Anchor Sunday School Class
What Martin Luther King Meant to Me
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 Klu 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, would not be accused of being “haters,” but did not have a clue as to how the Christian faith should be harmonized into the racial issues of that day. One, 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 violation of “Christian values” that defined that period of history.
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.
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 challenges, 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.
As we remember, keep in mind several, often overlooked or ignored, facts about MIKJ’s 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). In other words, MLK had a spiritual world and life view of history, and applied that spiritual view to pursuing THE BELOVED COMMUNITY.
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 happened 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?” King would cut through the flummox that defines our political babblings, and proclaim the teaching of Jesus “that by this shall people know that you are my disciples, you LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” MLKJ would be honored by embracing the words of the Apostle Paul, “love never fails.” In today’s society, much has failed and is failing, so let’s listen to God’s Word, aim for reconciliation, and decent behavior. As we “celebrate” his legacy, grip the fact that only as we treat one another as brothers and sisters, regardless of whether there is a D or R after their name, will the vision of BELOVED COMMNITY become our vision. If that day comes, then together we can praise God and shout “we are free, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.” Amen