When Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist on April 4, 1968, the world shook. Riots raged across 110 cities. King’s murder was rightly declared “a national disaster.” Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights leader who first used the slogan “black power,” went as far as to say, “When white America killed Dr. King, she declared war on us.”
King’s distant friend and spiritual mentor Howard Thurman, a fellow Christian leader of the civil rights movement, knew he needed to speak words of comfort and hope but felt that the words to bring peace to a broken America were nearly impossible to come by.
And yet he conjured up the courage to provide commentary on, in his words, the “cleft deep in the psyche of the American people, the profound ambivalence and ambiguity of our way of life.” Hours before his murder, King preached about freedom and hope in his inspired ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. Now, the spiritual leader of America’s progression towards Biblical standards of equality was gone, in his void a voice of anguish crying out from the hearts of America’s cities, from the deep central place of America’s soul.
According to Thurman, King embodied Christianity and its ethical implications — unlike the slavers and Jim Crow supporters and American leaders who remained indifferent to America’s original sin of racism, and who distorted the Bible and Christian teachings to oppress their fellow man. For Thurman, and millions of others across America and the globe, King represented the revolutionary ethic of the religion of Jesus.
And so Thurman issued a plea to the conscience of those listening to the fears and pain rising up from Black America: “A way must be found to honour our feelings without dishonouring him whose sudden and meaningless end has called them forth.” He asked Americans of all races and creeds to “harness the energy of our bitterness and make it available to the unfinished work which Martin has left behind.”
In his 1967 book, Theology of Hope, German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote that “hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Those who hope in Christ “can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.” In light of this, King embodied this hope in protest. He did not put up with the reality that African-Americans, and Black people across the globe, experienced, charged himself with the task of carrying on the ministry of Jesus, suffering against this racist, sinful reality and, contradicting it, sacrificed his life in the process.
In Zechariah 9:12, we read “Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope.” MLK was indeed a prisoner of hope — a hope rooted in Christ’s redemptive realism and a promise of the victory of God in Jesus. King, like other Christian civil rights leaders both of his time and in our current era, was not too naïve about the realities of America’s racist history, nor did he assume that good and light would immediately win.
In his last book written before his assassination, King writes in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? that “the majority of White Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro,” but, he counters, that “unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” White Americans did, and still do today, welcome some change, but too many remain apathetic and disinterested in the deeper, spiritual steps required to repair racism. Even in the church, white Christians often remain ignorant to the trials of their Black brothers and sisters. According to King, the practical cost of change for America had been cheap and characterized by the ever-present tendency to backlash — we see this today in the “whataboutisms” and conspiracies spread by those opposed to racial justice.
For King, freedom was and is not won by a passive acceptance of suffering, a shrugging of shoulders and a “well, that’s how we do things here.” It is “won by a struggle against suffering.” Standing in the chasm between disappointed cries for black power, stiffening resistance from white backlash, the darkness of lost life in Vietnam and the pervasiveness of poverty in both urban and rural settings, King appealed to Americans’ common humanity and care for the common good. He called for the full participation of black and white communities, rich and poor, “natives” and immigrants, Pentecostals and Presbyterians and Catholics and Southern Baptists — any who would join the struggle for freedom and community. He called on people of all faiths, but especially on his fellow Christians to work for the justice which Jesus preaches about to his followers in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:6) — a justice of life, of reconciliation, of the restoration of relationships with God and with one another. It was in this context that Thurman appropriately claimed that King’s greatest contribution was his life, which embodied a radical discipleship and a revolutionary, Christ-like love.
Throughout the history of the church, people of God have left their comforts behind to spread the gospel of Christ. The Apostle of Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the good news of Jesus to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world. Inspired by Paul, King wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail that “I was compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my hometown.”
Inspired by Paul’s words in Romans 12:2, King wrote in his 1963 sermon collection Strength to Love that “we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists.” We are called to be people who take up the cross of conviction, not conformity, of moral nobility, not social respectability.
King represented a radical discipleship that took from elements of Karl Barth’s Christocentrism, John Calvin’s soteriology and Paul Tillich’s correlation method, along with an analysis of sociology and American history. He reoriented discipleship to be deeply rooted in the liberating and reconciling ministry of Jesus and what God is doing in our current age. For King, mainstream American Christianity “often served to crystallize, conserve and even bless the patterns of majority opinion.” For too long, the American church sanctioned slavery, war and economic exploitation — church denominations were split along lines of North and South, slavery and freedom, and many of the conservative denominations of our age were born out of a refusal to repent from the sin of racism. Denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention, otherwise faithful, bible-believing churches, for too long compromised the gospel of Christ in an attempt to align themselves with the slavers and Jim Crow legislators in power. In this way, King believed that the church too often embodied the reign of empire than the reign of God.
King once plead that “the church must acknowledge its guilt, its weak and vacillating witness, its all too frequent failure to obey the call to servanthood.” Despite attempts at progress, we still see today, in the face of police brutality and rising white nationalism in America and Europe, efforts by many Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham to ignore the plight of the oppressed. Despite the efforts by many pastors and theologians to point towards Jesus and his gospel of mercy and sacrifice, many churches remain “irrelevant social clubs without moral or spiritual authority.”
King, even in his death, calls Christians to recapture the gospel and follow in the footsteps of our early predecessors, who were nonconformists willing to face persecution as they testified to the spiritual and social realities of the kingdom of God in the world in order to “make disciples of all nations.” We are called into the community of Christ that embodies the politics of Jesus — a politics reflecting John 13, where Jesus says to his disciples; “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done.”
We are called not simply to learn the truths of Jesus, but to show our thanks for his sacrifice on the cross by embodying the reality of God’s cosmic story of grace in our world. Because the Resurrection was an event and a reality that touched this world, so too when we live out Resurrection power, it must touch and be touched by this world.
James Bevel, a close friend of King’s, reflected on the gospel-centred ethos of his friend’s life with these reverberating words upon his death:
“There’s a false rumor around that our leader is dead. Our leader is not dead. Martin Luther King is not our leader. Our leader is the man who led Moses out of Israel. Our leader is the man who went with Daniel into the lion’s den. Our leader is the man who walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot be put in jail. He has never lost a war yet. Our leader is still on the case. Our leader is not dead. One of his prophets died. We will not stop because of that.”