Monday, January 18, 2010

Misunderstanding the 'dream' of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is the official commemoration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, since he is no longer living, he is subject to the normal hagiography as to what he really stood for.

You see, it's easy to look back and realize that he was right two generations ago. However, back then it was far from clear.

Much of the disinformation comes from the political right. Some insist, with no evidence, that King was actually a Republican and thus would have supported a conservative worldview. In 1964, however, he endorsed Lyndon Johnson for president and, after the election, referred to Barry Goldwater as "the most dangerous man in the country" up to then. (It should be noted that Ronald Reagan dismissed him upon his death.) Others, quoting his "I Have a Dream" speech, said that he would have opposed affirmative action when he was actually among its earliest supporters. In fact, King said that "we can't solve our problems now unless there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power" -- a comment that today would no doubt get him labeled as a "socialist" (indeed, during his lifetime he was often denounced as a Communist).

Lest you think I'm picking on only conservatives, we need to remember that many blacks have been somewhat suspicious of King's Gandhi-influenced nonviolent philosophy. I can imagine the consternation on people's faces when he referred in his sermons back in the 1950s to "our white brothers" [say wha?!]. Even as recently as the 1990s many believed that, had he survived that bullet in Memphis in April 1968, he would have finally rejected nonviolence and and taken up arms. But in making such assertions, it's obvious that those folks never really listened to him in the first place -- armed struggle is precisely what his enemies wanted because they figured they could win that battle. He also said that he was willing to die for justice, a stance that would be nonsensical to the average person but consistent with his commitment to the cause. (I believe now that he's lionized in the black community today because, and only because, he got the desired results.)

Anyway, let's not forget the bigger issue. First and foremost, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is reconciliation -- yes, God with man through the cross of Christ, but also men to each other. This should hardly surprise, especially considering that Billy Graham, a friend and early supporter of King (and one of the few evangelicals who was), has been preaching the same message since the 1950s. We evangelicals generally have the first part down but usually completely miss the second because, frankly, we're often as functionally materialistic and power-hungry as the world we denounce.

While instituting the "beloved community" that King talked about might indeed require a wholesale restructuring of the political and economic order, he also understood that it also calls for an inner transformation -- commonly called "repentance." What both sides often miss, but King did not, is that both are needed.

Some years ago my pastor preached on Psalm 133, which reads:

1 How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity!

2 It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron's beard,
down upon the collar of his robes.

3 It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Now, it should be noted that David wrote that psalm while watching people heading to Jerusalem to worship -- after his son Absalom's rebellion. In other words, it represented a place of healing after the nation of Israel was divided politically.

This is not to say that we should overlook our differences, which is simply impossible. Rather, I believe that we should look at our opponents not as implacable enemies that must be conquered but as whole persons in their own right created in the image of Almighty God -- and that we're not worthy of worship.

And that's the heart of King's dream.

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