What follows is Bill Haley’s reflection on the Life of Martin Luther King, given at the Trinity Forum Community Conversation on April 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This event was co-hosted by Coracle and featured David Bailey of Arrabon and Rev. Dr. Cheryl Sanders of Third Street Church of God.
Reflecting on the Legacy of Martin Luther King, I want to begin with something obvious and implicit but all too often understated or left somewhat in the background.
King was a Christian, for real and actually. He was a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ, a pray-er before a preacher, and a pastor before he was a civil rights leader. It was his commitment to prayer that sustained his work to justice, his commitment to Jesus that sustained his strategy of non-violence, and his commitment to the Kingdom of God that led him work and hope for “The Beloved Community” on earth.
King was not perfect, but still it can be said that he actually embodied actual Christianity in his love, self-sacrifice, and turning the other cheek, perhaps moreso than any other well-known American in the 20th century. I’ll say that again, King actually incarnated actual Christianity more than most other Christians, even in the whole of American history.
This would be his second greatest legacy I think.
His first greatest legacy would be the millions and millions upon millions of lives-both black and white-that are better situationally and morally and spiritually because of his work.
His second, as I mentioned, is his modeling of Christianity, and modeling the actual words of Jesus himself to us and to the world. King’s life shouts from a mountaintop, “This is what a Christian looks like.”
I want to focus on two ways this is true, consistent love and perseverance through suffering.
First, consistent love. King was utterly consistent in his love for others and costly kindness, even and most especially demonstrated in how he handled his enemies, demonstrated both in private conversations and his public writing and speaking. It is remarkable. I’m not sure there are many words that King every uttered that we don’t have now in published form, and you just won’t find him, even in moments of weakness or privacy, being mean to others, even to those would jail him, beat him, resist him, betray him, or would want to see him dead. Jesus said, “Love your enemies”, and King did.
I was just in Memphis to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination, and again was able to take a deep dive into the dark viciousness that is our country’s history of individual and systemic racism and oppression and racial violence, I was in Montgomery this last week, diving deep again. It’s overwhelming. Yet, King knew that love is greater than evil, and that’s what he did.
This comes out many places, but I was again particularly struck by a passage in his sermon ‘Love in Action’, taken from the collection of sermons Strength to Love. There King is reflections on the Supreme Court justices who upheld slavery in the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Of them he preached, “The justices who rendered this decision were not wicked men. On the contrary they were decent and dedicated men. But they were victims of spiritual and intellectual blindness. They knew not what they did.” He goes on into his era, about his own enemies, “With Jesus on the cross, we just look lovingly at our oppressors and say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In Memphis I heard a Reverend Ralph West, pastor of the huge Church Without Walls in Houston and great student of King, say “King always saw the best in everybody…even when sometimes you wished he would go low, but he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t…he had his eyes on something greater than that.”
And Perseverance through Suffering.
Beyond just the challenges of being a black man in American during Jim Crow, the pressures on King from 1955 through 1968 are incalculable, even if some specific instances are well known like the phone calls, the threatening letters, the bombing of his house, the jail cells, the beatings, the vitriol. Let’s not forget how young he was when he died, just 39 years old after 13 years of excruciatingly difficult leadership. King was a man familiar with suffering and well acquainted with grief, for his whole adult life.
This led to him to develop a deep theology of suffering, unearned suffering, and redemptive suffering (which by the way ends up sounding quite a bit Catholic). I’m grateful that Mika Edmonson has been bringing this contribution of King more to the surface recently. He said, “Dr. King would say that although suffering itself is not good, it presents an opportunity for redemptive engagement. The Lord has allowed suffering so that we might engage it in a way that bears witness to his redemptive hope and his redemptive purposes — not only in our lives, but even in the lives of our oppressors and in the systems and institutions in which we live and exist.”
The last 18 months of King’s life were especially difficult. As one article puts it, “last 18 months before his assassination…were fraught with danger, disillusionment, and disappointment. He experienced challenges to his body, mind, and soul. At one point, he said that his dream (as in “I have a dream”) had “turned into a nightmare.” There’s a recent documentary put out by HBO that brings more light to this than ever before, called, “King in the Wilderness”. In addition to confronting explicit racism in the South, he had taken up confronting implicit racism in the North and encountered in his words ‘hate in Illinois as great as any he saw in Mississippi”, and that’s saying something. When his consistent ethic of non-violence led him to speak out on America’s role in Vietnam, he got opposition on all sides. He lost friends, his own began to doubt his strategy of non-violence, riots were breaking out in black neighborhoods. It took a mighty toll.
And in this, like Jesus, he persevered through it, incarnationally reminding us of the words from his own sermon “Transformed Nonconformist”, “We are gravely mistaken tithing that Christianity protects us from the pain and agony of mortal existence. Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian, one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tragedy-packed content, and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems to that more excellent which only comes through suffering.”
I would call King’s last 18 months “King’s Long Gethsemane”. He was modeling true Christianity for us at its deepest level, Jesus living in us and through us, Jesus reliving his life through the lives of his followers, Jesus displaying himself through our bodies, our sacrifices, our sufferings, even our deaths, as King himself would experience so memorably and tragically 50 years ago. It would be right to summarize the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as ‘iconic’.