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The Politically Progressive Faith of Martin Luther King


© ap The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is seen on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Washington, DC, April 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)


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My brother and I shared a bedroom during our youth, and our mornings typically began with my mother’s voice signaling the start of a new day. Except for one morning in April 1968, when she sat at the edge of my bed and gently shook me out of my slumber.

“I have some really bad news,” she whispered. “Martin Luther King Jr. has been murdered.”

[post_ads]The jarring word of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, is one of those rare life-changing moments that is chiseled in stone for millions of Americans. Yet the memory I have of this great man diverges from how Dr. King is often presented today. Most Americans typically think of words such as “civil rights,” “justice,” “freedom” and “love” — all accurate, but incomplete.

The title “reverend” — and Dr. King’s prominent vocation as a Baptist preacher — is too often assigned as a footnote of history rather than a preamble to all that he was and is. As the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination that day in Memphis, it is my hope that we can recognize and celebrate the religious underpinnings of his work. To do so, it’s imperative that Christians, in particular, divorce themselves from party purity and find new ways to bring Dr. King’s moral vision and his eloquent intonations of faith to bear on current issues.

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The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s was derived from religion, after all. Dr. King invoked Scripture, God and divine power to make theological arguments for equality and freedom. So many of his words reverberate today and are as relevant now as at the height of the civil rights movement. In Dr. King’s 1963 book, “Strength to Love,” which is a collection of his sermons and thinking on racial segregation, the reverend’s insights and wisdom delivered from America’s pulpits can be both prescient and haunting.

In a chapter titled “Loving Your Enemy,” he wrote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

In a sermon delivered years earlier from the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., on Nov. 17, 1957, during the frostiest days of the Cold War, Dr. King noted that communism was succeeding “due to the failure of democracy to live up to the noble ideals and principles inherent in its system.”

Today, many heads would nod at the notion even now, that our democracy is failing too many people. The unemployment rate among blacks, though improved at about 7 percent, is significantly higher than the national rate of about 4 percent. Repeated and unjustifiable police shootings in recent years — many recorded by bystanders — only confirm what minority communities have witnessed and experienced for a century and a half. Any sober analysis of economic opportunity and race will conclude that racial justice and economic justice are inextricably linked, something Dr. King realized early on and preached to all who would listen. And it was because of this that he was in Memphis that day — fighting for fair wages for sanitation workers, most of whom were black.

However, the beauty and the power of the civil rights movement are that it truly was a rainbow coalition, bringing together people of different backgrounds, colors and creeds. Christians from across denominational lines and those belonging to no denomination breached the lines of segregation as one. Jews were centrally involved and on the front lines, from Selma to Montgomery and beyond. Churches were often the staging grounds for some of the most important civil rights engagements of this era. Progressive politics was informed and elevated by America’s faith communities, not distanced from them, as is now the case.
The modern civil rights movement, and with it the more recent Black Lives Matters coalition, is more secular. Religion and the inherent power of faith communities are instead being perverted, used as a cudgel against the disenfranchised, whether immigrants, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, or other underrepresented groups. This is not our historical norm. In Washington, the social safety nets that were woven during the civil rights era are being devoured by the moths of the Religious Right. Christians who stand at the altar of political power would be well served to read through the sermons of Dr. King and find the echoes of Jesus Christ in his words. Dr. King’s repeated exhortation to love your enemies — incidentally the thrust of that 1957 sermon — might seem Pollyannaish and quaint, but it is very much a core value of Christianity.

This is not a time for progressive Christians — whether liberal or conservative in theology — to bow out. Instead, the proper celebration of Dr. King’s legacy and all he stood for would be to see our nation’s churches, synagogues, mosques and temples unite behind a common mission: to protect the innocent, to lift the needy, to love the immigrant and to feed the poor. I exhort fellow Christians, in particular, not to unite behind a party, but instead to unite behind Scripture and the Lord who speaks through it.

Dr. King understood how religion and the voice of Jesus Christ could power his cause. He preached it. He lived it. He gave his life for it. In honor of this great man, and as I celebrate his life and accomplishments, I will pray that his ultimate vision, his dream, will become a reality for all.

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: The Politically Progressive Faith of Martin Luther King
The Politically Progressive Faith of Martin Luther King
Politics - U.S. Daily News
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