Once a year our nation focuses on, well really just glances at, the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. We play recordings of his famous address in Washington, and school children draw pictures of what it means to have a dream. This is all for the good. It reminds us of the civil rights struggle of the past and hopefully brings us into the questions of continued racism in the present. For the more radical of us, remembering Martin includes his commitments against militarism and his opposition to the Vietnam war; and his deep questions about our nation's economy which leaves so many millions poor - questions that earned King the label of communists by some. But perhaps the greatest legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is his profound religious belief that God's will on earth was one of justice for all people and peace among nations, and King's conviction that in doing's God will we can progress and that our world can become a better place.
Now this last statement will disturb two kinds of people. The first are those who wish to rid King of any annoying religious influence, and to sanitize the civil rights movement of God, Jesus or church. The second are those Christians who believe that social progress is not possible and not part of the mission of the church, but rather a distraction from saving souls. Both of these groups have a serious problem on Martin Luther King, Jr. day as they are at odds with understanding who King was and his message of hope today.
Celebrating MLK day without acknowledging religion is like admiring the exterior of the car without understanding the fuel and engine that makes it go. King was a Christian minister who had faith that God cared not only about the souls of the people but also cared about their bodies and the conditions in which they lived. King said: "The gospel at its best deals with the whole man. Not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well being but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial."
To understand King's concern for the conditions of people here on earth we have to go through the black church. Martin's grandfather, the Rev. AD Williams was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church with its congregation of black Americans struggling with the Jim Crow oppression in Atlanta. Like most black churches, his parish was a community center of sorts that cared for both the spiritual and physical wellbeing of his congregation. Rev. Williams followed the leadership of both Booker T. Washington as well as the more radical WEB Dubois. He realized that the uplift of the black people was part of his Christian calling, and in 1917, Rev. Williams helped to form the NAACP chapter in Atlanta. Rev. Williams was followed at Ebenezer by his son in law Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., also known as Daddy King who continued on the family pastoral and justice tradition. Following in his family's footsteps, Martin Luther King, Jr. already had a visceral understanding of racism, and knew that the church was a viable means of confronting societal oppression. At seminary he was introduced to Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr. King called upon Rauschenbusch's social ethic of love, Niebuhr's understanding of power and Gandhi's means of non-violence to be a leader of the civil rights movement for the dignity and full equality of black Americans. This is not to say that King only worked with Christians, he appreciated the vision off Gandhi and Jews such as Rabbi Heschel, and many other kinds of people were crucial in support of the movement. But to understand King, we need to acknowledge his deep Christian commitments and religious impulse.
Yet there were and are many Christians who look at effort's such as King's at improving life on earth as a waste of time, and who look forward to the apocalypse when God cataclysmically usher in the great new kingdom. This world view tends to draw people inward, towards personal piety and to ignore or reject efforts to reform the world. We see this in the popular Left Behind series that actually associates international efforts at peace with the anti-christ (and which neatly associated him with President Obama in last year's election) For these people, Martin Luther King's hope for progress here on earth was misguided and perhaps even demonic. And many Christians resisted the civil rights movement and after the civil rights movement forced the integration of schools, suddenly a great many "Christian Academies" sprung up which was a legal way to segregate as these academies were largely for white families who did not want to integrate.
So we come down to the real question that King poses to us - is progress possible? I have been asked this question many times by people who think progressives are deluding ourselves and that things can never change or that it is better to conserve things as they are. But I do not, and as a Christian, cannot believe that. I believe that the true importance of King and the history of race, slavery and the civil rights movement is to testify that we can progress, and that while there will always be setbacks, that God's will is that we move forward and continue the slow painful process of justice and freedom.
In 1865, four months after the civil war ended, an abolitionist named Henry Ward Beecher addressed a black church in Charleston South Carolina offering this word of hope about God's kingdom of justice:
"What is God doing in this World? By day and by night, in light and in darkness, by good and by evil, by his friends and by his enemies, God is building up a kingdom among Men...This kingdom is building very slowly. It meets with great opposition - so great that sometimes you can not tell whether it is going backward or forward. But God is building this great kingdom, though on account of its magnitude, it is slowly advancing, but it is advancing surely."
One hundred years later, Martin Luther King would say: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
And fifty years after that, America would elect its first African American president.
The legacy of King is not that progress is inevitable, but that it is possible. The legacy of King is that through struggle sustained by a faith in God who loves justice and freedom, we can become a more perfect union, and a more perfect world. Now that is something to celebrate.