This year marks the 53rd anniversary of the march on Washington. The line “I have a dream, a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” resides in the rhetorical pantheon with “Four score and seven years ago” and “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.”
One of the fascinating ironies that makes the history so compelling is the fact that King didn’t plan to use the “I have a dream” line. His prepared remarks were winding down when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream!” – a flourish she had heard from him previously.
Dr. King’s speech, when read in its entirety, reminds me of the widening gulf – not between the various ethnicities that make up our country – but between Christianity, a part of our heritage thought to be critical by Dr. King, and the secular transformation that seeks to cut the cord altogether; add to that a Christianity attenuated by a performance-driven, feel-good, prosperity theology and the result is a religion that, despite its popularity, fails to give off the heat sometimes needed to light critical fires. We read the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., whose life we celebrate this weekend, while tending to ignore the essence of his beliefs. Beliefs acclaimed by him – and by Abraham Lincoln – as the necessary groundwork for their idealism. A bizarre paradox in the progressively secular society we live in is the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday – venerated as the heartbeat of the idealism which promotes racial unity – conscientiously observed in our schools, yet, little if any thought is given to Dr. King’s own faith. What seems to be overlooked on this day is Martin Luther King’s Christian training and explicit Christian commitment. Every student across the country is familiar with the incantation “I have a dream.” Few, however, are familiar with his peroration, which was “. . . and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
In fact, the sermon Martin Luther King preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church three months before he was killed was selected by his close friends and admirers to be replayed at his funeral. It closed, “if I can do my duty as a Christian ought, then my living will not be in vain.”
Dr. King understood that at the foundation of our assumption that all human beings are equal is the conviction that all human beings are created by God. After all, if we are merely the product of a random act of evolution – why, then, is it irrational to believe that disparate elements of humanity are superior to others? How do we know that some future anthropological research might persuasively claim that we are, indeed, unequal?
My point is this, to disaggregate King’s call for equality from his personal commitment to Christ and the church is to diminish his memory and to neuter his legacy.
Don’t misunderstand, I admit that there is, still, pretty wide support for the teachings of Christ – as long as we subtract from them one teaching which He obtrusively listed as our primary obligation – to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Most have jettisoned this injunction. Today we are taught in effect that what’s important to Christianity is the homeless shelter – not the church. On April 25, 1957, Dr. King addressed the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations in Nashville. In his remarks he stated apodictically that the church held the primary role in addressing the nation’s chief moral dilemma. That was correct then, and it is correct now. Martin Luther King, like me, understood the lodestar for freedom and equality is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To those who wish to celebrate Martin Luther King Day in a meaningful way, I say: (1) heed King’s admonition to fear the Lord and love Him; (2) instruct your children to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And (3) recommit to the ministry of the local church – the pillar and foundation of truth.