MLK Legacy: Lessons For Christian Leaders
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest civil rights leader America has ever produced. He was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, just four days after preaching at the National (Episcopal) Cathedral in Washington DC where he proclaimed being “on the mountain top” and seeing “the Promised Land” of freedom, equality, social justice and racial reconciliation in the United States.
I have always wondered why it is around his birthdate (January 15, 1929) that the official “Martin Luther King Day” is commemorated. So it is a breather that here, in the Episcopal Church’s “Holy Women, Holy Men” (aka “A Cloud of Witnesses”), we commemorate his martyrdom as a feast day. I wear a red chasuble to signify the “blood of the martyrs” like MLK that seeded and shaped our nation.
So much has been written and spoken about MLK, his life, works and legacy but let me just address myself to some lessons we can learn especially for those who aspire to become “Christian” leaders. I refer to MLK’s ministries as a “pastor, prophet and priest.”
A.PASTOR: In 1954, MLK became pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had such a wealth of academic preparation earning degrees of BA, BD and Ph. D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University. But what distinguished him as a pastor was not his knowledge and erudition of theology but his heart of compassion—and people readily saw it. As someone said, “People will not care not so much about what you know until they know how much you care.”
The “heart of the pastor” was what brought MLK into national prominence in the context of Black and White segregation. Following the arrest of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat in the bus to the white man, there were many protest demonstrations and MLK provided the pastoral context to the mass movement. MLK provided the Christian “non violence” that tempered the anger and righteous indignation of the oppressed towards the unjust social structures and the powerful people who create and operate them.
B. PROPHET: It is often said that the prophets’ role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The Good News for the oppressed is bad news to the oppressors. God exalts the lowly and cast down the mighty.
MLK as a pastor was also MLK as a prophet. He announced the Good News of freedom, equality and peace to the Black community and troubled the conscience of the white men so much so that many of them became enlightened and became allies in the common vision. MLK founded the Southern Christian Leadership and spearheaded non-violent mass rallies against racism. Several confrontations with the police and white supremacy groups happened especially in Birmingham and Selma (Alabama) and in Chicago and throughout the struggle, the Christian value of non-violence was espoused by the Civil Rights Movement.
MLK’s campaign became instrumental in the passage of Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968 which eventually abolished segregation and other forms of structural injustice. With so much personal sacrifice, MLK-led Civil Rights Movement not only inspired desegregation but also economic empowerment for the poor, combatting racism and opposition against the Vietnam War. MLK believed rightly that poverty, racism and militarization are closely interrelated.
As a prophet, MLKL exhibited three skills: vivid imagery, dynamic metaphor and motivating call. His famous speech “I Have a Dream” painted the canvass of the future when:
-“My four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
– Quoting Isaiah 40 and Amos 5:24 “Every valley shall be exalted.. and justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like cascading stream.”
-Adapting Shakespeare: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
Jon Meacham, presidential historian and former editor of both TIME and NEWSWEEK magazines wrote: “With that single phrase (“I Have a Dream”), Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America.”
C. PRIEST: A proper definition of “the priest” is one who stands in-between God and people to offer the sacrifice as a propitiation for our sins. The priest is an intercessor, a mediator and advocate.
In the Book of Genesis, Abraham interceded for the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah bargaining with God to spare them from destruction (Genesis 18:16-33). In the Book of Exodus, Moses interceded many times for the murmuring people of Israel during their forty years sojourn in the Sinai desert.
In the historical drama of human redemption, Jesus Christ became the great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Genesis 14) chosen to offer the sacrifice. Jesus sacrificed His own life as an “atonement” (at-one-ment) or propitiation for our sins. This sacrifice resulted in the shalom, the healing of ruptured relationship between God and God’s people—and all people are God’s people—and opened the gateway for eternal salvation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was not only a pastor, a prophet but also a priest for the American people. He sacrificed his own life for the reconciliation of the American people. The lesson for every Christian leader is not to lose the perspective of “non violence” in the context of human relationships and continue to intercede on behalf of this nation. especially in these trying times when there is a resurgence of racism, bigotry and violence.
MLK’s priestly intercession for America is that we become “Beloved Community,” a people united despite differences in race, color, creeds and cultures. “E Pluribus Unum” (from many to one) and “In God We Trust” are inextricably intertwined mottos included in the “Great Seal of the United States” and are “promissory notes” we all need to “cash” on.
CHALLENGE FOR OUR TIMES: The martyrdom of MLK reminds us of the enduring values that built this nation. What makes America great and what will make it “great again” are the enduring values of hospitality, equality, justice, freedom and peace. What makes America great and “great again” is not its self-serving values but its self-giving values that offers equal opportunity, shared responsibility and the freedom to express ourselves.
What makes America great and great again is the freedom of its citizens to tell the truth openly, to assemble peaceably to tell that truth—even the truth to power—and that freedom of speech and assembly is guaranteed by its Constitution. Yes, what makes America great and great again is its confidence that we can survive the truth and the truth can set us free! God blesses America because it is a beacon of hope for a truly just, humane and peaceful world community. Amen.