Almost two-thousand years after Jesus’ crucifixion, one-hundred years after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and twenty years after Mahatmas Gandhi’s death, Martin Luther King realized the apotheosis of his life and his work as he lay bleeding to death on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, shot by a lone assassin.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that Martin Luther King was heir to the legacy, leadership and martyrdom of Jesus, Lincoln and Gandhi. The arc of human progress, as King once said, moves onward towards justice and equality. In that regard, King was a spiritual prophet and, in many respects, he was a messiah to his people. Sadly, as so often is the case, the terrible swift sword of hatred exacts its revenge on those who champion social justice.
Jesus was, I believe, killed not as a supernatural Savior but because he was a threat to the Roman and Jewish elites of the time. His popularity amongst the poor and marginalized was a danger to the ruling powers of Palestine. Lincoln was assassinated in revenge for his tireless leadership in the civil war against the South, which clung to an outmoded and immoral economic system based on the enslavement of another race. Gandhi was killed because he championed religious and ethnic reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. As a Hindu himself, those of Gandhi’s faith could not abide his efforts to seek peace and understanding with India’s Islamic minorities.
Compatriots in the cause of peace, Jesus, Lincoln, Gandhi and King are brothers in martyrdom – slain by hatred, bigotry, violence and intolerance. It is as if the gates of hell, in each their killings, were temporarily thrown open, loosening upon history the base and vile passions of humankind.
Martin Luther King was a third generation Pastor. His father and grandfather had both been Baptist Preachers. King was a preacher of the social gospel – the idea that the good news of personal salvation comes through being freed from poverty, disease and inequality. He was thoroughly conversant with the Bible but he was not a literalist. Theological fundamentalism, for King, gets in the way of the Bible’s predominant message that the earthly well-being of humankind is of primary concern to the Holy One.
His was a vision of, in his words, a “beloved community” where all people work together for peace and justice. In this regard, King identified with the suffering experiences of Jesus and other Biblical prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist. As he saw it, those Biblical figures experienced their redemption and were granted prophetic status precisely because they suffered at the hands of cruel oppressors.
For King, the persecution of black Americans was and is an opportunity to create good from evil. Suffering empowered black Americans, it ennobled them and created the climate in which deeper issues of equality, economic fairness and the basic rights of all people can be addressed. For Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement was fundamentally a spiritual one and it is for that reason that he liberally used the Bible in his speeches and called on the examples of Jesus and Gandhi to inspire others.
And his spiritual concerns were not just for the oppressed of his race but for the white oppressors. As the burdens of injustice and inequality were lifted from African-Americans, so too would the weight of guilt and shame be taken from white Americans. Together, he foretold, white and black will one day be not just equal but bound in the universal effort to win the rights of economic, religious and social freedom for all humankind. His mission was not his own nor that of his people but instead of Divine origin. God alone had established the truth that all are created in the divine image. All people are worthy of God’s love and God’s mercy.
Throwing aside Bible verses used since ancient times which favored slavery, King called on a higher and universal holy ethic. Peace is a virtue unto itself. Violence in the cause of justice brings only more hatred and injustice. Non-violent civil disobedience refutes the idea that aggression is good but it also refutes the idea that appeasement and capitulation is worthy. The Birmingham bus boycott and the Freedom marches were perfect examples of this. Violence was not employed but the white powers understood that African-Americans would no longer tolerate second-class status. Such were the methods of Jesus and Gandhi. Such is the standard for us today. King and his prophetic predecessors call us to be gentle in our approach but firm in our determination. We must never strike, degrade or hate our enemy. To our enemies we extend a hand of peace. To one another we extend the embrace of love.
Too often we hear and read of men and women who only preach the words of Jesus. Their actions, however, give lie to their words. In Martin Luther King we saw a man who not only preached as Jesus preached – when a man strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to him! – King lived this out. He regularly and continuously renounced violence and hatred against white power elites.
He put forward six truths about non-violence:
First, non-violent disobedience is not cowardly for it consciously and courageously confronts evil with a spiritual and moral good;
Second, non-violence does not disgrace the opponent but encourages enlightenment and thereby understanding and friendship;
Third, such disobedience does not attack a person or people. It confronts the evil itself – in this case, segregation and racial inequality;
Fourth, non-violence encourages Jesus-like acceptance of suffering without retaliation. Thus, one operates on a moral high ground and is never forced to also feel the shame or guilt of violence.
Fifth, King believed that the Divine forces of the universe are always on the side of those who promote Truth – its cause will always prevail.
And finally, sixth, non-violence prevents bitterness and hatred from damaging one’s heart and mind. If one turns the other cheek, one does not act out in hatred but in love.
Ultimately, Martin Luther King was right in his view that human moral imagination is destined to triumph over hatred, bigotry and injustice. The arc of human history does march onward trampling out the vintage where grapes of wrath are stored! We still proclaim the ethic of Jesus and King, we still work for their ideals of peace, we still honor their examples of compassion, their love of the outcast and their peaceful demand for equality.
Like Jesus, Martin Luther King rose above the slings and arrows of those who hated him, those who plotted his downfall, who arrested him, harassed his every move and who illegally taped his every conversation. We care not for the few transgressions of King’s life which make him all the more human. We celebrate, instead, the man he aspired to be – a man for whom none are free unless all are free, for whom none are equal unless all are equal and for whom none are enemies and all are one!
Walking slowly from his room at the Lorraine motel, room 308, King turned to a musician friend and reminded him to play that evening, at one of King’s speeches, the song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” “Play it real pretty” were King’s last words. And, as he walked into the twilight of that day, a single shot rang out striking him in the throat. A lone bullet figuratively first fired two thousand years ago cut into him – the stab that tore open Jesus, the pistol felling Abraham Lincoln, the fateful bursts of gunfire striking down Gandhi. The blood of prophets past, present and future spilled from him and, once again, earth stood still to mark the passing of a great figure.
The towering force of the man, his soaring words and the passions of his heart were silenced. As Edwin Stanton said moments after Lincoln died, “Now he now belongs to the ages…”, the same is true of Martin Luther King. His spirit pushed back the veil of death. In the work of each of us, who seek to be men and women of whom he dreamed, Martin Luther King lives on – ever resurrected and ever victorious in the Holy and Divine march toward human equality!