Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Bob Marsh

It was April 4, 1968, and we were into our “Spring Revival,” a necessity for any good, plugged in, denominationally acceptable Southern Baptist Church. It was indelibly written on the “Church calendar” of every loyal SBC congregation, so we were in high gear, having secured the services of one of SBC’s stellar celebratory evangelist.  Laurel, MS was the center of the Kul Klux Klan, inhabited by many good, God-fearing, evangelical Christians who were loyal to their churches, and strong proponents of “Christian values.” And Sam Bowers, the Grand Wizard of the Klan, a Sunday School teacher in a Baptist Church about a mile from ours, could sound as pious as any other “good Christian.” The vast majority of professing Christians in our city disdained the Klan, genuinely embarrassed by their acts of terrorisms and stupidity, would not be accused of being “bigots,” but did not have a clue as to how the Christian faith should be harmonized into the racial issues of that day. Someone, in the safety of “today,” could argue the point, the point being that we were either ignorant of the fact that Mississippi was “burning,” or were immune to the racial injustices and flagrant violations of “Christian values” that defined that  period of history. It is not that challenging to get on the “right side of history” decades after the historic moment. Yes, on April 4, 1968, many if not most of us were more focused on our “Spring Revival,” “winning souls for Jesus,” than on the injustices that truly defined our “Christian” communities such as beautiful Laurel, Ms.

The revival was going well, statics were being gathered, and the evangelist was promoting a “love offering “in order to “reach the world for Christ.” If we failed to mention that “the world” did not mean people of color, that if you were “of color” you dare not join the worshippers at the revival, it was certainly intentional, for we did not want anyone to point to the hypocrisy of our sign that boldly proclaimed “Welcome to All.” “All” did not include “all.”

As we began to sing and pray and praise and preach and plead, a note was passed to me: “MLK has been shot.” As the service concluded, having had another successful invitation (which meant the addition of numbers, specifically nickels and noses), word quickly spread that MLKJ was pronounced dead.   To be fair, many “Christians” did not know how to react, or even if they should.  Some of the first words heard, from the mouth of one of our dynamic, “mission-minded,” WMU women was “well, he asked for it.” That toxic ideation was the quintessence of the rancid rhetoric that was spewed forth by “good people,” who would declare vociferously that they “had friends who were black,” but just did not want them in the same church or school. Etc., etc., ad nauseam. Our son’s grammar school was filled with the voices of little children echoing what they had heard from parents, shouting, “Yay!!”

So, when we “celebrate” Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, it is more than merely another holiday, which is often meaningless to many, but deeply personal to me and my family, conjuring up painful memories of encounters with the Klan, struggling, failing in reconciling the realities of brutal racism with the pretense of “reaching the world for Christ.” For us, it is a time to give thanks for a Baptist Preacher whose courage, Christian convictions, determination to be true to the gospel of Jesus, and vision of THE BELOVED COMMUNITY, helped to free the Black Community from cruel segregation, from the shackles of Jim Crow, poisonous prejudice, and helped to free many of us from the prison houses of innocuous preaching, myopic denominationalism, anachronistic church stuff, and give us  the push we needed to proclaim AMAZING GRACE FOR EVERY RACE!! If one wants to argue that he had flaws and personal baggage, go to it, but do not bloviate to the degree that you miss history’s unambiguous observation: MLKJ made a difference in all of our lives, and the God who used flawed men such as Moses, Abraham, Paul, David, etc. used MLKJ to proclaim THE BELOVED COMMUNITY. It is that often overlooked or misunderstood phrase BELOVED COMMUNITY, a phrase that defined MKLJ that needs to be remembered and placed into the center of our “celebrations” and proclamations.

As we remember, keep in mind several, often ignored, facts about MIKJ’ legacy.

1.    His vision of BELOVED COMMUNITY was “invigorated with theological vitality and moral urgency, so that the prospects of social progress came to look less like an evolutionary development and more like a divine gift…”God remains from beginning to end the ultimate agent of human liberation, not only in America but throughout all nations and in creation.”  (Quote from Charles Marsh, THE BELOVED COMMUNITY, HOW FAITH SHAPES SOCIAL JUSTICE, CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT TO TODAY).

2.    MLKJ saw himself as a pastor, a preacher of the Gospel, focusing on RECONCILIATION, and if reconciliation took place, bringing unity from diversity, blasting down barriers that separated people from people, it would happen because THE HOLY SPIRIT HAD TAKEN CARE OF THE DETAILS. Much unlike some of the “movements” today, King’s vision was for a COMMUNITY based on Christian principles, and a call to “Go to church, and let the beloved word and world of God slowly transform your life in compassion, mercy, and grace.”

3.    Maybe the best way to honor the legacy of King is to cease firing poisonous philippics all over the place, quit weakening and diluting the term “racism and racist” by using it  as pejorative against people we just do not like, stop predicating our feelings and actions towards people on “which side of  the fence are you on?”  MLKJ would be honored by embracing the words of the Apostle Paul, “love never fails.” King proclaimed the litmus test given by Jesus “they will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” MLKJ stated emphatically that love was a “John 3:16” love, based on sacrifice and grace.

4.    My hope is that we can brush aside all the insipid and inane verbiage that has been heaped upon this day and revive the true meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr’s legacy: BELOVED COMMUNITY is based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I would be hesitant in claiming the civil rights movement, as it was personally experienced, as an exclusively “Christian movement,” though this is precisely what King called the Montgomery bus boycott. Good people of various faiths, or no faith, saw King’s vision of BELOVED COMMUNITY as a valid cause to unite, sacrifice, and proclaim.

5.    “Still, no one is well served by easy syncreticisms, especially when these become affirmations made into slogans that forget their origins.  King’s vision of BELOVED COMMUNITY was grounded in a specific theological tradition, and no amount of postmodern complexity can remove that intention and claim.” King said of himself in 1965 “in the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.” King believed that in proclaiming BELOVED COMMUNITY he was in fact proclaiming the GOSPEL OF AMAZING GRACE FOR EVERY RACE.

Some of us actually lived through the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, experienced “there’s a story to tell to the nations, turning their hearts to the right,” painfully struggled to reject Jim Crow and follow Jesus Christ, did so because we heard an invitation: “Come follow Me, and as the Children of God, let’s work together, pray together, sacrifice together to build A BELOVED COMMUNITY.” Only as we accept that invitation that constantly rings out from the words of Jesus will we truly honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, and be able to shout together as brothers and sisters, “Free at Last, Free at last, thank God Almighty, we are FREE AT LAST.” Amen!

Webmaster, Ryland Scott

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