Across the United States, persons will commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rightly so. God used Dr. King to save America from her fratricidal hatred of her darker brothers. In an unanticipated and much longed for historical moment orchestrated in the councils of Divine Providence, God raised Dr. King onto the national scene as the visionary, orator and martyr for Civil Rights. Before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, full civil rights seemed distant and nearly impossible to achieve. After roughly 20 years of public ministry and agitation, the denial of full Civil Rights seemed unthinkable. What happened in between must surely be one of the most remarkable records of God’s deliverance of any people in any place.
At least one writer contends that Dr. King is or was the only American hero of his time. He writes:
Have we, in America, had a hero in our time–that is, since World War II? I can think of only one man with a serious claim, Martin Luther King. The theme was high, the occasion was noble, the stage open to the world’s eye, the courage clear and against the odds. And martyrdom came to purge all dross away. King seems made for the folk consciousness, and the folk consciousness is the Valhalla of the true hero–not the gossip column. King may even, someday, enter into the folk consciousness of the white world, which may yet underlie, at what depth it is hard to guess, the Culture of Blab (Robert Penn Warren, “A Dearth of Heroes,” American Heritage, vol. 23 (October1972), p. 99)
Have we reached the day when King has entered “the folk consciousness of the white world”? I highly doubt it–especially if by “the white world” one means the consciousness of white people outside the United States. But it’s doubtful Dr. King has thoroughly seeped into the consciousness of white people in America. Most Americans–White and Black–know little more of King than the fact that he was a preacher and a “slain civil rights leader.” Fewer still have read any of his writing wile assigning him iconic status. But the problem with icons is that they rarely communicate the depth and substance of the thing pictured. Icons have a frustrating habit of becoming merely pictures. Like old photographs that yellows and fades with time, so does the memory of that dynamism and profundity that first insisted we make someone an icon. In that sense we all become iconoclasts because we all so easily forget. On this day set aside to remember King, I’m left pondering the deep civic forgetfulness of King and his civil ideals.
And perhaps the clearest way to observe the deterioration of memory would be to contrast so many claims about the realization of King’s dreams (and what that entails) with
the things King actually seemed to advocate. Consider, for example, the presidency of Barack Obama. At his first Inauguration, held during the King commemoration four years ago, Harry Houdini could not have escaped the comparisons and allusions. Here was a son of the Civil Rights movement, an inheritor of sacrifices and advances won by the many foot soldiers who walked with King, taking an oath that those foot soldiers could barely have imagined possible in their lifetimes. How far we had come.
And, yet, how far have we come?
It seems to me that a cursory look at the Obama presidency and the civic, political and cultural state of the country begs for a resolute announcement that “we have not arrived” and a recommitment to Kingian ideals. Let me illustrate.
The Defense and Flourishing of Life
Does anyone else find it a tragically sad irony that the new icon of civil rights progress, President Obama, has with his presidential policies regarding abortion ended untold numbers of Black lives when King fought to save them? President Obama’s position on abortion actually represents the most vile and fundamental betrayal of King’s legacy. King fought against the country so that the country might live up to its ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” King sought the extension of life and the full thriving of humanity for African Americans who were systematically denied it. President Obama’s policy systematic ends life even before it begins. His policy on abortion must surely be the grossest violation of basic humanity and civil rights in American history. Grossest because his victims are unborn and defenseless children. Those with tender consciences will object to this word choice, but we can only call the President’s policy and its effects “demonic.”
The Continuance of War
Or, let me offer another example of how little of King’s vision has been fulfilled. The latter part of Dr. King’s life was given to protest against the Vietnam War. At present, this country carries on wars on more than one front, launches drones into civilian areas, and seeks its own “strategic interests” with little regard for the development of the peoples and countries it exploits. I’m not making a political point here–at least not in the style of the tired red vs. blue diatribes we hear so much. I don’t think it would matter one bit whether we were right now facing a second Obama term or a first (fill in the blank) term. And that’s why we’re so far short of King’s ideals. Of course, some “patriot” will tell me that King’s ideas were Quixotic jousts with the windmills of “real life” and “real politics” and “real threats abroad.” Perhaps. But perhaps the “real” follows the ideals of a man and country. There was no “real chance” of ending segregation when King’s ministry began. But in roughly two decades the legal separating and oppressing of people based on skin color was over. An idealist led the way. Despite his campaign rhetoric, President Obama is no true idealist when it comes to war and there appears to be, in Robert Penn Warren’s term, a “dearth of heroes” on the horizon. Moderates were still moderating and conservatives were conserving shrinking margins of the old way of life.
The Beloved Community?
One final observation. The central and driving force of King’s vision and theology was his quest for “the beloved community.” You might think of the beloved community as an egalitarian and mutually responsible expression of the kingdom of God, a society of love and fellowship that far outpaced mere segregation, that eliminated poverty, and really sought “justice for all.” Perhaps it’s best to allow Dr. King to give us a picture of what is meant in his own words:
In a real sense all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects on directly affects all indirectly. (King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, p. 181)
Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized…. Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World–Asia, Africa and Latin America–will no longer be the victim of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease. (cited in Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr, p. 133)
King spent the closing years of his life agitating for a real and significant effort to end poverty in the country and promote justice around the world. One look at the data and we’d have to conclude that poverty remains a plaguing social problem. And when a fellow pastor is barred from Inauguration activities because he actually taught something the Bible says, we’re a long way from the beloved community. Despite his many proclamations of an inclusive society, President Obama’s rhetoric and action has lacked the deep principle and courage of a Dr. King. This country has lacked that deep principle and courage.
Now, as during King’s lifetime, this country fails to take seriously enough it’s own American Dream and extend it for all. Many people miss the fact that King’s most famous speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington, really was an exposition of the American Dream from the vantage point of the oppressed. Part of the genius of the speech was its seamless weaving of biblical principle with the country’s own best ideals. King summarized the speech this way:
The dream is one of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men do not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a place where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality, and men will dare to live together as brothers…. Whenever it if fulfilled, we will emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glowing daybreak of freedom and justice for all of God’s children. (cited in Smith and Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community, p. 138).
With all our debates about tax cuts for the wealthy and fiscal cliffs, and all our continued and willful ignorance regarding the poor persons sleeping outside our doorsteps, we’d have to conclude that we’re still living in “the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man.”
A Final Thought
King’s life and ministry not only challenged a hypocritical nation, it also confronted a faithless church. His ministry was prophetic not only in terms of calling the powerful to consider justice, but also in terms of calling the people of faith to consider fidelity to their covenant with God.
Some won’t see it that way, just as some didn’t see it that way during King’s life. That’s why he penned one of the most famous letters in American history–the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King wrote to opposing religious leaders enjoying the relative comforts of life outside of jail while he pondered the bricks and iron of a cell. It’s a moment that carves in historical stone the sad reality that the church has too often lingered on the sideline like a disinterested water boy while men of principle have stood nearly alone in the cause of what’s right and pleasing in God’s sight. The wider church during King’s years lay largely in a stupor of willful ignorance and social accommodation. It’s to the church’s shame.
And for theologically conservatives, it’s to our shame that the intellectual and theological resources that equipped King for his mission came from an “evangelical liberalism” rather than a Bible-believing community. It won’t do for us to “celebrate” his legacy while quietly lamenting his theology when our own theology has been and continues to be so inept at addressing justice. We need to heed the challenge that Dr. King leaves to us–the challenge of a man formed by conviction, acting upon principle, and concerned that all might experience love and justice in society.