the scourge of racism.

This year amidst these unusual circumstances of a global pandemic in which our separation physically is done for our own protection as well as the health and well-being of others, I think it is appropriate for us to be reminded of our essential need for one another. This is most appropriate for our congregation which is diverse in its racial constitution and has as part of its membership so many of you that fought for racial equality and justice and fought against racism during that especially turbulent time of our national history. As there is a danger of the purpose and significance of the holiday being lost due to its repeated  celebration overtime, in which it is forgotten that the holiday and its celebration is to serve as an annual reminder to us of the significance of why we must remember the fight against racism and for racial equality, it is both appropriate and imperative for us to intentionally remember why we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This year we turn our attention to considering six (6) lessons from the life and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. in regards to racial equality.

1) Racial Equality is a Flourishing Issue

The fight against racism is not merely a fight for equality; it is a fight for flourishing.

MLK recognized this in his famous statement on mutuality:

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

This idea is a scriptural idea based on the imago dei (Gen 1:26-27), that we are all created in the image of God and to image God.   Unless we return to God’s created purpose for us to glorify and exalt Him and not ourselves, we will actually harm our own flourishing and that of those we love and cherish.

2) Racial Equality is an Individual AND a Corporate Issue

In describing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote,

“The basis of conflict is not really over the buses. Yet we believe that, if the method we use in dealing with equality in the buses can eliminate injustice within ourselves, we shall at the same time be attacking  the basis of injustice—man’s hostility to man. This can only be done when we challenge the white community to re-examine its assumptions as we are now prepared to re-examine ours [those of the African-American community and those who stood in solidarity with them].” Dr. King recognized that all sides must be humble enough to consider their own biases and assumptions both individually and corporately that supported and/or resulted in racism in any form or outworking and that began with humble, constant self-examination. This principle is grounded scripturally in the idea of self-examination (1 Cor 4:4; 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5; Gal 6:4) and the examination of what is true and good (Acts 17:11; 1 Thes 5:21).

3) Racial Equality is a Love Issue (and conversely not a Hate Issue)

 King would go on to write that if love is at the center of who we are, specifically love of God and love of fellow man, peaceful nonviolent resistance grounded in our mutual love for one another not enraged  physical hostility grounded in our fear of one another is the appropriate response to racial injustice.

At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent register would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough  and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethos of love to the center of our lives.

Hate and retaliation does not destroy hate; they merely perpetuate it. Love and forgiveness destroy hate by displacing it.

4) Racial Equality is a Spiritual Issue not a Scientific One

Science and scientific advance cannot solve what is a spiritually rooted problem. Science and its advances are but tools in mitigating sin and its impact; scientific advances can act as temporary salves to the pain and damage of sin and even constrain it to some degree, but science can not fix the root of the problem: the misplaced and corrupted affections (love) of the human heart. Only God can address that.

In writing an imaginary letter entitled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” King pointed out the disparity between our scientific and spiritual progress, that advances in science and technology are no indication of maturing in morality and spirituality.

“For many years I have longed to see you. I have heard so much about you and of what you are doing. News has come to me regarding the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm... Through your scientific genius you have dwarfed distance and placed time in chains...I am told of your great medical advances and the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, thereby prolonging your lives and offering greater security and physical well-being... What tremendous strides in the areas of scientific and technological development you have made! But, America, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It appears to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress, your mentality out distances your morality, and your civilization outshines your culture.

5) Racial Equality is a Particularly Evangelical Christian Issue

While Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the first to point out that racial equality is a particularly evangelical Christian issue (other Christian leaders such as William Wilberforce, Charles Spurgeon, and John Newton had champion the cause in prior generations), he was the instrument God used to bring it to pointed awareness in the modern American conscience, including the modern evangelical Christian conscience.

Continuing the imaginary letter from Paul to American Christians, King captures the key New Testament texts on racial equality: Gal 3:28 and Acts 17:24,26:

“I must repeat what I have said to many Christians before, that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Moreover, I must reiterate the words I uttered on Mars Hill: ‘God that made the world and all things therein... hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.’”

6) Racial Equality is a Prayer Issue (Coretta Scott King)

Coretta Scott King described a particularly memorable and poignant moment in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he came to the end of himself and thus showed the essential requirement of prayer for the fight of righteousness.

Coretta Scott King wrote of her husband and prayer:

Prayer was a wellspring of strength and inspiration during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout the movement, we prayed for greater human understanding. We prayed for the safety of our compatriots in the freedom struggle. We prayed for victory in our nonviolent protests, for brotherhood and sisterhood among people of all races, for reconciliation and the fulfillment of the Beloved Community [Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name for the community of love and brotherhood among all people that he longed for and sought to realize.].”

For my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle.

I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough.

After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: "Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can't face it alone.” [Do you here the echoes of 1 Cor 12:9-10 in the words and life of MLK? “2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (ESV): But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”]

Later he told me, "At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: 'Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.'" When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything.”

Conclusion

 We should honor these six (6) lessons by not allowing the passage of time to turn our annual remembrance and celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a de facto forgetfulness because of the passage of time and it becoming common place to us. Rather, for those of us who follow Christ we must remember racial justice is a particularly Christian issue, one we must fight for; for in fighting for it, we fight for the glory of God.