Remembering the Reverend Dr. King
By john pattison
January 16, 2012
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.published five books in his lifetime; a sixth was released after he wasassassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. They are all seminal works for American Christians. Stride Toward Freedom (1958) tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Measure of a Man (1959) is a slim volume explaining the theological and philosophical roots of nonviolent activism. Why We Can’t Wait (1964) is a history of the civil rights movement in general, and the 1963Birmingham Campaign in particular. This book includes his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which was addressed to eight clergymen andurged the church to join the struggle for racial justice. King’s 1967book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? is a clear-eyed look at the state of race relations at a moment when thecivil rights movement was in disarray. The book also makes a provocative connection between the bankrupt ideology of systemic discrimination,and the literal impoverishment of millions of Americans, white andblack. The five speeches that make up The Trumpet of Conscience, published posthumously in 1968, link the evils of poverty, militarismand racism, and call for nothing less than a nonviolent revolution.
However, the book we'll focus on here is Strength to Love, a collection of King’s sermons first published in 1963. Reverend Dr.King liked to say that he was, above all else, a clergyman. Everythingelse he was—civil rights leader, antiwar activist, labor activist,advocate for the poor, writer, public intellectual and NobelLaureate—flowed from his primary vocation as a Baptist preacher, theson, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers.
The first thing that will strikeyou about these sermons is the context in which they were firstdelivered. King says in the book’s introduction that the sermons werewritten for particular congregations: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church inMontgomery and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. They were allpreached during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It’s also impossible toignore the context in which Strength to Love was published:King had been imprisoned 12 times, his family was receivingnear-constant death threats, his home had been bombed twice and he hadbeen stabbed nearly to death. Incredibly, three sermons in thiscollection were written in Georgia jails, including one sermon on Luke23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they aredoing”) and another on loving your enemies (Matthew 5:43-45).
The second thing to notice is howfresh the book feels some 50 years after it first appeared in print.Nearly every topic King addresses in these sermons is as critical in our time as it was in his. The tension between science and religion, forexample, and the pressure placed on morality by rapidly advancingtechnology. The worship of “jumboism” and the limits of capitalism. Theenormous temptation to conform with society. The myth of inevitablehuman progress. Church unity and racial prejudice.
Despite real advances in the areaof integration, King’s famous lament that the church is the mostsegregated major institution in the country is still essentially true.According to scholar Curtiss Paul DeYoung, only 5 percent of Christianchurches in the United States are “interracial.” There are, however,some exciting exceptions, as Edward Gilbreath points out in hisexcellent book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity.
Strength to Love is both practical and evangelical. King was not a theorist. Developing aframework for understanding nonviolence is only helpful if it leads tononviolent living. Abstract notions about justice are useless (if notdangerous) if they don’t lead to its pursuit. These sermons are messages from a shepherd to his flock. King took seriously the demands ofthe Gospel on the soul and society, which is to say he took Jesus at His word when He said, in King James English, “Behold, I stand atthe door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” And, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, andpray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”
Richard Lischer has shown thatmost of the sermons in this collection would have ended with an altarcall. If the altar calls didn’t make it into the text, we still reach amoment of decision. The question King asked explicitly four years laterin a different book is the same facing every person who has an authentic encounter with Dr. King: Where do we go from here?
John Pattison is the co-author of Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should or Will Create Christian Culture, from which this article is adapted, and the co-author of the forthcoming book Slow Church (InterVarsity Press). He blogs at SlowChurch.com.