I had not been in Belgium very long before I saw the advantage of living in an officially Roman Catholic country with a long history of the intermingling of church and State. We got lots of holidays; it seemed as if every other week our kids were out of school for some saint’s birthday. I developed a new appreciation for the process of canonization.
As Baptists, we don’t canonize saints. We maintain that all believers are saints and that all of us are being made into the image of Jesus Christ on the anvil of our daily living by the power of God. But if Baptists had special saints, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be at the top of the list. Dr. King was many things—sociologist, community organizer, and political activist; but first and foremost he was a Baptist pastor and a theologian. He cared for people, and he interpreted their lives through the lens of the Gospel.
What did he teach us? He taught us that nonviolence is the way of the strong, not the refuge of the weak. He taught that accepting unjust suffering rather than inflicting it on others is a form of power. He wrote in The Strength to Love:
“I have lived with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, others consider it foolishness. But I am more convinced than ever that it is the power of God to social and individual salvation.”
He showed us that the proper goal of our conflicts is not the humiliation and defeat of our opponents but reconciliation and community; we are to be fostering understanding and friendship with our enemies. In the same book he wrote: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. Do to us what you will and we shall continue to love you.” He believed that he had an ally in the soul of his adversary, and he never ceased appealing to it, wrote columnist Paul Greenfield.
He believed that we battle greater powers than human error and ignorance. He believed that we contend not against “flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness”—to quote the Apostle Paul. He saw the oppressor as a victim as well.
In the face of his struggle, he maintained a vibrant hope in God. He wrote “There is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspect of reality into a harmonious whole” (Strive Toward Freedom.) He loved to the end; he hoped to the end.
He showed a pastoral interest in the soul of the oppressed as well as the soul of the oppressor. That is, perhaps, his greatest contribution to our understanding of Christian faithfulness. We are all saints on the road to maturity. But some of us are farther along than others of us. Martin Luther King was well on his way.
Executive Minister American Baptist Churches of New York State