A Life of Justice and Service

January 1st, 2013

Monday, for the twenty-seventh time, Americans will celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the federal holiday that bears his name. On November 3, 1983, more than fifteen years after King was assassinated, Congress passed a bill creating a holiday in King’s honor on the third Monday in January (usually within a few days of the civil rights leader’s January 15 birthday). Americans celebrated the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 20, 1986. In 1994 Congress voted to designate MLK Day as a National Day of Service. According to the website MLKDay.gov: “The MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a ‘Beloved Community.’”

While we celebrate the gains made by King, his peers, and many others since his death, we must remember that inequality and injustice still persist. Even in the United States there are children who lack food and adequate clothing. Inequalities persist with regard to housing, education, and employment opportunities. Around the world people suffer from malnutrition, lack of clean water, or preventable disease. Others are victims of human trafficking or religious persecution. King showed us that we don’t have to accept things the way they are; we have the freedom and the resources to make the world a better place.

A Vision

We celebrate Dr. King not only for the hands-on work he did but also because of his vision. He gave America a vision of what it could be. Such visions give hope to people who otherwise feel helpless and hopeless. King’s vision of a society free from prejudice and inequality was based on the Bible’s vision for God’s people. In his sermons and speeches he often referred to Old Testament prophets who spoke words of warning but also of vision and hope. During his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, King quoted Amos 5:24 when he said that we could not be satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He also cited Isaiah 40:4, which looks forward to the day when “every valley will be raised up” (NRSV) to make a way for the Lord.

It is appropriate that King quoted Scripture so frequently, because Scripture also gives us a vision: a vision of God’s kingdom. We see this vision in the Old Testament prophets, in Jesus’ parables, and in the final chapters of Revelation. When the prophet Habakkuk was frustrated by the wickedness and violence he saw in Judah, God told him to, “Write a vision, and make it plain . . . so that a runner can read it” (Habakkuk 2:2). As God’s people, we have a vision of what is possible. We need to make this vision plain for a hurting world.

What Are You Doing for Others?

In the 1950’s, when Martin Luther King, Jr. began his work in Montgomery, Alabama, he faced widespread inequality and injustice, along with fierce resistance and reluctance to change. The brokenness still present in our world today can be overwhelming. There are so many injustices and so many people who need healing that it’s hard to know where to start. Youth are more likely than adults to be optimistic about what is possible, but they need guidance. You can help your youth identify needs and injustices and find ways they can use their time and talents to meet these needs and right these wrongs. You can also encourage your youth to spend time in prayer discerning God’s call. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision was big and mighty, far-reaching and bold. But he knew it began in the heart of each individual person. He said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” How will you answer that question, and how will you honor his legacy?

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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