Dr. King Was a Christian Preacher
by Jerome F. Winzig
A variation of a children's song about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. starts with the words, "Dr. King, Dr. King, Dr. King was a Christian preacher." That doesn't seem to be a commonly held perception, however. While King was alive, there were those who were hostile to integration and equal rights and refused to accept King as a Christian preacher and prophet. Today there are people who will be angry if Pope John Paul II accepts the nomination of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to have King declared a martyr of the Christian faith.
But the hostility to King's Christian message is not as disturbing as the indifference and ignorance that has grown in the three decades since King's assassination in 1968. Yes, King's birthday is a national holiday. And if you ask a group of young school children of any race who Martin Luther King was, they will probably name his "I Have a Dream" speech. But the chances are quite good that no one has asked them to read "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" (Birmingham, 1963), "Our God Is Marching On!" (Selma, 1965), "A Christmas Sermon on Peace" (Atlanta, 1967), or "I See the Promised Land" (Memphis, 1968).
Chances are also quite good that most of those young school children have not been taught that King's doctorate was in theology. They won't know that in 1953, when he was completing his Ph.D. and looking for his first church, he was invited to preach in Montgomery, Alabama. The place was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a small congregation of three hundred people that sat across the square from the state capitol building where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861.
They won't know that King was nervous about his trial sermon and contemplated trying to impress the well-educated congregation with his scholarship. But he decided to depend on the inspiration of the spirit of God, telling himself, "Keep Martin Luther King in the background and God in the foreground and everything will be all right. Remember you are a channel of the gospel and not the source."
It's likely that most school children are not taught that King was one of the people who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, which chose as its motto, "To save the soul of America."
In part, we are increasingly unaware of King as a Christian because we are increasingly less of a Christian nation. This lapse is not the fault of our brothers and sisters of other faiths, because most people have not become Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish. Rather, they have continued to call themselves Christian while ceasing to nurture that faith.
The result is that King's words in the speech he gave the night before he was killed might not resonate with many young people today: "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land." Would they hear the echo of Moses, who led the Jewish people out of slavery in the Exodus and ascended Mount Nebo to view the land of Canaan, but did not enter the promised land?
King was not a cultural Christian but a passionate believer. In his 1968 "The Drum Major Instinct" sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he said, "The church is the one place where a Ph.D. ought to forget that he's a Ph.D....The church is the one place where the lawyer ought to forget that he's a lawyer....When the church is true to its nature, it says, 'Whosoever will, let him come.' ...It's the one place where everybody should be the same standing before a common master and savior. And a recognition grows out of this--that all men are brothers because they are children of a common father."
In April, 1963, King was imprisoned in the city jail in Birmingham for participating in a civil rights demonstration. From his jail cell, he wrote an open letter on Christian discipleship. He pointed out that St. Augustine had said that "An unjust law is no law at all." He went on to say that, "...it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law." Then King observed, "To use the words of Martin Buber...segregation substitutes an 'I-it' relationship for the 'I-thou' relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things." But do our college students today know that Augustine was a fourth-century Christian bishop and Church Father, that Aquinas was a prominent Catholic theologian in the middle ages, and that Buber was a great Jewish philosopher?
In that same letter, King went on to say he did not advocate evading or defying the law, but instead believed it was important to break an unjust law "openly, lovingly...and with a willingness to accept the penalty." Then he pointed to the Old Testament for an example: "Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshhach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved." But do our young people know about this story from the book of Daniel?
If King's "I Have a Dream" speech were given today, how well would we hear it? King said, "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." Would his reference to the words of the prophet Isaiah, echoed centuries later by John the Baptist, stir us?
If King's eulogy to the little girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 were given today, how well would we accept King's words? "Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days."
King's actions had a depth that was rooted in his belief in God. His words echo the profound stories of faith from the Jewish Old Testament and the Christian New Testament. It will be a terrible loss if we become tone-deaf to his prophetic message.