The pastoral legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 12th, 2017

I was born in 1960, too young and too white to fully comprehend the significance of the Civil Rights struggles that were, then, taking place through marches predominantly organized in the South. I do not recall much of Martin Luther King, Jr. or these struggles, save only through my parents’ conversations and the horror they expressed over the televised images of police dogs and water hoses. But to say that Dr. King has had no impact on my life is not accurate. His legacy has touched me in ways social, political, emotional and spiritual.

This legacy was made all the more apparent to me some months ago when I began writing a children’s book (All About Martin Luther King, Jr.) at the bequest of my publisher. But as soon as we shook hands on the contract, my publisher pressed me to answer the question: “What does an old white man like you have to say about Martin Luther King Jr.?”

From the outset, I knew that Dr. King and I shared some similar experiences (though different socially, racially and historically). Martin grew up in the church, as did I. The church was the centerpiece of his support and his joy, and the teachings of Jesus formed the foundation of his social ethic and his outlook on life. Likewise, Martin went to seminary and continued studies at a United Methodist affiliated university (Boston University), as did I (Duke). Martin also read widely in the works of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Paul Tillich — a triad of philosopher-theologians that I had studied as well. And likewise, although Martin came to be known as the leader of the Civil Rights movement, he always considered himself first and foremost a preacher of the gospel. I have been preaching since I was nineteen years old.

"All About Martin Luther King, Jr." (Blue River Press)

This latter point —being the Preacher-King— is one of Dr. King’s most overlooked legacies. There are many, in fact, who would have us look past his pastoral role, or the gospel he proclaimed, and have us receive Dr. King as a social reformer, or a politician, or an activist... without pausing on the message of personal and social transformation, a message that Dr. King received from the prophets and Jesus.  There were many times, in fact, when Dr. King simply wanted to be a pastor, and he wanted principally to be remembered as one who lived out the teachings of Jesus.

In the short days preceding April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was murdered, Martin talked about how he would like to be remembered. He said, “I’d like someone to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like for somebody to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

These gospel thoughts — clearly grounded in the teachings of Jesus — were always close to Martin’s heart and his practice. The legacy he desired to leave was integrated into the gospel of salvation and transformation, both personal and social. He knew the power of Christ’s teachings to change the world, if we would allow Christ to enter our hearts and thereby transform our practices and attitudes toward each other. This was his dream. This was his gospel message.

It is fitting that, on their tombstones, Dr. King’s epitaph contains his most famous words, “Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty I’m free at last” while Coretta Scott King’s epitaph reads (from 1 Corinthians 13): “And now abide faith, hope, love... these three. But the greatest of these is love.”

Indeed, Dr. King’s legacy was a testimony to the power of love, and on many occasions he spoke of the insidious power of hatred that could only be transformed by love. He had, as he said, found hate too great a burden to bear. He would choose to love and be free.

King’s legacy, as a preacher and pastor, was also foundational to his belief in non-violence. He never regarded violence as an answer to any problem — social, theological, moral, or otherwise. In fact, participants in the marches were trained on his non-violent philosophy which, again, he had simply adapted from Christ’s teachings: “Do not repay evil with evil”, “Turn the other cheek” and “Do good to those who persecute you.”

On a larger social level, there is no way to look past the Civil Rights struggles in the South without noting the powerful influence of the church on the marches and the declarations offered to civil leaders and politicians. For Martin, the church was the power of transformation, and nothing would be achieved without loving as Jesus loved.

As the decade of the 1960s was hastening to a close, there were other voices who advocated violence as the answer and the tide was turning rapidly in that direction. But Martin never abandoned the teachings of Jesus in this respect. He admonished those who would march and speak to hearken to the teachings of Jesus and follow the path that would lead to life for everyone — black and white together. This was also his dream and his legacy: that all would be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood together. Violence, in Martin’s pastoral work, had no place in the pantheon of means or outcomes. It was love and peaceable work — though always pointed and truthful — that would bring about change and equal rights for all.

Martin’s legacy continues to inform us in these paths, these truths. One should not give up easily.  We need to bring others into the common vision. And people need to come together in love and service if we are to see change in others — especially in those who may regard others as “the enemy.”

On this MLK weekend, we would do well to remember these aspects of Martin’s legacy. He was the Preacher-King. He was a disciple of Jesus. He was first, foremost, and always... a pastor.

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