The Spiritual Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
By jonathan wilson-hartgrove
January 17, 2011
The public school that my son JaiMichael attends doesn’t hold classes on the third Monday in January. They have the day off, along with most Americans, to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Last year, my son and I rode the city bus downtown on the MLK holiday, and I told him the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott—the story that made King famous and won him the Nobel Peace Prize. A kindergartner, JaiMichael was mostly excited to ride the bus. But I was trying to figure out how to remember a saint when he becomes a national hero.
The Church has a long history of remembering folks who followed hard after Jesus in their own time and so show us what it looks like to live faithfully in the places where we are. To call these sisters and brothers "saints" isn’t to suggest that they were perfect, but to recognize that their lives were claimed by God. Many of the Church’s saints are people who took up their crosses and followed Jesus to the death that crosses demand. This is why the Church remembers saints on the day of their death.
How we remember King has everything to do with whether we believe his finest hour was on Aug. 28, 1963, or April 4, 1968. At thousands of community and state events today, the dream that King shared with America on Aug. 28, 1963, will be replayed and remembered. A country that was founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all will remember how justice was too long denied to African-Americans, how the civil rights movement made clear that separate is not equal, and how King’s dream of all people living together in peace was "deeply rooted in the American dream." We will celebrate the progress that was purchased with great sacrifice and struggle, making it possible for a country that once enslaved African-Americans to now be governed by an African-American. And we will be challenged by King’s dream to continue the work of living up to our highest values and deepest convictions.
When I think about JaiMichael, an African-American boy full of his own dreams and promise, I’m glad to live in a country that remembers King as a national hero. But as a disciple of Jesus, I want more for my son than the American Dream. I want him to be free not only to pursue his own happiness, but to love God and his neighbors in the radical way of that rebel from Nazareth who saved the world not as a national hero, but as a crucified enemy of the state. This is why I want my son to know the witness of the Martin Luther King who laid down his life on April 4, 1968.
Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, KJV). The radical message of the Gospel is that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In short, Jesus laid down His life for His enemies. When we pay attention to the life of King as a life of discipleship, we can see that his assassination was also a willing sacrifice of himself out of love for his enemies. To see King’s life through the lens of his death is to see how it was an imitation of Christ. As such, it teaches us something about what it might mean for us to follow Jesus here and now.
Most people know King was a Baptist preacher. In the church world where he was raised, he was something of a prodigy, going to college early, mastering the art of public speaking, getting a Ph.D. in theology. A promising young man with a young family, King did what most folks in his position do after graduation: He went looking for a good job. He found it at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
Dexter Avenue was supposed to be the first step in a ministerial career for the promising Dr. King. But King’s career was interrupted by two things: the civil rights movement and Jesus. By his own account, the movement called him first. After Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man on a city bus, the new pastor, King, was drafted to lead the African-American community in a boycott of public transportation. Several weeks into the struggle, he tried to resign. He hadn't bargained for death threats or round-the-clock meetings. After his resignation was refused, King soon went to jail. The movement was beginning to get in the way of his career.
Then Jesus came calling. He came late on a winter night, when King was overwhelmed by fear after receiving yet another call from someone angrily threatening his life. At his kitchen table, King bowed his head in frustration and bewilderment. Then, by King’s own account: “Something said to me: ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t call on Momma. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.'” In the dark of night, Jesus came calling. King was never the same.
King followed Jesus from Montgomery to Washington, and the dream he shared with America some eight years later was certainly as rooted in the Gospel as it was in the U.S. Constitution. But because King was following Jesus, he could not stop with his triumphal entry into Washington. He could not rest when the crowds were cheering or when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. He heard the voice of Jesus calling still to press on, so he challenged the militarism of America that was destroying innocent lives in Vietnam. He listened to the voice of the prophet Amos, so he took up the Poor People’s Campaign. Already a national hero, he moved his family into one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods to walk with poor people in their struggle.
All the while, King knew he was marked for death. Not only did he continue to receive death threats, he became increasingly aware of the unspeakable powers that defend the status quo with violence. To challenge those powers is to take up your cross, King knew. He did it—and he did it with love—because his life had been claimed by Jesus. This is the legacy we remember on April 4.
After the Berenstain Bears or a football book, I read my son a saint story each night. Some of them are long, and he occasionally loses interest or dozes off. But when I get to the end, he always asks the same question: “How did they die, Daddy?” Like all the saints, we understand King’s legacy best if we remember his life in light of his death.
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