Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Prophetic Voice of Love

Apr 04, 2018

by George Robertson

 

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death by an assassin’s bullet. At 6:04 pm, Second Presbyterian Church will join with church bells all over the city in a public expression of grief over Dr. King’s death. Ringing as it will from the front doors of our sanctuary, our bells will express our repentance for past racism and commitment to future justice and reconciliation.

 

Since accepting the call to Second, I’ve been trying to ready myself to be as much of a Memphian as I can, especially today. Each year, April 4 is a painful day for Memphians as we endure the internationally shameful moniker, “the city that killed King.”

 

However, since my arrival I have been mentored by a faculty of courageous men and women who have lived through the worst of Jim Crow history. They have graciously and bravely taken me under their wing and called me, as they are calling Memphis, to shake off the ashes of mourning and move forward to realize the biblical mandates of King’s dreams. To know the likes of these men and women is to experience the truest version of what Dr. King envisioned as a Christian for America.

 

The true King, contrary to the King who has been reimagined by many, was not largely popular at the time of his death. Today I’m forced to ask myself a haunting question, “On April 4, 1968, would I have had the Christian courage to be an ally of Dr. King or am I merely a fair-weather friend hopping on a bandwagon of current popular opinion?”

 

We historians can be powerful. We can take advantage of someone’s ignorance and reshape past incidents and figures into saints or sinners. We can erase the inscrutability of the human heart, fain an authoritative interpretation of Providence, and sanitize the complexity of a fallen world to get the outcome we desire. Dr. King’s legacy has fallen prey to the same irresponsible revisionism. It is possible to create a version of Dr. King that would delude us into the conviction that we would have easily found ourselves arm in arm with him on this day. But looking responsibly at his radically biblical convictions requires me to search my heart more seriously.

 

On April 4, 1968, Dr. King had few friends in America. His campaign to eradicate poverty among blacks and whites, protest of the Vietnam War, insistence on fair housing practices, push for quality education for all, exposure of police brutality, spotlight on the systemic racism of the North, and condemnation of black violence had managed to make enemies in all quarters of the Nation. By the time he arrived in Memphis, he was regarded as a sellout by many African-American activists, a fanatic by white moderates, and a trouble-maker by liberal politicians. Understandably, he arrived depressed, fatigued, and spiritually confused—not dissimilar from most Old Testament prophets. But like them, he was compelled to trumpet the same message.

 

What was this message which made him so unpopular? In a word, it was love. Dr. Greg Thompson, a former student who has now become my teacher, has helped me understand King’s “agapic vision” for America. Greg’s unpublished dissertation has helped me tremendously to prepare for this day. Despite pressure from blacks and whites to pursue a different course, King announced in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967:

 

I have decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. I know it isn’t popular to talk about in some circles today. [But] He who has love has the key ... to the meaning of reality. Let this affirmation ... give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future.[1]

 

King’s biblical wisdom is revealed by his insight that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. This insight is what provokes my self-examination today. King acknowledged there is a proper, responsible fear, as with a poisonous snake or dangerous weather. The fear he condemned was what Thompson calls “self-interested protectionism.”[2]  He exposed the passivity of formerly supportive white moderates, explaining they feared that to push any further for equal civil rights would endanger their own status and economic privilege. At the opposite extreme, King explained that white supremacists’ violence was also motivated by fear “militantly determined ... to save their lives and the Life of this Nation”[3] which they viewed to be controlled by atheists in the Federal government.

 

These are but a few of the many examples Greg Thompson provides in his work “An Experiment of Love,” demonstrating King’s uncompromising commitment to the Gospel’s hopeful, revolutionary, and cosmic vision of redemption found only in the love of Jesus Christ which must be received and practiced. To remain laser focused on the love of the Gospel will ensure one is never totally accepted by either political party or any other self-protectionist worldview or enterprise. It demands courage only found in reliance upon Christ who calls us to take up our cross and count it a privilege to be identified with him as aliens and strangers.

 

King said to be identified with Christ in love required being what he called “maladjusted”:

 

The world is in dire need of a society of the creatively maladjusted. It may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of such a creative minority. We need men today as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Papers 6:475).

 

So today my desperate prayer is for the Lord Jesus to make me a maladjusted leader. Dr. King provided us an example of one who followed Jesus’ example of being compelled and controlled by love, even to the point of death. Each of us must examine our own hearts to see if we are controlled by this same love which may call us to do the same. I pray we are those who are constantly accused of being Christ-followers because of the radical way we love.

 

[1] Gregory Thompson, “An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Re-imagining of American Democracy” (PHD diss., University of Virginia, 2015), 419.

[2] Ibid., 429.

[3] Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 50.