Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than a secular holiday honoring an important American. It is also a day to remember someone who taught the church in America some things about Christian discipleship. King was more than an adept leader of a movement; he was at his core a Baptist preacher who sought to guide people in the way of the Gospel.
In a day when political division generates a bit of rancor among us, it is healthy to remember someone who taught the importance of loving our neighbor and even our enemy. King did not choose nonviolent initiative primarily because it was the most effective tool available to him at the time; rather he chose this tool because he believed in its preeminent power.
Paul Greenberg wrote, King “understood he had an ally in the heart of his adversary, and he never ceased appealing to it. He was relentless in his application of mercy.” King believed that he strove ultimately not against other people but against the powers they obey. In Strive Toward Freedom, King observed: “There is a creative Force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspect of reality into a harmonious whole.” He staked his work on the belief that God was working in our world to heal what is broken.
In Strength to Love, King wrote that he lived with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. He wrote there are some who find the cross a stumbling block; others see it as foolishness. “But I am more convinced than ever that it is the power of God to social and individual healing,” wrote King. In Strive Toward Freedom, King warned: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force.” The cross of Jesus clues us in to how we can participate in what God is working out in our world. This is why King chose confrontational nonviolence over retaliation. He staked his life and legacy upon that conviction.
Was King’s approach greeted with love and kindness? No, it created tension, even violent opposition. He confessed in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that he was not afraid of tension. He believed tension to be constructive and necessary for growth. His methodology was not passive; it was principled. The principle was that God is working out the creation’s redemption and finally God will have the last word. King was many things. Most of all he was simply a Baptist preacher pointing people in the direction God is moving.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (Romans 8:22-25).
We are people of hope in God. Martin Luther King Jr. Day renews that hope.
Jim Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State