There is so much that we can learn from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Every year, teachers and students rehash the "I Have a Dream Speech": what does it mean, and has Dr. King's dream come to reality? Also this year, as they did last year, teachers and students will ponder whether or not President Obama is Dr. King's dream come to fruition. Others will declare Dr. King to have been an awesome man and a selfless soul who fought for the rights of others. Many African Americans think of Dr. King as the greatest Black man who ever lived -- a man who gave his life so that all African Americans had the opportunity to live their own lives. All these are true, but lost in the awe of Dr. King's greatness is the fact that he was a minister of Jesus Christ and that his life that he dedicated to service was his ministry according to the call upon his life.
In the history of the world, the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have been heavily criticized, ostracized and marginalized for various reasons. Christianity, in my humble opinion, has received the most criticism, some of it rightfully so, because the tenants of faith say expressly that in order to obtain eternal life, one must admit that they are a sinner, believe that Jesus Christ is the son of Yahweh and that Christ died for their individual sins and confess Christ to be their personal savior. After this declaration of faith, a Christian is supposed to live a life pleasing to Jesus Christ by living as he would live; selflessly serving others. Thus, the life of a Christian is to continue the mission of Christ by continuing that mission of serving the forgotten and marginalized individuals of society. By doing so, you present those you help with the opportunity for salvation via your Christ-like actions and influence in addition to meeting their earthly needs. That is what Christianity is all about; it is not about prosperity preaching or about a name-it-and-claim-it gospel; it is not about judging and condemning others to build-up one's self. Christianity is not defined by the words of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche or Bill Maher and while Dr. King is not the religion's founder, he is indeed one of its better ambassadors. At the end of Dr. King's public ministry, and life, he turned his focus towards addressing the plight of the poor. It wasn't that he left his mission of civil rights for Blacks, King simply believed that his core mission as a Minister of Jesus Christ encompassed more than simply fighting for the rights of Black people, but rather for all people. Dr. King lived his ministry each day and like the great Christians during 1st century, it cost him his life.
It frustrates me when important lessons are not taught or expressed in a way that is relevant to students. It is equally as frustrating when students choose not to engage in an important lesson that bridges both the past and the present that provides a foundation for future success. As an African American who is a teacher at an urban school, it frustrates me when either of these situations occurs, particularly when it comes to Black History. This year, rather than ask mundane questions that only scratch the surface of critical thought, may I suggest, that we ponder about what Dr. King's ministry really means in the context of the world we live in today. What would he say about the state of our country's affairs if he were still alive? What would he say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What would he say about our tumultuous relationships with North Korea and Iran? What would Dr. King say about the economic crisis and the pillaging of the middle and working classes by the elite of society? You will not find that out simply by reading the I Have a Dream speech, but rather we can look at some of his later speeches and sermons where he invokes the principles of Christianity to explain his thoughts and legitimize his actions. Currently, we're dealing with the war on terror and foreign disputes that have us on the brink of war. Here are Dr. King's thoughts on his opposition to the Vietnam War:
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a Civil Rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed from the shackles they still wear.
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the "brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant or all men, for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved His enemies so fully that He died for them? What then can I say to the Viet Cong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death, or must I not share with them my life?
-- From "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Delivered in April of 1967
Right now, we face an economic crisis that has led to foreclosures, mass unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor. Here is some of what Dr. King said about the poor, poverty and America's role:
Poor people are forced to pay more for less. Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. It becomes a kind of domestic colony. And the tragedy is, so often these forty million people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich. Because our expressways carry us from the ghetto, we don't see the poor.
Jesus told a parable one day, and he reminded us that a man went to hell because he didn't see the poor. His name was Dives. He was a rich man. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who was a poor man, but not only was he poor, he was sick. Sores were all over his body, and he was so weak that he could hardly move. But he managed to get to the gate of Dives every day, wanting just to have the crumbs that would fall from his table. And Dives did nothing about it. And the parable ends saying, "Dives went to hell, and there were a fixed gulf now between Lazarus and Dives."
There is nothing in that parable that said Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to him, and he advised him to sell all, but in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery and not setting forth a universal diagnosis. And if you will look at that parable with all of its symbolism, you will remember that a conversation took place between heaven and hell, and on the other end of that long-distance call between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven talking to Dives in hell.
Now Abraham was a very rich man. If you go back to the Old Testament, you see that he was the richest man of his day, so it was not a rich man in hell talking with a poor man in heaven; it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn't go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn't realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he was passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum. Indeed, Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.
And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world--and nothing's wrong with that--this is America's opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.
-- From the sermon "Remaining Awake Through a Revolution," Delivered in March 31, 1968
Dr. King was not just a man who fought for the rights of African Americans, which he did so vehemently, but he was a man who fought to do the work of Jesus Christ commissioned to him prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Though there are many vessels of the hypocrisy of Christianity i.e. prosperity preachers, Quran burners and preachers who preach against the sins they themselves continue to commit, there are vessels that have been used to, in Dr. King's words, "save the soul of America." Let us take this day, Dr. King's day, to ourselves work to continue his mission -- to save the soul of America.