Which Martin Luther King, Jr?
Having been the pastor of one of the four major protestant churches in our community, having been the pastor who opened the fellowship hall to the first Martin Luther King,Jr Breakfast in our county, and having attended those breakfasts since they were started, I have been fascinated to listen to what part of the King legacy is highlighted and celebrated each year. One year it was a speaker who simply gave a history lesson so that the battle would not be forgotten. One year it was the non-violent part of the struggle. One year it was the fight for the civil right bills that was lifted up.
One aspect of Dr. King that is rarely talked about is the fact that he was a serious, devout Christian who was seeking to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Our breakfasts have always been in churches and ministers have been the leaders, but the speeches have not focused much on the theological foundations out of which Dr. King moved. The deep and profound rooting in the Christian story gave Dr. King the direction and courage for his action. It was his theology of creation that convinced him that all people are the children of God and given by that act of creation a dignity, a value, an importance that must not be denied. It was his understanding that this God created universe is moving towards God's fulfillment of his purposes so that the arch of history is moving towards justice and righteousness. His faith in the work and ministry of Jesus helped him believe in the victory of love over death and hatred. The journey of Christ to the Cross, the Christ who did not call down angels to defeat the military powers, sustained his work of non-violence.
It was from this platform of theology that he moved out to oppose the evil of the segregated society in his town and then into the larger world. It was the civil rights struggle for integration that put him first into the national spotlight. The end of legal segregation was a tremendous victory for all of the United States. The Voter Rights bill was an incredibly important step forward. It was this part of his work that was remembered this year in particular as there have been so many states that have been working to restrict and to eliminate voter rights and opportunities that those at MLK breakfast were urged not to allow the progress made by Dr. King to be taken away.
But there was a new element from Dr. King's work that was highlighted this year. It was that Dr. King had grown in his leadership as he went about the country. Dr. King and his organization had begun to recognize the vast interrelatedness of issues. The removal of voter restrictions did not automatically eliminate the barriers to equality. The struggle had to move on to economic issues. So this year we heard a good deal about Dr. King and the garbage men's strikes. About Dr. King leading workers in the demand for better pay and better working conditions. This year at the breakfast there was talking about blacks needing to spend their money where it helped their cause. They did not need to spend their money in companies that did not value equality and workers. It was pointed out that the 32 million blacks in the US have something like 830 billion dollar spending power. If they were an independent nation they would have the 17th largest GDP in the world. They need to spend their money in companies that value black people.
The fact that Dr. King's work was evolving is seldom mentioned. At the end of his life Dr. King was fighting more for economic issues. At the end of his life, Dr. King was moving out in protest to the Vietnam war because he said he could not promote non-violence in this country and promote violence in other parts of the world. It was his Christian faith that was constantly motivating him to engage in new issues with the same compassion and consistency that he had brought to the civil rights struggle.
So it is interesting to speculate how Dr. King would have responded to the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If he was opposing the war in Vietnam, would he not have been leading the effort to end those wars? If he was rooted in the fact that all people are God's children, what do you think he would be saying about the struggle for gays and lesbians and same sex unions? If he had made economic justice a part of his program, certainly the whole question of raising minimum wages would have been part of his efforts. Dr. King was not a one issue leader, and his work had evolved in the time he was living. The direction of that evolution seems to suggest to me that he would be on the side of some issues that currently trouble many in the black community.