For all the well-deserved words of acclaim that will rise on the Mall in these next days, as the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. are honored, King himself gave the clearest insight as to how we should remember him when he stated: "In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."
In the present, religious expression in the public arena often raises more concern than inspiration, and is sometimes cynically tilted to a given agenda. Here though, we can look at the life and work of MLK and witness how his determined faith pointed a reluctant America toward, as President Abraham Lincoln would say, “the better angels of our nature.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian who was guided and grounded by the preaching of his father that he heard as a young child. He too was guided by the echoes of a grandfather and great grandfather who also proclaimed an enduring message of God being present and active in a world that, for Black people, was far from perfect. King was enveloped in the embrace of the Black church; its music, traditions, and celebration of God’s faithfulness.
Against all odds, MLK believed that America could be redeemed from the irrationality of racism. He believed that redemption was possible because it lay at the very foundation of his faith. Redemption of both the nation and the individual are persistent biblical themes. Because of his faith, he understood redemption to be the bold action of a sovereign and loving God.
It would have been reasonable to most minds to call for justice as the ultimate goal, but for King, his faith taught him that that was not enough. The struggle is not won with only a stern assertion of one’s rights. “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
King’s faith in word and action modeled that reconciliation is the loving act beyond justice.
In an age of “bumper sticker” ideology, we can look back and see in a young Martin King, an active growing faith that pushed against the constraints of simplistic familiarity. Later on he would encounter Niebuhr and Tillich, read Kierkegaard, Gandhi and Barth, but as his close colleague Wyatt Tee Walker once stated, he was most influenced by “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
We will remember MLK, the spellbinding orator/preacher on this 48th anniversary of the March on Washington, and remember his words that have become part of the American lexicon. We will memorialize his gaze in granite. But we must also remember Martin Luther King at the crossroads of where his faith met crisis a few years earlier in late January of 1956, at the nadir of the Montgomery Bus Boycott:
“I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I cannot face it alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.”
King’s faith was not haughty, self-assured proclamation, but trust in the active loving presence of God transposed across a gifted complex life. Most of us will not have moments of renown on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial or any place else, but we will have “midnight hours” of challenge. The model of Martin Luther King’s faith in that kind of moment is his greatest gift to us all.
The Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins is the senior pastor at The Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.