Two titanic events occurred in May, 1954 that changed America forever. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its epochal decision rejecting the doctrine of separate but equal for whites and blacks in public education. By a 9-0 vote, the court abolished segregation in public schools. In stark contrast to this monumental sea change, the second event was, at the time, a tiny ripple. A young African American began his first pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His name—Martin Luther King Jr. This ripple would become a tsunami.

Irony, or poetic justice? His church was less than 100 yards from the Alabama State Capitol, where less than 100 years earlier the new president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was introduced with these words: “The man and the hour have met.”

King’s first sermon “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” focused on love of self, love of neighbor and love of God. Drawn from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, this sacrificial love remained the theme of King’s life and ministry.

A year later, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a crowded city bus. Rosa refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The bus driver had her arrested. Led by Dexter Avenue’s new young pastor, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ensued.

King was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. His first speech on December 5, 1955, outlined his theology and strategy—his theology: “Love your enemies, bless them that persecute you, and pray for them that spitefully use you.” His strategy: “Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. . . . In spite of the treatment that we have confronted we must not become bitter, and end up hating our white brothers.” King’s commitment to non-violence grounded in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and the twin themes of love and forgiveness would ultimately win the Civil Rights war.

Imagine the pressure and stress that must have pushed King to the limits of his commitment to a non-violent struggle! His home was bombed January 30, 1956, and subsequently twice more. The lives of his wife and children were constantly endangered. He suffered twenty-three arrests between 1956, and 1964. He survived a near-fatal stabbing by a deranged woman on September 20, 1958. At a Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Birmingham, Alabama, a white teenager leaped onto the speaker’s platform and began pummeling King, but King made no effort to defend himself and even refused to file charges. In all of this and more, King’s weapon of choice was always non-violence and his armory was Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.

The taproot of Dr. King’s life’s work was the ethic of love expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. King’s advocacy for social justice “relied not on a thin and abstract moralism as many liberals do but on a thick christological ground. Critical balance and integration of a thick theology and deep social transformation are his lasting missiological contribution.”[1]

A study of King’s sermons reveals his dominant theme of love for God and love for one’s neighbor. In his sermon “Love in Action,” based on Matthew 5:43-48, King reminds us of the why and the how. He outlines four reasons for loving:

  1. Hate multiplies hate; the endless cycle must be discontinued.
  2. Hate leaves not only the hatred but the hater scarred and distorted.
  3. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.
  4. Loving one’s enemies is not only a commandment from God but also a prerequisite to knowing God.

Mervyn Warren expresses well King’s commitment:

Nonviolence avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of the spirit. The nonviolent person not only refuses to shoot his or her opponent but also refused to hate the opponent. At the core of nonviolence stands the ethic of love, the queen of divine graces.[2]

Martin Luther King Jr. lived his credo. Hated by the KKK and despised by the Black Power movement, he stood firm. He acted and spoke in love. The harsh antagonism of J. Edgar Hoover for King is well known. When King questioned the FBI’s effectiveness in solving racial murders in Southern communities, Hoover responded that he thought King “to be the most notorious liar in the country.” King’s reply: “I cannot conceive of Mr. Hoover making a statement like this without being under extreme pressure. . . . I have nothing but sympathy for this man who has served his country so well.”

King taught us how “to become comfortable with the uncomfortable and uncomfortable with the too comfortable.”[3]

At 6:05 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In a tape recording played at his funeral from his sermon “Drum Major Instinct,” preached just two months before his death in the very church where his funeral was held, King told what he would like said at his funeral: “I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was the Good Samaritan. He saw racist Americans bleeding on the side of the road as the result of racist self-inflicted wounds, and stopped to render aid. Though racists dehumanized King, he refused to reciprocate. He loved God—he loved his neighbor.

Only one thing remains: let us go and do likewise.

 

[1] Hak Joon Lee, “Community, Mission, and Race: A Missiological Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community for Racial Relationships and Identity Politics,” in Can “White” People Be Saved?, eds. Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, and Amos Yong (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 227).

[2] Marvyn Warren, King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 84.

[3] A saying of David Tulin in another context, quoted by Frances E. Kendall, Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 103.