To understand the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. one should first look to his Christian faith, which gave him the language, spiritual strength and community to fuel and sustain his singular efforts for justice, peace and freedom.
Faith was at the center of his life.
However, as we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. it is worthwhile to consider the kind of faith King embodied. Because there isn't just one kind of Christian; and not all faith leaders lead towards freedom.
As King himself wrote:
"On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. Over and over I have found myself asking: 'What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?'"
It is crucial to remember the sad truth that, while there were some Christians who supported King and his monumental efforts towards civil rights, against poverty, and for peace, there were many, many other Christians who either actively opposed his work or sat silently on the sidelines.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a certain kind of Christian with a family background, education, and life experience that led him to embody the prophetic tradition of Christian faith. On the MLK holiday, many Christians may pay lip service to his ideas but fail to embrace MLK's vision in their own faith practice.
I recently re-read King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," which, if you haven't read, or if it has been a while, stop reading this and read that most excellent piece of Christian prophetic theology right now.
The letter was written by King after he had been jailed for peaceful demonstrations in response to eight upstanding white pastors who had publicly chided him for disturbing the peace in a local newspaper. "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" demonstrates that not all Christian approaches are equal. It reminds us that still today, we need the kind of faith professed and lived out by Martin Luther KIng Jr. if we are going to create a more just and loving society.
So, if you would like to be sure your faith is part of the Christian legacy embodied by Martin Luther King Jr., here are seven questions to consider (these questions would work for other faith traditions as well):
Does your faith encourage an active and prophetic stance towards creating justice in this world; or does it explicitly or implicitly encourage a complacency towards inequality here on earth with the idea that faith is more spiritual than social and that it will all work out in the afterlife?
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, "I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular." -"Letter From a Birmingham Jail"
Does your faith affirm the fundamental dignity and worth of all people and reject any claims of superiority, ether explicit or implicit, based on identities including race, religion, sexuality, gender, class or nationality?
"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." -"I Have a Dream"
Does your faith encourage critical examination of the context and deeper meanings of teachings and scriptures and is it open to continued revelation of eternal truths that come with new knowledge, instead of a fundamentalism that idolizes the past?
"My days in college were very exciting ones. As stated above, my college training, especially the first two years, brought many doubts into my mind. It was at this period that the shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body. This is why, when I came to Crozer, I could accept the liberal interpretation with relative ease." -"An Autobiography of Religious Development"
Does your faith promote non-violence, and believe that war is only to be used as a last choice or not at all? Does your faith confronts and rejects any teachings that might cause anyone to act with violence or incite rage or hatred towards others?
"Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation." -Acceptance speech at Nobel Peace Prize ceremony
Does your faith further interfaith cooperation and empower your ability to feel compassion for the suffering of those who are different from you and see the wider interconnected responsibility of the human family instead of caring only about and for those in your immediate group?
"And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" -"I Have a Dream"
Does your faith promote social justice and equality as well as individual charity as both integral parts of the Gospel?
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." -"Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence"
Is your faith grounded first and foremost in love, and do you believe that love, not dogma or judgment, is the defining characteristic of God?
"Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That's why Jesus says, "Love your enemies." Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. " -"Loving Your Enemies"