Across the country yesterday, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was honored in acts of community service, community breakfast programs and worship services. Many of us gathered to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “We Shall Overcome,” and other songs that lifted the spirits of those saints of the foot soldiers who put their lives on the line in our nations’ struggle for freedom and justice. Rev. King is remembered as a hero, a symbol, a martyr but few remember or know that before he was Dr. King, he was Reverend King. And before that, he was the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers.
Few remember that it was Rev. King’s responses to the gospel of Jesus Christ that changed him and the world around him. Few remember that for Rev. King, the gospel, the “Good News” of Christ, was God at work in the world, working through all God’s people to restore the broken community and create the beloved community. He transported the themes of love, suffering, deliverance and justice from the pulpit to the streets and barrios of this country, indeed, to the Nation’s capital.
Perhaps it is time to reclaim Rev. King’s prophetic words and work so that our activism will be rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech wasn’t just a dream deeply rooted in the “American dream”. It was a dream even more deeply rooted in the Bible. Paraphrasing verses in Isaiah 40th chapter, King says, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, ever hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh will see it together.”
What if we used the beautiful imagery that Rev. King lifts from the Book of Isaiah to speak clearly and passionately about the humanitarian crisis at the border? Rev. King’s God, our God, is always pointing and offering us a better way for us to live together despite our walls that separate us from one another. In God’s economy, the welcome table is set for all of God’s people. “Come . . . for all things are ready.”
Rev. King preached his last sermon, “Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution,” at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. just weeks before his assassination in 1968. In this brilliant sermon, he gives voice to the interconnected nature of the world. He spoke about the need to develop a world perspective as nations and individuals are interdependent. For Rev. King, racism, militarism and excessive materialism were inseparable triplets. In his address on March 31, 1968, King said “We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason 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 is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
So many of our social and political challenges represent a failure to understand our interconnectedness. So, imagine if we lifted King’s idea about how God has structured the earth and began to think about the intersectionality of climate change in relationship to colonialism, racism, classism, ableism?
A year before Rev. King was assassinated, he preached at Riverside Church in New York City. In his sermon King said, “a true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
King’s insights into the need for a true revolution should cause us to address social justice in the context of changing the systems that created injustice. Writing a check to one’s favorite charity or spending a single day each year volunteering is ineffectual in the face of our nation’s legacy of slavery which did not end in 1869 but continues in the form of mass incarceration.
It has been more than 50 years since the Christian church has been an inclusive galvanizing force for social change and justice in this country. Not since Rev. King have we heard a call to resist unjust laws and answered that call in language as unapologetic and biblical as that of Rev. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” While jailed, Rev. King read a statement written by local clergymen who denounced Rev. King and the methods of nonviolent direct action. The statement titled “A Call for Unity” referred to Rev. King as an “extremist” and an “outsider.” To them, the demonstrations were unwise and untimely.
Rev. King responded to charges that he was an extremist by reminding us all that Jesus was an “extremist for love,” that Amos was an “extremist for justice,” Paul “an extremist for the gospel.” The question is not whether we will be extremist, wrote King, “but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremist for hate or for love?”
Where are the extremists for love of the gospel? Where are the extremists for God’s justice?
Let us reclaim Rev. King as ours, a Child of God, minister of the gospel. And let us be so inspired that we will be unapologetic about our faith, ready to make sacrifices, and engage more deeply than ever in the work of justice that is rooted in God’s Word and love.
 “A Call for Unity,” Clergy Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., April 12, 1963 http://teahingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-martin-luther-king/
 Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963 https:/kinginstitute.standford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail