Martin Luther King Talking Points
Amos 5:24
1-17-22


But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – Amos 5:24


Today we commemorate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was born on January 15, 1929 and became a Baptist minister, eventually leading the fight for racial equality. In 1955, he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and in 1957, helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, serving as its first president. Even though he advocated non-violent protest, he was eventually martyred for the cause. Like all of us, he was not perfect, but he was a great man who was used by God to change the direction of America for the better.


Now, what is baffling to me, as well as incredibly disappointing, is that there are 14 quotes from Dr. King on his Memorial in Washington, D.C., but not one mentions the person who inspired him to do these great deeds. I am speaking of course about God. The politically correct crowd has sanitized and cleansed away any presence of the God of Martin Luther King and omitted all but a single reference to the Bible he preached.


Next year we will mark the 60th Anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest in American history. On August 28, 1963, he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and addressed 250,000 people. Here is a sample:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity [see Psalm 30:5].
 
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination…
 
We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” [Amos 4:24]…
 
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
 
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
 
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
 
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
 
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
 
I have a dream today!...
 
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” [Isa. 40:4-5]…
 
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics [see Gal. 3:28], will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
 
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Dr. King’s most famous speech was filled with faith in God and laced with Scriptures. On April 16, 1963, Dr. King wrote an open letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in response to a statement made by eight Alabama clergymen critical of King’s non-violent protest efforts and calling him a troublemaker. Again, his communication is sprinkled with Scripture. He wrote:

I am in Birmingham because injustice exists here. Just as the prophets of the 8th century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far afield, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid [Acts 16:9].
 
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds…
 
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights... One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’...
 
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake [Dan. 3:14-18]. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.
 
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice I have heard many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular... In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love…
 
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ [Phil. 3:20-21] called to obey God rather than man [Acts 5:29]. Small in number, they were big in commitment… By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide, and gladiatorial contests.
 
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound [1 Cor. 14:8]. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
 
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
 
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?
[1] 
 
Dr. King’s prophetic letter to fellow pastors and church leaders is not only a lost episode in American history, it remains a challenge to the church today.

Tragically, an assassin’s bullet cut short MLK’s impactful life in Memphis on April 4, 1968. What is fascinating to me is that, in his last public speech on April 3, it is almost as if he knew he was to die soon. He recalled Moses’ vision of the Promised Land from Mount Nebo in Deuteronomy (see 34:1-4): “And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[2]

The deep Christian faith of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mostly missing from his monument, is certainly a Lost Episode from America’s amazing story. While he was not a perfect man and we may not agree on every point with his politics, it is fitting that we honor MLK’s memory and remember his legacy by treating other people with dignity and respect. May we strive to do as he says and judge people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially his principled struggle for civil rights. We pray that justice would indeed “run down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” for every human being, born and unborn, young and old, black and white, slave and free, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.
 
[1] See the complete work at http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/frequentdocs/birmingham.pdf.
[2] Keith D. Miller, Martin Luther King's Biblical Epic: His Final, Great Speech (Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 135.