I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the spiritual life of Dr. (Rev.) Martin Luther King, Jr., while reviewing Jonathan Eig’s biography, “King: A Life.” Dr. King first and foremost identified himself as a Baptist preacher. He spoke often about Christian, brotherly love, and pacifism as remedies for curing the social ills of racism, segregation, and racial inequality in the U.S.
Dr. King learned about the benefits of nonviolent resistance from Mahatma Gandhi when he visited India with his wife, Coretta Scott King. He also had read the work of Henry David Thoreau on civil disobedience. His revolutionary approaches to activism would energize the civil rights movement. Dr. King would inspire people to love others as God commands as to love them, a sort of Christian activism, or social gospel. He wanted people to look past skin color and put on God’s agape love, to hate the sin, but not the sinner. Those who fought for freedom were demanding their God-given rights to freedom and liberty, as seen in the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. They had the moral high ground.
This might explain why Dr. King saw protesters who turned to violence as looking more like the very people whose hearts they needed to break and redeem. He told his listeners often that they would need to suffer to redeem, just as Christ had on the Cross. He sought to redeem the very soul of this nation. He would stand firm on this stance despite push-back from those who thought nonviolence weak. (See here.) An end to racial injustice for all would only happen in the hearts and minds of people.
He felt God led him to do this work. He talked often about a moment he had with Jesus during prayer time in his kitchen:
“‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. 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’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’
It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.’ I tell you I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roar. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Martin Luther King, Sr., “Daddy King,” would try to pull his son out of harm’s way several times, but Dr. King saw his leadership as a faith-driven call. He could not give up, even as it wore on him.
Dr. King seemed to shoulder too much responsibility. People placed a heavy load on his shoulders. Their demands for his time and energy were similar to how Christ’s life looked in the New Testament. He would try to get away on vacation every so often, but at other times he would become so overwhelmed, depressed, and exhausted that he would seek medical attention.
Dr. King had President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ear for a while, which led to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. That ended when Dr. King could no longer support the president during the start of the Vietnam War, and that relationship dissolved.
Dr. King knew how unpopular his position for nonviolent resistance and pacifism in activism became in the eyes of other activists. He acknowledged the hurt when criticized in the press and within those civil rights’ groups. Still, he had a clear, moral vision for the U.S. Like Moses in the Old Testament, Dr. King, said he had seen the fruit of his labors in a speech he gave before his assassination on April 3, 1968.
“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land.
“I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land.” – I Have Been To The Mountaintop, Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968.
He may have felt at the end that he had turned into “the weeping prophet” Jeremiah, with unwelcome prophecies about the racial divide in the U.S. He seemed to know he would not be here to see true change happening. He was a servant “generated by love,” not by personal power or greatness, a man misunderstood at times. But he stayed the course. He didn’t worry about his life.
While he did have his faults, Dr. King had an immense faith in God that I admire. He didn’t back down in the face of evil, even in the face of death. Some people in his life didn’t understand Dr. King’s deep faith and his conviction that God had placed this call on his life. He reminded me that the Christian life should never be a quiet, retiring, or comfortable journey. That’s definitely not the case. If it feels like that, then I’m doing something wrong. My life should look more like the disciples of old, more like John the Baptist, like Peter, like Paul…
More like Dr. King.
Jesus Himself said, “…Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” It’s a given. But He promises, too:
“But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NLT)
“King: A Life” released on May 16, 2023. You find Jonathan Eig’s book here on Amazon or here from Barnes & Noble for 1.5% cash back through Rakuten.
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