More than 86 years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth. Almost 50 years have passed since his death. Not insignificantly, we celebrate Martin Luther King Day at the anniversary of his birth, not the anniversary of his death. Though I cannot help but remember the tragic day of his death that left its imprint on my young, impressionable mind, I pray that the legacy of his life will draw us back to his message. May the light of his life outshine the darkness left in the void of his death.
“I had a dream….” are the words that echo through the halls of history into our present consciousness. We hear those words repeated with the same sense of passion with which they were first spoken, but they seem dulled by the resistance of time. The present passion with which those words were spoken sits now like a dusty tome on the shelf of our collective memory.
Yet, those words were poignant…they are poignant still today. It was not just a wishful daydream Dr. King had. The reality of that dream emanated from the very texture of his voice. He spoke as a man whose vision was forged in the crucible of the struggle he took willingly on his heavy shoulders, a burden that was not only his… but the very burden of God Himself. And that God remains today long after Dr. King’s death to uplift the spirit of those who would tap into the same Message.
Dr. King spoke as a man who had exchanged his own burdens for the weightier burdens of a Redeemer. In taking those burdens on, the mighty Hand of the Redeemer, himself, seemed to lift Dr. King above those burdens to a position of fierce clarity that glares like the sun in the face of every man who is not intentionally hiding in the shadows of his darkened soul. Dr. King knew the answer to the problem of racial injustice is only found in a Source greater than men, a Fount that is at once able to convict and able to redeem, to empty and to fill, to condemn and to save the human heart from itself.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s resonating message was deeply rooted in the Gospel of Christ. “’King read Christianity and the Social Crisis at Crozer Theological Seminary and wrote that its message ‘left an indelible imprint on my thinking by giving me a theological basis for the social concern which had already grown up in me’ (Papers4:474).” (Stanford Encyclopedia) King said, “‘Christ furnished the spirit and motivation’’ for the [Montgomery bus] boycott (Papers 5:423).” Indeed, the message of Christ infused the message of Dr. King.
The force of his message was in the depth of conviction, and that conviction was set on a bulwark not of his own making. His strength was in God and the commanding, inalienable standard of Justice that emanates from above and beyond the frailties and faults of humankind. In that belief was grounded an understanding that social justice required something more than angry protests to the faulty and corrupt audience of human nature; it required a transformation of human nature by focusing on the standards established by a compassionate and just God. It required action that lifted the eyes of people to their Maker where the standard of Justice resides.
Martin Luther King Jr. made his mark by preaching nonviolence and peace. But he was not milquetoast, far from it! He stood as the representative of God Himself, eyes blazing with clarity of vision. Justice itself bellowed from his chest. He could not be denied. He could not be dismissed, though many tried. His life stands as a testament to the eternal Source on which his message was firmly tethered.
Dr. King also appealed to the principles on which this great Democracy was firmly founded. His dream was a natural extension of those principles that our founding fathers found inalienable.
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
The “urgency of now” for Dr. King did not require throwing off the powerful oppressors by force, but in demanding that the powerful bow to the principles on which our nation was founded. Dr. King urged moral conviction, not rash anger or raw emotion that breeds violence and hatred; his own anger and emotion had been tempered into the steel of compassionate conviction that could not be denied, inalienably connected to the Creator who made all men equal.
The message today is being uprooted from its Source. The message today struggles in the sand of human nature. The moral strength of the message is being lost in young men who become hoodlums and thugs, living violent lives and dying violent deaths and the people who defend them in the name of racial justice. Letting go of the moral superiority that demanded the right kind of attention, the message is in danger of being overshadowed by swaths of scorched urban landscape left in the path of raging protests.
The summer of racial discontent no doubt has not yet passed into “the invigorating autumn of freedom and equality”. Perhaps, these days are the Indian Summer. Truly, we have come a long way in not quite 50 years. Barely a generation has passed, but the summer heat is too present a memory, and we are in danger of letting the dream slip into the night.
Never have these words spoken by Dr. King been more poignant:
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. ”
Dr. King knew well that great good and great evil dwells in the hearts of men, in the hearts of all men. If we do not commit ourselves to the Good, we are in danger of sinking to the Bad side of human nature. It is in all of us. The creative force Dr. King tapped into was the force of the Creator from which the standard of equal justice inalienably radiates.
In Dr. King’s Dream, he saw former slaves and former slave owners “sitting down together at the table of brotherhood.” That does not happen by cold, fiat; it happens by the warm blood of Christ redeeming and changing the hearts of men. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Dr. King expressly cautioned against “distrust of all white people”. He made a point of recognizing the many white people who marched and stood for racial justice. He urged that the destiny of white men “is tied up with our destiny.”
Indeed, I remember my parents’ tacit excitement about the winds of change in the air in the early to mid-1960’s and the profound sadness that was mine on the day after Dr. King’s death. My aunt and uncle marched in Selma. Though I am not of African American descent, I identified early on with the rightness (righteousness) of racial justice.
Dr. King said, “We cannot walk alone.” I say no man, no race of men, is an island. When Dr. King said, “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” (quoting from Amos 5:24) he was speaking the words of our Creator who made us male and female, black and white and every stripe. We are in these this together, and our fates are inextricably linked.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’”
We are closer to the Dream realized than the day Dr. King spoke those immortal words, but vestiges of past injustices that insidiously remain threaten to blur that Vision and threaten to corrupt it. We should have no less conviction or passion today to see the Dream realized than we did 50 years ago, but we must not let the conviction that is rooted in eternal, inalienable Truth be compromised by the corrupt tendencies of immediate, visceral human hatred. Fighting fire with fire only spreads the fire.
Injustice is not as obvious now. It is more insidious and, therefore, more difficult to identify and more difficult to address. Injustice, however, remains rooted in the evil side of the human heart. It must be exposed; but that exposure must come with the understanding that we all have great capacity for good and great capacity for evil. We must be ever vigilant lest our own tendency to give in to violence, hatred and evil keep us from the Promised Land.
The “power of nonviolence” that Dr. King preached is the power to change the hearts of men. We must not let Love and Peace be trampled to the ground in the raw urgency of human passion. Rather stoke the fire that forges steely conviction of Right and Justice that drove Dr. King drive us. He decried violence as much as he exposed racism. We forget the transformative and redemptive power of peace and nonviolence that made Dr. King larger than life and stood him on the high moral ground from which he became the champion of change that could not be denied – because it was right (righteous).
That moral high ground is in danger of defoliation in the maelstrom of Ferguson. The moral strong tower has been singed and scarred, and the timbers are in danger of collapse in firestorm of Ferguson. We must not let that strong tower collapse.
In that background, consider Dr. King’s moral high ground found in the Six Principles of Nonviolence:
SIX PRINCIPLES OF NONVIOLENCE
Fundamental tenets of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence described in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. The six principles include:
- PRINCIPLE ONE: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.
It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
- PRINCIPLE TWO: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.
The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.
- PRINCIPLE THREE: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people.
The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.
- PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation.
Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
- PRINCIPLE FIVE: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body.
Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.
- PRINCIPLE SIX: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.
The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win.
Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.