First posted on Lifeway
I wasn't aware of Rev. Martin Luther King until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. I was nine years old. I could tell from the behavior of the adults around me that something horrible had happened. When I asked Dad about it, he said "Dr. King was like the president of the Negro people."
That explanation satisfied my nine-year-old mind. But when I got older, I realized that Dad had highly oversimplified Martin Luther King's life and message. As the King name has permeated American culture, many have heard or read the "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963's March on Washington. Myths have circulated about King, raising him to icon-like status. Other myths have sought to humanize him and have succeeded only in demonizing him.
Like many Americans and many Christians, I have wanted to know more about the man. In high school I wrote a research paper on him. In graduate school, 25 years after Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I took a class on his life and writings. Another 25 years have passed since my graduate school class, and I am sure as ever that he was neither angel nor demon. But I believe he has a message for 21st century Christians. Dr. Martin Luther King's core message was the Gospel proclamation of personal salvation and social restoration. Not only is that message the central core of the man's life and words, it is also the message that most resonates for us today.
King spoke that message explicitly and candidly in a 1963 sermon titled, "How Should a Christian View Communism?" He chose this sermon topic probably because one of the most persistent myths about Dr. King is that he was a Marxist, or a Communist sympathizer. King wanted to state outright his reasons for opposing Communism. In the process he laid out a blueprint for Christian thinking and living that remains helpful today.
"At the center of the Christian faith is the affirmation that there is a God in the universe who is the ground and essence of all reality. ...[That] reality cannot be explained by matter in motion or the push and pull of economic forces. Christianity affirms that at the heart of reality is a Heart, a loving Father who works through history for the salvation of his children. Man cannot save himself, for man is not the measure of all things and humanity is not God. Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior."Today Christians need that zeal to counter other stubborn philosophies, other false promises of good news. Terrorism, commercialism, nationalism, celebrity, hedonism, comfort and unchecked capitalism rival the gospel for control in the world and in our lives. Some of those philosophies are atheistic, some are state-centered rather than God-centered, and some justify any means toward a desired end.
As a final prescription, Dr. King proclaimed:
"We need to pledge ourselves anew to the cause of Christ. We must recapture the spirit of the early church. Wherever the early Christians went, they made a triumphant witness for Christ. Whether on the village streets or in the city jails, they daringly proclaimed the good news of the gospel."
Of course, my Dad was right. Dr. King was an unparalleled leader for African Americans and for their good news of freedom. But he fought for more than racial rights. He fought for freedom, justice, dignity, and hope for all people. And he preached Jesus' gospel message of personal and social transformation.
Quotations from in "How Should a Christian View Communism," recorded in Strength to Love, Harper & Row, 1963. New edition published 2010 by Fortress Press.
Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. - A sermon delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr.on February 28, 1954
Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. (book)
Tony Dungy: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.