“There is nothing in our book, the Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s that old-time religion. That’s the one that Ma and Pa used to talk about: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, and a head for a head, and a life for a life. That’s a good religion. And nobody resents that kind of religion being taught but a wolf, who intends to make you his meal.” – Malcolm X, Message to the Grassroots
Why begin an article on MLK Day with Malcolm X? Because to truly understand Dr. Martin Luther King, one must understand what he was fighting for and against.
The MLK We Already Celebrate
In observing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we celebrate a legend.
Truly King was one of the titans of the civil rights movement, instrumental in the dismantling of the legal edifice of Jim Crow segregation. He championed, against the ever-present threat of violent death, nonviolent direct action as the proper way to seek social change.
But the legend extends: beyond what he did into how he is remembered.
King has been remembered largely as an agent of peace rather than as the agitator and extremist that he was.
I use these charged terms because they were terms that he willingly appropriated for himself. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, itself a brilliant theological and political document, he noted that Jesus, Amos and Paul were extremists for love, justice, and the Gospel and he considered himself to follow in their line.
The issue, however, is that the extremist King is not the one that we remember. Popular memory has jettisoned the true Dr. King for the sanitized, early King. To do so, however, is to misunderstand the beast of racism which he battled and the brilliance of his fight.
To do justice to this champion of justice, we must consider him holistically, which means we must supplement the 1963 Dr. King with the 1965-1968 Dr. King.
1965 marked the death of another titan in the civil rights movement, Malcolm X. Martin and Malcolm are often treated like foils for one another, the former a symbol of peace and love, the latter a symbol of rage and violence. But these are men, not symbols.
As they approached the ends of their lives, the two almost converged in many of their political strategies as they became better acquainted with the nature of the beast they fought.
Malcolm, as the quote at the beginning of this article suggests, advocated for self-defense as an affirmation of Black dignity.
Martin affirmed that same dignity but did so from a different perspective: the perspective of one who saw redemption in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, non-violence was his response because just as Christ loved us, his enemies, so also we must love those who persecute us.
But we must never forget how insane such a suggestion sounds to the suffering. But then again, a man getting up from the dead is also a bit contrary to reason.
A Strong and Demanding Love
But that was not the full extent of King’s work. A majority of his ministry and speaking took place in the American South, where racism was public, violent and legal.
When he moved his ministry and activism to the North, he met a racism that was subversive, personal, and existentially violent: a racism that met behind closed doors and established racial housing covenants and denied African Americans opportunities for economic and social advancement.
In the face of these threats and the building hostilities of the Vietnam War, King’s messaging began to change and the FBI, having begun intensive surveillance of King in 1963, dug ever deeper into the one they termed “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
The most helpful summary of Martin Luther King’s mature thought, shaped by a fuller understanding of the roots and extent of injustice in America, is found in his 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference presidential address: “Where Do We Go From Here?”
After seeing the passing of the Civil Rights Act, King thought that he would have seen more progress than he did. So his ever-present calls for love and justice were joined by another call: for power. He did so with full knowledge that many Christians in his audience would be uncomfortable with this turn.
But his conception of power was not what Christ scolded James and John for in Mark 10, nor was it the kind of power that “the rulers of the Gentiles” lord over their subjects. He narrated his definitions:
“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
The love that King fought for was, in his words, “a strong and demanding love”.
This was his response to America’s brutal history of oppressing African Americans through slavery, lynching and Jim Crow. Where he was entirely within his rights to rage against evil, he chose to love.
That love was not acceptance; rather, it was a constant call to Black people to affirm their humanity and to white people to see, know, repent and repair the damage they had done. But how was this to be done?
King’s reading of John 3 led him to conclude that it would require more than admonitions. It would require something akin to regeneration.
The Martin King that must be remembered on this MLK Day must be the one who named the triple interrelated evils of racism, economic exploitation, and war.
It must be the Martin King who saw Christ’s treatment of Nicodemus and concluded that Jesus “didn’t get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn’t do.”
Instead, He struck deeply into Nicodemus’ soul, telling him that he needed to be born again. That same kind of radical change was what King saw was necessary in this country and it is a radical change that we still have yet to see and which we are not guaranteed to see until the return of Christ. But this cannot discourage us from fighting for it.
The civil rights movement of the 60s made it unpopular to be overtly racist in legal and in personal dealings. But white supremacy is demonic, ever shifting and devising new ways to kill, steal and destroy. American chattel slavery, lynching, redlining, Jim Crow, and stereotypical narratives of black criminality have all been impulses stemming from that same poisonous root.
As believers in Jesus Christ who, by the cross, has reconciled us to one another and to our God, we must actually live as though that is true. Any and all things that tend toward the oppression of our neighbors, brothers and sisters is worthy of our opposition in the name of our Savior.The Martin King that must be remembered on this MLK Day must be the one who named the triple interrelated evils of racism, economic exploitation, and war. #MLKDay #MLK Click To Tweet
Continuing the Vision
Earlier, I noted that the suggestion that one loves one’s enemies sounds insane.
That is because the reason for it is supra-rational. It is the Christian hope that justifies and invigorates that love because the Christian knows that the unrepentant oppressor will meet their judgment not at the hand of the Christian but at the hand of Christ, and that will end in either their repentance or their destruction.
The love of the enemy is not a denial of evil, but rather the most powerful recognition and condemnation of it. Our responsibility is to love: to call evil to account and not to sin in doing so.
Thus, at his core, Martin Luther King, Jr. was animated by Christian hope. Hope animated him, meaning that it drove him to particular action. It was not a “pie-in-the-sky” hope. It was a hope rooted in the very real Jesus who died, rose again, and is coming back to judge the quick and the dead.
As a result, he pressed into resisting racial and economic injustice and resisting militarism.
But at the core, he reminded people to love their neighbors. As he said on the eve of his assassination, the question when we see someone in need must not be, “If I stop to help this person, what will happen to me?” It must be, “If I do not stop to help this person, what will happen to them?”
That love is neither sentimental nor easy. But it is precisely the kind of love that Christ, by His Spirit, wishes and equips his people to show the world. Exhibiting that love is not what Martin Luther King, Jr. died for. It is what Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed for.
Let us be dissatisfied with the suffering of our neighbors. If we are to be found on a side, let us be found on the side of those repenting and walking alongside those who have been trodden down.
Let us be agitators and extremists of love. Let us be agitators and extremists of justice. Let us be agitators and extremists of the Gospel, the only means by which any of us are saved.