All but lost today, it seems to me, is a serious appropriation and adherence to Jesus’ cornerstone teaching of the ethics of the kingdom found in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course I’m referring to us who profess to be followers of Jesus, those of us who are called Christian. I’m afraid Christian has taken on a different and to some extent contrary meaning to what it originally had when the disciples in Antioch were first called Christian. The words of Jesus are either watered down or not taken seriously at all, it seems. They are hard, challenging words, to be sure. Love your enemies, pray for them. When struck, turn the other cheek. Don’t look lustfully on a woman, which in the heart is committing adultery. Don’t be angry with a brother or sister, or speak a word of contempt to or concerning them, which is on the edge of murdering them in one’s heart, and the first steps toward hell. Etc.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man, I think the greatest American civil leader of the twentieth century. He was certainly flawed as well. He was a Christian along the lines of the more liberal wing, theologically. He was steeped in Jesus’ teaching and example, especially with reference to the Sermon on the Mount (the Sermon on the Plain, paralleling that) and with reference to the Hebrew/Old Testament prophets. The call was for justice for the oppressed, specifically for the African Americans, then called Negroes, who though emancipated from slavery were not seen as equals, were pushed to the margins in segregation, and too often brutalized by those who hated them. Indeed, their lives were sometimes in danger.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped into what amounted to be a civil challenge to the United States, to live up to the letter of the law by breaking down the laws of segregation. And to clamp down on those who threatened their very existence. He did so as a full participant, subjecting both himself and his family to the difficulties and dangers inherent in such a stand. And some innocents tragically did lose their lives. His family was protected, even if his home was not, though in the end he paid the ultimate price himself, for whatever reason gunned down, which may have come with the territory of being a high profile leader, and surely did have something to do with his stand. There is no doubt that there were people who could have been a threat to his life.
He faced pressures on all sides. Many of his fellow African Americans were not interested in nonviolent protest. They were willing to do whatever necessary to secure justice and freedom. But Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed the course, not only preaching and teaching nonviolent protest in the way of self-purification and love even for one’s enemies, but in living that out to the end. By doing so he won over many of his own people, of the African Americans, and many others as well, in fact in the end, virtually everyone. He led the way to what became a national sea change, even if racism and hate along those lines remains in some latent and more overt forms to this very day.
I have found him especially inspiring in his sermons or addresses to fellow Christians. More difficult for me, but what I have come in some significant measure to respect and admire is his work on the civil end with reference to America and what it stood for in law as a democracy, or a democratic republic. Calling the nation to radical change in policies which would not merely keep order, but change the order kept. Front and center for Dr. King, I’m sure, was his understanding and appropriation of Jesus and his teachings and example.
It is one thing to teach truth, but quite another thing to live that truth out. That is where the inspiration comes. I can say such and such, but unless I begin to live it out, I will help no one. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others with him, did live that out, practicing what they preached. They uncompromisingly and unrelentingly spoke and acted against injustice with uncompromising, unrelenting love. They did not succumb to evil, so as to respond with evil in return. Hopefully more than just a few of them did so from a personal, communal faith. And we do well today to follow in their steps, even as they followed the example of Christ.
A good, even if rather long read, Martin Luther King. Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail.