The Rootedness of Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the best books I read last year took me by surprise. I became aware that I had not actually read much by Martin Luther King Jr. Like most Americans I had heard snippets of his speeches and learned some about significant events in his life. Like a smaller set of people, I had read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. So, I picked up the book, “Strength to Love”.

It is a collection of sermons that he chose to represent his time behind the pulpit. One pastor/theologian I respect says it may be the most significant piece of Christian pastoral ethics since Jonathan Edwards, and he may be right about that.

The book is rich and powerful. Laying aside some of his political naiveté about China in the 60’s, it is a powerful antidote to earthly power and the prejudice and the laziness of so much Christian faith. At times it is soaring, at times it is deeply convicting, and at times it rips your heart out. King was just as comfortable quoting ancient poets in sermons as he was contemporary philosophers and sociologists. (Try that some Sunday morning in a sermon!)

A lot of King’s enduring power is his rootedness in the gospel. He often saw the gospel clearly and could call out those who were blind to its demands. He was able to talk powerfully about how God’s love was a genuine power that needed to be at work in his heart and our hearts in order to defeat hate.

This is, I believe, the reason that King will endure when it comes to Civil Rights issues and BLM will (has already?) fade into meaninglessness. The BLM movement lacks the rootedness and spiritual and intellectual power of King and his overtly Christian theology. An ethic uprooted from a transcendent source will inevitably drift toward the darker tendencies of the human heart and will be taken over by the loudest, most vitriolic voices in the room.

The legacy we need to follow to properly and effectively address racism and prejudice belongs to King and his commitment to the natural law of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

An ethic uprooted from a transcendent source will inevitably drift toward the darker tendencies of the human heart and will be taken over by the loudest, most vitriolic voices in the room.

Here is an excerpt from his sermon, “Transformed Nonconformist”.

“Do not conform” is difficult advice in a generation when crowd pressures have unconsciously conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo. Many voices and forces ureg us to choose the path of least resistance, and bid us never to fight for an unpopular cause and never to be found in a pathetic minority of two or three.

Even certain of our intellectual disciplines persuade us of the need to conform. Some philosophical sociologists suggest that morality is merely group consensus and that the folkways are the right ways. Some psychologists say that mental and emotional adjustment is the reward of thinking and acting like other people.

Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority…We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians, who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word and refused to shape their witness according to the mundane patterns of the world.

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