Reflections on this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2017
Today we honor the life, legacy, work, and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To say that we are deeply indebted to this preacher, prophet, and visionary leader would be a gross understatement. His message of audacious faith and hope in the face of oppression and injustice beckons us all to continue to pursue his dream of true equality and justice for all.
Several years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Atlanta as a part of a seminary course on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught by noted King scholar Dr. Rufus Burrow, Jr. The most important and transformative moment of this journey was our visit to the Robert W. Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center. Our group was escorted into a small room in the library where spread out before us was a small portion of the expansive collection of original Dr. King documents from the Morehouse College King Collection - handwritten notes for and early copies of “A Knock at Midnight” and “Letters from the Birmingham Jail,” sermons, speeches, and personal correspondence. One of the most moving and overwhelming pieces was Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech written in his own hand on yellow notebook paper. Even in the midst of a speech designed to thank the committee who awarded Dr. King with this prestigious honor one can hear his voice calling out to society in general, and the church in particular, to be the community which God had created it to be. Dr. King wrote of his conviction that the church was called to be a people that fought to establish “…a reign of freedom and a rule of justice.” This was deeply rooted in a belief that we as followers of Christ are to be not only messengers of this freedom and justice, but to be its instrument. And the greatest tool in the arsenal of those who have committed to enter into this battle is not violence (whether physical, emotional or psychological), but is love. In Dr. King’s own words, “…man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
In the middle section of the speech, Dr. King’s pen stroke was more impassioned as his pen became the extension of his heart and his commitment. King wrote that he was unwilling to accept that humanity is on a path of destruction that nothing can stop; that humanity is unable to influence the events of the world; and that humanity is forever stuck in the “starless midnight of racism and war”. In the face of evidence that often pointed to the contrary position, Dr. King provided the church and culture itself with an example of what it means to believe that there is a different way for us all. Dr. King wrote that as the church, we must “have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” He continued that we must “believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.”
Over 50 years later, where are we?
How far have we really come?
Do we have the courage, on this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to allow audacious faith and hope to compel us to action?
Will we courageously commit ourselves to "a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation," a method that is built on the foundation of love?
Dr. King often echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah that one day God will lift up every valley, bring every mountain low, make the uneven ground level and the rough places plain so the glory of the Lord will be revealed (Isaiah 40:4 and 5).
On a day where we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, may we find the audacity to join God in bringing this divine vision into reality. And may we remember that when the freedom of one person or people group denies the freedoms of another, no one is truly free.