Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021

January 17, 2021

Martin Luther King Jr at a protest

Just before the pandemic began, Ruth and I were invited to worship at T. D. Jakes’ church, The Potter’s House, near Dallas, Texas. Our seminary was in the midst of partnership discussions and wanted us to experience the worship led by Dr. Jakes.  We flew down the night before and were welcomed by Dr. Valerie Crompton, a graduate of Portland Seminary.  She suggested we arrive 30 minutes early because of the large numbers expected. She also communicated to us that the service lasted three hours so if we had not experienced an African-American church before, we might want to prepare.

I have to admit, Ruth and I had not experienced a worship service that long, but we were ready!  We were not ready for the size of the church. We arrived at 8:30 a.m. and, she was right, there were already hundreds of cars in the parking lot. We were escorted inside where Dr. Crompton met us and gave us a brief tour of the facility. We then took our place in the worship center with thousands of other people. As 9 a.m. approached, the auditorium was filled with more than 7,000 people, but we were two of only a handful of white people. I do not think we have ever been treated more graciously by a group of people. It was humbling.

What I can tell you is that, as you might expect, the music was wonderful and the two-hour sermon by Pastor Jakes was energetic, biblically-focused, and practical. I suppose it is hard to imagine a pastor could hold your interest for 2-hours, but I want you to know that Dr. Jakes can. The sermon that morning came from Joshua 1 – “Be strong and courageous for I will be with you just as I was with Moses.”  Pastor Jakes, with a dynamism that few could match, called on his congregation to persevere in the midst of challenge and to rely on the God of the Bible – He will be faithful.

As he started his sermon, Pastor Jakes set the context by reading verse 2 of Joshua 1 – “Moses my servant is dead.”  Interestingly he paused on that short statement. He read it again and again. I had read that verse many times, but rarely saw it as more than a statement of fact. Moses was dead – and we move on. Pastor Jakes wanted his people to pause and consider what God was saying. He went back to the experience of the people of Israel and he invited everyone to see it from the people’s point of view. This was not just anyone. This was Moses who spoke the plagues on the Egyptians. This was Moses who led the people across the Red Sea. This was Moses who stood in the presence of God and received the law. This was Moses who led the people to the Promised Land.

Pastor Jakes wanted everyone present to experience the loss of Moses – to feel it. He stopped for a moment and became more reflective --  “When I was 8 years old, it was 1968, I was sitting in my room late in the evening. All of the sudden a knock came at my door. It was my father. He had tears in his eyes and he looked at me. Son, they killed Pastor Martin this evening. He is dead.” Immediately what was just a scripture reading that provided context to an occasion thousands of years ago became very personal to almost everyone in the building that day. The congregation grew quiet as they now knew what the Israelites experienced. The “Moses” of the Civil Rights Movement was assassinated and the people in that church still felt that deep loss in a very personal way. Dr. Martin Luther King was dead and, like Moses, it left a leadership vacuum for the people. They asked, what will our future look like, now that he is gone?  Pastor Jakes wanted them to remember that God called them to be courageous at all times, because God was with him, as he was with Moses and with “Pastor Martin.”

Today, we choose to honor the leadership and work of Dr. King. Every year I have a group of students I work with read of series of texts and then we discuss them. This past fall, we read together Dr. King’s famous document, “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  In 1963, Dr. King and a group of other civil rights leaders were arrested by local authorities after leading a Good Friday demonstration as part of what came to be known as the Birmingham campaign. Their effort was designed to bring national attention to the racist treatment suffered by blacks in one of the most segregated cities in America – Birmingham, Alabama. While he was in solitary confinement, Dr. King wrote some of the most important texts in American history on the margins of newspapers that were smuggled into him by supporters. In the April 12, 1963 Birmingham paper, a group of Christian and Jewish leaders criticized King and the movement and referred to him as an agitator. Without any access to documents, King penned this letter, which is now known for its eloquence, its sound argument, and its passionate call to respect and love others. Dr. King is one of the most remarkable defenders of the American vision for freedom in the history of the United States – “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands!”

I would encourage you to read the letter, particularly as one reflects on the nature of our political dialogue early in the 21st century. Dr. King’s words are deeply rooted in Christian thought and commitment as he calls on America to live out its founding creeds. It is still deeply painful to read his argument as to why he could not wait for change:

“. . . when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?" . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

In one of my favorite passages, King answers his critics’ accusation that he is an extremist:

“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. . . . Was not Jesus an extremist for love? – ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’  Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’  Was not Paul an extremist for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?--‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Dr. King emphasized to his opponents that God called his people to be extremists for justice and love. He argued further that extremism “was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of the chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”  It was due to such actions, he noted, that the early Christians brought an end to infanticide.

Dr. King appealed to his Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters to join his effort – “We must never come to see that human progress rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men (and women) willing to be co-workers with God . . . “    Racial injustice continues to plague our society today. As we accept Dr. King’s call to become active co-workers with our Lord, let us also remember that King called all to “love and nonviolence,” a more excellent way in the redemption of our culture.