Coming up quickly after Christmas will be the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. In Vancouver, Wash., one observance -- organized to promote education equality -- is being co-sponsored by Wal-Mart, the company under fire for their low wages and anti-union policies. We can assume the organizers of the event only have honorable intentions (let's be clear about that). But Rev. King was assassinated during a 1968 visit to Memphis where he marched with sanitation workers calling for higher wages. Is Wal-Mart trying to burnish their image by tying their company to the image of America's great champion for civil rights and workers?
When I asked if there was any moral contradiction in the sponsorship my motives were questioned, a person on Facebook accused me of promoting division and racism, and I was informed in no uncertain terms it was inappropriate to raise the question in a public form.
Wal-Mart's involvement in King Holiday observances is not new -- nor is the controversy. The New York Post notes the retail giant silenced onetime critics by giving $150,000 to promoters of a King memorial concert in 2011. There have been many other such controversies over the years as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s ministry and message becomes sanitized for a new generation unaware of King's radical Christian faith. Corporations and politicians attempt to claim King's mantle even as they undermine his legacy.
Has the Christian faith of Martin Luther King Jr. been forgotten? Some on the far fringes of society argue that King wasn't a Christian because they disagree with his theology. Others claim he was an anti-American communist or, oddly enough, a conservative who is represented best today by Glenn Beck. Critics and revisionists like these can be easily dismissed. But as we prepare to celebrate another national holiday in his honor it is worth considering whether or not we have created a safe historical vision of King where his Christianity is stripped away and the radical, transformational nature of his faith forgotten.
King was a Christian, of course, ordained to preach and teach the Gospel message. A 13-year old expressed surprise to me a couple of years back when he learned that King was a minister. But why would a child today know this? Once a year King's "I Have A Dream" speech is recited or replayed, but the origin of the Civil Rights Movement -- born out of the Christian church -- is largely forgotten in America today. It is vital that the Christian faith of King not be lost. Churches, particularly historic African-American churches and all those within the progressive Christian tradition that King came out of, need to claim King's legacy for important reasons. If forgotten, we lose the memory of one of history's best examples of Jesus' teachings put into action. King's views on role of the church in society are best reflected in his sermon "Guidelines For A Constructive Church."
Dr. King was more than just a civil rights leader. That would by itself be an honorable legacy. But he was a Christian minister, a prophet even, who challenged the church to build up the Kingdom of God. That's radical. That's transformational. And for those of power and privilege it was terrifying because in the Kingdom the last come first. The Holy Spirit worked through King to break-up the evil of white supremacy and to lift up the needs of those oppressed by economic systems that failed to address the condition of poverty. The task of the church, in this day, is to continue that ministry in new ways and to continue -- as Jesus did himself -- to confront oppression wherever we find it: to set the captives free.
You can legitimately imagine King today leading a protest at Wal-Mart, as clergy that follow in his footsteps have, even if the company was honoring him.