Monday, January 17, 2011

Lessons from Dr. King in an Era of Incivility

This weekend at church, as our pastor led us in praying for our congregation, our community and the world, we prayed in thanksgiving for the “life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King.” That phrase has stuck in my mind.

We often hear Dr. King’s name invoked in secular, political contexts these days. And many gloss over the fact that Dr. King was a Christian pastor and his civil rights work was rooted in biblical teachings. I like using the phrase “ministry” to describe his work. I think it is very apropos. As Christ followers, a basic tenet of our faith is that God created all human beings in his image, and each one of us is infinitely valuable. We also believe we are part of the Body of Christ, and all parts are critically important. There are no second class citizens in the Body of Christ.

As I have been thinking about the gift of Dr. King’s life and ministry, it occurs to me that he provided us a wonderful example to follow in our current climate of uncivil public discourse. Two points from his ministry seem particularly helpful.

First, Dr. King was courageous and fair in flagging injustices. He didn’t just tell his flock to suffer through the indignities and dangers of Jim Crow. Dr. King had vision to decry long-established social norms that brought misery and kept African Americans from fully developing their potential. He encouraged people in the pews to go outside and peacefully demand justice outside the walls of their church.

Second, as Dr. King was flagging injustices, he did not demonize those who opposed his work. Instead, he appealed to our better nature and spoke in terms of brotherhood. Even after his home was bombed and his family was nearly killed, Dr. King preached love, not violent retaliation.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King used the occasion of his incarceration to take time to respond to Christian leaders who had condemned his civil rights work. The text of the letter is available at the following link:

It is a beautiful, eloquent, wise letter written under challenging circumstances. Had I been in Dr. King’s shoes, I would have been sorely tempted to name-call the critical leaders to whom he was responding. At the very least, I would have wanted to use sharp language to call them hypocrites. The spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. A more mature Christian than me, Dr. King refrained from such unproductive pettiness. He opens the letter calling the condemning clergy “men of genuine good will” and expresses his aspiration to respond to their criticisms in “patient and reasonable terms.” He clearly succeeded. In the letter, he is firm in pressing for the cause of social justice, but Dr. King’s words are full of respect, humility and love. They are a tremendous example for us all to follow at any time in human history. But they seem to have particular resonance in this current American climate.

One of my favorite parts of the letter is when he responds to charges that his actions have been extremist in nature, Dr. King writes:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as
I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of
satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "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." Was not Amos an extremist
for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an
ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I
bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an
extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."

Another passage that also speaks to me is the following:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in
Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught
in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford
to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives
inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its

May you have a blessed day, gentle reader. May you be enriched by the words of our brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hosea 10:12-13

Sow with a view to righteousness,
Reap in accordance with kindness;
Break up your fallow ground,
For it is time to seek the LORD
Until He comes to rain righteousness on you.
You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice,
You have eaten the fruit of lies
Because you have trusted in your way, in your numerous warriors

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