Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Are You a Thermometer or a Thermostat?

The national remembrance of the great civil rights activist the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. occurs on the third Monday of each January in the USA.  If the African-American orator/activist were still living, this January 15th would mark his 89th birthday.  April 4th will mark the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination (April 4, 1968).  It seems appropriate to consider his timeless wisdom encapsulated in his prison epistle, Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in April 1963, five years before he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee.

To select examples of King’s potent insights is not difficult to do.  They blossom like spring flowers in a well-kept garden.  These here are offered because they manifest how King sought to turn indifference into making a difference. He believed far too many in an unjust society were merely thermometers measuring the temperature of society rather than thermostats turning up the heat to make a cold-hearted world a warmer place to live.  

He put it this way, “There was a time when the church was very powerful, in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Moreover, his keen insights reveal the substantial difference between principled activism and just stirring up violence.  In this season of partisan unrest, it seems that this difference needs to be rediscovered.  

The following ten statements are a few of my favorites from Dr. King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  They have been slightly edited so that they take the form of moral maxims.  Dr. King’s words and work urge us to action by insisting that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

As you read, consider if you agree.  And if you do, reflect on your own life and decide if you’ve slouched into a mere couch potato in the great divine duty—to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  As a minister, Dr. King was convinced that Christian faith should move us to determined action for good in a troubled world.  We should not forget that the only national holiday commemorating a minister of the Gospel is Martin Luther King Day.  

  1. “…earnestly oppose violent tension, … there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth….the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”
  2. “… agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’… a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.”
  3. “If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.”
  4. “Remember, Jesus was an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’”
  5. “Consider Amos who was an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’”
  6. “Follow Paul who was an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’”
  7. “Have the courage of Martin Luther who was an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’”
  8. “Lead like Abraham Lincoln who was an extremist when he said: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’”
  9. “Write boldly like Thomas Jefferson who was an extremist when he said: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….’”
  10. “Don’t ask whether you will be an extremist, but what kind of extremist you will be. Will you be an extremist for hate or for love? Will you be an extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? …Model yourself after Jesus Christ who was an extremist for love, truth and goodness….”

We conclude Dr. King’s concerns with his observation:  “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of people willing to be co-workers with God.”  A fitting way, then, to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday is to ask, “What have I done together with God lately for the good of my neighbor?”  Your answer will well diagnosis whether you’ve become a mere thermometer or a thermostat of mercy.

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