MLK: The Legacy of a Nonconformist Saint

[Editor’s Note: In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’re republishing this article from early 2013]

Often, when we want to beatify great moral and civic leaders, we inscribe their names in holidays and their likenesses in stone. But Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a saint who can be so easily dismissed—as Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to say, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Dr. King was a prophet whose luminous life and thundering words should still unsettle us, like an electrical storm about to break.

Dr. King published five books in his lifetime; a sixth was released after he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. 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 1963 Birmingham Campaign in particular. This book includes King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which was addressed to eight clergymen and urged the Church to join the struggle for racial justice. King’s 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? is a clear-eyed look at the state of race relations at a moment when the civil 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 and black. The five speeches that make up The Trumpet of Conscience, published posthumously in 1968, link the evils of poverty, militarism and racism and calls for nothing less than a nonviolent revolution.

These books are essential reading for American Christians in the second decade of the 21st century. But the book I want to talk about 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. Everything else he was—civil rights leader, anti-war activist, labor activist, advocate for the poor, writer, public intellectual and Nobel Laureate—flowed from his primary vocation as a Baptist preacher and as the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers.

The first thing that strikes the reader about these sermons is the context in which they originally appeared. King says in the book’s introduction that the sermons were written for particular congregations: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. They were all preached during or after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By the time Strength to Love was published, King had been imprisoned 12 times, his family was receiving near-constant death threats, his home had been bombed twice and he had been stabbed nearly to death. Incredibly, three sermons in this collection were written in Georgia jails, including one sermon on Luke 23:34 (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”) and another on loving your enemies (Matthew 5:43-45).

The second thing to notice is how fresh the book feels some 50 years after it first appeared in print. Despite real advances in the area of integration, King’s famous lament that the Church is the most segregated major institution in the country is still essentially true. According to scholar Curtiss Paul DeYoung, only 5 percent of Christian churches in the United States are “interracial.” (There are some exciting exceptions, as Edward Gilbreath points out in his excellent book Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity.)

In fact, 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, for example, and the pressure placed on morality by rapidly advancing technology. The myth of inevitable human progress. The worship of “jumboism” and the limits of capitalism. The enormous temptation to conform with society.

“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists,” King says. “Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”

Finally, we notice that Strength to Love is both practical and evangelical. King was not a theorist—he advocated for real, tangible change. And developing a framework for understanding nonviolence is only helpful if it leads to nonviolent living. Abstract notions about justice are useless—if not dangerous—if they don’t lead to its pursuit.

These sermons are messages from a shepherd to his flock. King took seriously the demands of the Gospel on the soul and society, which is to say he took Jesus at His word when He said, “Behold, I stand at the 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, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”

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King says in one famous passage:

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

Richard Lischer has shown that most of the sermons in Strength to Love would have ended with an altar call. If the altar calls didn’t make it into the text, we still reach a moment of decision. The question King asked explicitly four years later in a different book is the same facing every person who has an authentic encounter with Dr. King: Where do we go from here?

Thus, I propose that we spend less time on MLK Day interpreting King’s legacy and more time letting King’s legacy interpret us. I hope we let it goad us toward a life that is passionate and daring on behalf of peace and justice.

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