The Ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Rev. Dr. Steven M. Grant
The ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King is an excellent example of how one man’s Christian faith and ethic translates into pubic theology and public action. Jesus taught, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:27-29). The Apostle Paul taught, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable n the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:17-18). Paul continued, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). The Apostle Peter exhorted his readers in this way, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet 3:9). Dr. King applied this teaching to the public arena in this way, “I can’t make myself believe that God wants me to hate, I’m tired of violence. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use.” Dr. King also acknowledged the source of character of the civil rights efforts, “It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.” And then in one of his most powerful statements:
“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many White Citizens Councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match our capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threated our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and someday we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”
Dr. King’s perspective and teaching to those who worked with him in the Civil Rights Movement is a perfect example of how someone from the faith community appropriates the teachings of Jesus Christ to witness and bring positive change in the public arena. Unjust laws needed to be opposed to uphold the rights and dignity of human beings but accomplished by methods and principles rooted in the Christian faith and ethic. Ultimately, God is the only one to whom we must answer, so a Christian must stand up against unjust or immoral laws according to the same Christian standard that leads the faith community to oppose those laws in the first place. The faith community’s methods must be as consistent with the Gospel as the moral principles they advocate.
Dr. King was preceded by two amazing disciples of Jesus who lived and ministered in Philadelphia when our nation was young. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were both former slaves. Despite their previous enslavement and the many insults and struggles they endured at the hands of the white population, Allen and Jones mobilized their respective congregations in one of the most selfless acts of Christian service in our nation’s early history. A yellow fever epidemic hit the city of Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. As many people, including President Washington and others in the national government fled the city, there remained many who did not have the option or resources to flee. Over 10 percent of the population of the city perished in the epidemic by the time it ran its course. In the meantime, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who erroneously thought that African Americans were immune to the disease, wrote to Richard Allen asking him for his congregation’s help. Dr. Rush included in his request, “Such an act in your society will [crossed out: render you acceptable to] be very grateful to the citizens, and I hope pleasing in the light of that god who will we every act of kindness done to creatures whom he calls his brethren, as if done to himself.” Even though African Americans succumbed to the disease at the same rate as whites, they courageously entered the homes of white people and nursed them. Both Allen and Jones believed that black aid to white citizens would help the cause of racial justice and bring a measure of reconciliation with white Christians from whom Jones’ and Allen’s congregants chose to separate due to unjust treatment. Unfortunately, when the epidemic was over, the African Americans who sacrificed and served so faithfully were accused of taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of the white population and suspected of crimes, forcing Jones and Allen to write a response. In “A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and a Refutation of Some Censures Thrown Upon Them in Some Late Publications,” Jones and Allen wrote directly, contradicting the charges against their people with grace and without rancor. After publishing the above pamphlet, they also addressed themselves to the issue of slavery. Their tone foreshadows Dr. King’s, “That God who knows the hearts of all men, and the propensity of a slave to hate his oppressor, hath strictly forbidden it to his chosen people, ‘thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land.’ Deut. xxiii.7. The meek and humble Jesus, the great pattern of humanity, and every other virtue that can adorn and dignify men, hath commanded to love our enemies, to do good to them that hate and despitefully use us. We feel the obligations, we wish to impress them on the minds of our black brethren, and that we may all forgive you, as we wish to be forgiven; we think it a great mercy to have all anger and bitterness removed from our mind; we appeal to your own feelings, if it is not very disquieting to feel yourself under the dominion of a wrathful disposition. If you love your children, if you love your country, if you love the God of love, clear your hands from slaves, burden not your children or country with them.” This is testimony of two men who had embraced their Savior Jesus as the Lord of their lives. These are the kind of men needed to represent the faith community in the name of Jesus in the public arena. This is the voice of the faith community at its finest.