Martin Luther King Jr. and the Witness of the Church
Martin Luther King Jr. and the Witness of the Church
by the Reverend T.J. Malinoski
Beyond a peripheral understanding from television documentaries and a day off from school, I was in my teen years before I was really exposed to the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My introduction came from two very different people: my English teacher at school and my youth minister.
Capturing a high school student’s attention with anything at 8:15 in the morning deserves some sort of an award but Mr. Bill King (the last name is ironic, I know) somehow captivated me. Moving from the hermit like characteristics of Henry David Thoreau’s experiment on Walden and an essay on Civil Disobedience to a more contemporary American in Martin Luther King awoke something within this pimple covered, thick eye-glassed, hair already thinning white teenager.
I was captivated by King’s personal sacrifice, his impassioned preaching, his love for Christ, and his prophetic call for the sacredness and dignity of the human personality. I made a profession of faith in Christ and accepted a call to ministry just before the start of the school year and studying his writings, speeches and leadership in the civil rights movement in class helped to expand my narrow vision of the world beyond my limited experience.
Around the same time, my youth minister, Chris Joiner, also revealed insights into the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. Since I was not old enough to drive, he would most graciously give me a ride to youth group. He was enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School and was taking a religious studies course on “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Sociology of Religion.” As my young faith was taking shape, I peppered him with questions on the drive to and from each youth meeting, most likely exhausting his patience. He eventually just gave me the syllabus and handouts from the class.
In the early years of my faith formation, looking at the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. was helpful in shaping my understanding of how to live out my faith. It continues as a lifelong influence. I read and hear his words with different eyes and ears as I age, specifically as I continue to deepen my understanding of the ministry to the Word and Sacraments.
While January 18th in the United States is a federal holiday which focuses on participating in community service and remembering the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and his leadership in civil rights, his calling to the ministry of the gospel can be overlooked. Before he was known as a leader for civil and human rights, Martin Luther King Jr. was an ordained Baptist minister. His writings, sermons, and interviews reflect his thoughts on the Christian faith and the Church’s responsibility in ministering to each person. When he spoke of the Church, he consistently called upon it to live out its witness. Whenever the Church faltered or failed, he named the errors with colorful analogies saying the Church is a cultural thermometer rather more than a thermostat setting the temperature for the world and more like the taillights of a vehicle lagging behind rather than the headlights piercing and illuminating with light what lies ahead. He wrote of the Church saying:
The contemporary church is often a weak and ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are. [i]
On another occasion, he reflected on the witness of the Church stating:
Unless the early sacrificial spirit is recaptured, I am very much afraid that today’s Christian church will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and we will see the Christian church dismissed as a social club with no meaning or effectiveness for our time, as a form without substance, as salt without savor. [ii]
This critique of the Church comes from an insider: a Christian, a minister whose ardent love for the covenant community and desire to share the promises of God to the world. He is reminding us of our responsibilities to give witness to the mighty acts God in Jesus Christ and gives a prophetic urging and warning of the consequences when we ignore our calling as Christians. At the same time, he points to what the Church can be when it grows into fulfilling its mission saying:
But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice and peace. [iii]
As we fast approach the first quarter of a new century, there is a temptation to despair when coming face to face with a collection of individual and communal failures, growing isolation, and burgeoning extremism and polarization. Some may wince at these loaded words wanting the Church to stay in its theological “lane”, however, these words do not belong to anyone particular person or group. The Church can be a safe haven for those who are wounded, tired and seeking forgiveness, redemption and guidance. The Church can also articulate the burning sense of urgency that love always overcomes hate, the beauty of Christ invariably buries evil, imparting peace and kindness is welcomed by all and celebrating the unique God-given gifts always lifts the spirit of the whole community. We are called to give all of these to stranger and friend alike because the words and fingertips of the Church is the balm the world is needing today.
As we go about our activities on January 18, perhaps we can recite a prayer Martin Luther King Jr. spoke following a sermon in 1953. In his prayer, he calls upon God to allow us to be part of the world’s regeneration and the kind of healing balm that the world is eagerly waiting.
Our loving Father, from Thy hand have come all the days of the past. To Thee we look for whatever good the future holds. We are not satisfied with the world as we have found it. It is too little the kingdom of God as yet. Grant us the privilege of a part in its regeneration. We are looking for a new earth in which dwells righteousness. It is our prayer that we may be children of light, the kind of people for whose coming and ministry the world is waiting. Amen. [iv]
- [i] King, Martin Luther Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. Signet Classics: New York. 1964.
- [ii] King, Martin Luther Jr. A Testament of Hope: The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Washington, James M., Ed. Harper/San Francisco: San Francisco. 1991.
- [iii] King, Martin Luther Jr. Washington, James M. Editor. A Testament of Hope: The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Washington, James M., Ed. Harper/San Francisco: San Francisco. 1991.
- [iv] King, Martin Luther Jr. Thou, Dear God: Prayers that open hearts and spirits. Baldwin, Lewis, Ed. Beacon Press: Boston. 2012.