Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. People will speak eloquently about him, share his quotes or use images of him to express “wokeness.” Though many will spend time remembering this day, there are still so many unwilling to allow King’s dream bear any real, social responsibility in their lives.
The truth is, we often don’t fair much better when challenged to put the commandments of our sovereign King Jesus into action. We attempt to make his words palatable enough to allow us to hold on to our finances, possessions and talents, while ignoring the people living on the margins of our society.
Just as we try to shape the words and commandments of King Jesus in our own image, we can do the same with this King, Dr. Martin Luther King. If we aren’t regularly offended by the commandments of our King—or Dr. King’s implications of the gospel—we’ve probably been fed a sanitized and whitewashed version of both. But we do not need to run from their truths; rather, we should embrace the freedom found in them. Jesus is the truth (John 8:32; John 14:6), and Dr. King believed “freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth.”
Many of Dr. King’s corrections, instructive implications of the gospel and encouragements are just as relevant for us today as the day he was murdered. Christians who admire Dr. King’s efforts and achievements, and desire to see economically and racially harmonized churches, should consider listening to these truths.
King on Revolts
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. (Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Other America,” March 14, 1968)
King was acquainted with the cries of the oppressed and their desire to be heard, and in response he called for peaceful protests. When these quiet efforts went unheeded, he knew they had to make their voices louder in a strategic shift in the hope of being heard. Who wasn’t hearing? The group King called “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity”—a group often often unwilling to engage in these dialogues: American Christians who were more concerned about American conservatism than Christian justice and mercy.
King did not fail to call out this American hypocrisy, and neither did King Jesus shy away from bringing attention to the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders of his time on earth. When the Pharisees confronted him about his disciples breaking the traditions of the elders, Christ did not hesitate to point out how they break God’s commandments to uphold their traditions (Matthew 15:1–9). In a similar way, this should make us consider how we may be aligning ourselves politically, socially, and religiously to conserve American traditions that resist Christ’s commandment to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
The Kings did not shy away from calling out hypocrisy, and so neither should we. The American majority is critical and frustrated with protests—and, to be sure, not all protests are done the right way—while failing to acknowledge or address the underlying issues that are the vehicles for the protests. We should take an honest look at our laws, systems, and traditions to analyze where we might be replacing gospel commandments with American principles.
King on The Poor
“We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” (“I Have a Dream” speech given at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom)
King observed racial imbalances and divisions could not be fixed without greater economic sacrifice and equality. His observation was only a part of a broader gospel principle to empty ourselves of everything in exchange for the riches of Christ the King. While the greater need is for mankind to empty ourselves of any spiritual riches to be reconciled to God through Christ, attempting to separate Christ’s call to empty ourselves spiritually and sometimes economically can be unhelpful. When we try teasing the two apart we get either an empty prosperity gospel, preaching promises of riches with no effectual change of the heart or a heartless gospel that fails to see the possibilities of greater human flourishing when money and governmental systems are radically used as efficient resources to encourage, support and free systematically oppressed peoples. Though King Jesus was no activist nor government official, we witness him compassionately meeting some needs of the economically and spiritually poor during his earthly ministry.
Black male life expectancy in Washington, DC, is lower than in the Gaza Strip.
This is indeed a pressing matter that can be addressed by the gospel. In an analysis of how the “I Have a Dream” speech has been misremembered and is misunderstood, Gary Younge discovered King’s dream remains a distant reality:
Black unemployment is (currently) almost double that of whites; the percentage of black children living in poverty is almost triple that of whites; black male life expectancy in Washington, DC, is lower than in the Gaza Strip; one in three black boys born in 2001 stands a lifetime risk of going to prison; more black men were disenfranchised in 2004 because they were felons than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment ostensibly secured their right to vote. (Younge, 2016)
Even more debilitating is since 2000, African Americans were the only group that showed little-to-no progress in homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years. Lauren Victoria Burke discovered through the Economic Policy Institute that:
Blacks are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned. Homeownership rates...remained unchanged for African Americans, over the last 50 years. Black homeownership is about 40 percent, which is 30 percent behind the rate for whites,” and “the average income for an African American household was $39,490 in 2017, a decrease from $41,363 in 2000. (Burke, 2018)
Bearing these facts in mind, in tandem with both King Jesus and King Jr.’s admonitions to view this topic through an economic lens, we might consider more deeply how we each, as Christian Americans, have potentially contributed to these “insufficient funds of opportunity,” whether explicitly or implicitly, and might begin the long task of making a real difference.
For those who disregard both these statistics and the economically disadvantaged, demanding instead they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, consider King’s admonition on this matter: “It's all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
King pushed back against the still common idea that being poor is only a matter of effort; that the economically marginalized have restrained themselves to such a way of life. King understood, as should we, the near impossibility of obtaining success stems from a long, ongoing system of oppression that has maintained its damaging effects on generations.
While America refused to do anything for the black man at that point, during that very period, the nation, through an act of Congress, was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. Not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges for them to learn how to farm… Well that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor. (“The Other America” speech, March 14, 1968)
We can encourage economic wisdom and independence, but we can also provide resources and help build better, socially relevant environments that cultivate success. Before we critique the poor's economic despondence and subsequent way of life, we should first consider how we can help meet the needs of the poor, as God's people. And isn't it better to do this now rather than waiting on the next generation?
King on Doing What is Right
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right. (“The Other America” speech, March 14, 1968)
King understood Christ’s compassion should compel us to use our resources and influence to push for economic and social change. He also knew to see meaningful change would require hard work and time—and if momentum towards change was allowed to slow, time would likely work in favor of the enemy. He encouraged people to do what was right now.
Likewise, as Christians, we know what is right. We know Christ the King will come back and restore all things when His name is spread across the globe. And we know we have been called as Christ’s ambassadors to spread the gospel, because it will not happen without our beautiful feet running and spreading the good news (2 Corinthians 5:20; Romans 10:15). But there is a difference between knowing what is right and doing what is right, and we often ignore Christ the King’s call to the latter.
If our hearts have been effectually changed by the salvation of Christ, we will be pressed to effect change as a result—both in the fight for the oppressed and in spreading the good news of the gospel.
Some Americans, perhaps even some Christians, may feel it is unnecessary to continue analyzing, discussing, or even engaging the multifaceted economic and racial problems to which Dr. King brought attention. Scoffing at this call to action can easily overlook opportunities for more faithful missional living. By humbling ourselves, sacrificing comfort and selfish desire, we create opportunities to display the beauty of the gospel. This could include intentionally living in the lower-income neighborhood rather than the affluent one, or supporting disenfranchised peoples with our resources, time, or finances, or maybe even joining a congregation where the majority of the people there do not look like you. To suggest such is uncomfortable and possibly offensive. But, when we more closely investigate how much of King’s philosophy—as it pertains to valuing human flourishing and equality—fits with the grand scheme of the gospel, we will find courage to do away with the way we’ve sanitized the dreams of both Dr. King and Christ the King and live in such a way to make Jesus look more valuable than anything we could attain on earth. While we can in no way equate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to our penultimate King Yeshua, we should ask ourselves how picking up the mantle and moving in a gospel-centered way can honor MLK’s dream and legacy more than just one day of posting quotes on social media.
We will find courage to do away with the way we’ve sanitized the dreams of both Dr. King and Christ the King.
In humility, we can take the offending words of both Kings and let them drive us toward lasting change in our world. But even if our world never changes, nor if Dr. King’s dream for America never becomes a reality, we can faithfully serve with joy, because we serve a most glorious King—Jesus—who rules over an everlasting kingdom.