Dear Brothers and Sisters, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is one of the first holidays of the New Year, and it’s got me thinking about this influential man’s life. He was a great civil rights leader and nonviolent activist.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is one of the first holidays of the New Year, and it’s got me thinking about this influential man’s life. He was a great civil rights leader and nonviolent activist. He was assassinated, but his legacy of fighting for equality lives on. He is perhaps less widely remembered for his faith: he was an unapologetic Christian voice in the public sphere. A Baptist pastor with a PhD in systematic theology, he also inspired the great theologian Karl Barth, having met him during Barth’s 1962 lecture tour in the US.
We are all familiar with Dr. King’s resounding words, especially his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But you may not have heard of another powerful work of his, the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is a remarkable document, especially knowing it was written from a jail cell. King was imprisoned for participating in nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, and wrote the letter from prison responding to those who criticized his efforts – it is long and carefully argued. He addresses objections to his work on behalf of oppressed black Americans by speaking from the heart of his Christian belief and being inspired by heroes of the faith.
Imagine what it must have been like: in a jail cell in Alabama, held captive by people who would love nothing more than to silence you forever. But even in frightening circumstances, Dr. King knew how important it was to speak the truth. He had courage, certainly, but what sticks out to me is something besides his bravery. It’s his vision. King had unshakable conviction, and this allowed him to see past his suffering, and into a future of greater justice and liberty than most African Americans had ever known.
He argued in this letter that there is nothing new about the kind of civil disobedience he practiced, looking to the many who were persecuted or killed in the Bible for their faith. These people, in King’s words, “rejoiced that they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed” and knew they “had to obey God rather than man.” Even when he was in prison, King gained strength from these faithful men and women who sacrificed everything for the cause of Christ.
Because Martin Luther King, Jr. was willing to be visible and vocal in his struggle for civil rights, he knew some criticized him as an extremist. He responded, “was not Jesus an extremist in love?” He turned to Christ’s revolutionary words found in Luke 6:27-28. The NIV reads “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In this famous passage, where Jesus also tells us to “turn the other cheek,” our Savior established a new order for the world – one of love in the face of hate, and of remaining faithful to the will of God in all circumstances. Jesus’ words and life inspired King’s peaceful resistance to the injustice of segregation and inspired a life of lasting influence.
Although Dr. King’s call was specific, he worked to bring cultural change in favor of justice and equality for all – a deeply Christian value. He was well aware of the long history of Christians facing persecution for the sake of the gospel. This January, as we commemorate this great man’s life, I hope you’ll also pause to reflect on others who stood fast in hope despite terrible opposition throughout history – and the many who still do, every day across the globe. Jesus brought good news that changed the world forever and was killed for it. But his wondrous resurrection is a reminder to us all: whether we’re fighting battles big or small, God’s kingdom will triumph, and this knowledge can strengthen our resolve. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated courage and faithfulness to his Christian call because he saw past immediate circumstance. This allowed him to have lasting influence on future generations.
Here at GCI, we also believe in leaving a legacy – a legacy made possible by looking with hope in Jesus toward a future that God will bring to fruition. I’m so grateful that we as God’s people are able to participate in the work of his gospel around the world. For Martin Luther King, Jr., a vision of a better future strengthened his faith amid the hard work he did, which was often met with resistance. He is a part of our heritage of Christian courage. At the start of a new year, I pray that we all will consider what our own legacies will be – and that we will live in hope of the gospel as we co-labor with Christ.
Keeping the vision,
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