The Legacy of Martin Luther King

Ilia DelioThis week we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, a visionary leader, who helped break the chains of oppression and renew the dignity and giftedness of the black person. King was a powerful and brilliant orator, a rhetorician in the true sense of the word, whose powerful words created new horizons of hope, the possibilities of new life.  “The word is the seed of God,” Thomas Merton wrote, a seed, as the prophet Isaiah announced, that goes forth from God and does not return to God until it has watered the ground with new life (Is 55).

The remarkable life of Martin Luther King reflects the power of the Gospel life electrifying his life, the invincible power of God impelling this man to stand up in the face of opposition, to give voice to the voiceless, to announce a new future, a new America.  In Martin Luther King, the power of Christ was made visible. However, he lamented the weakness of the Christian churches to oppose slavery, the apathy of Christians in the face of brutal oppression. King lived with the imagination of a new human community, an imagination no different than that of Jesus of Nazareth, whose example of life turned the heads of those around him in a new direction, the immanent power of God. Like Jesus, King’s message was this:  all is not well now but shall be well in the future if we rise up and turn our hearts toward the warmth of the sun, then we shall see as we have never seen before.  We shall see the brilliance of God shining through every black brother and sister, and we shall know that we are one. We see skin but God sees hearts.  We see skin color, but God sees only the color of love.  We see blindly but God asks us to see that a new world is breaking into this fractured world.  The future is now and only if we give voice to this new world, stand up for what divides it, resist all that seeks to control it, act as if hope has meaning and believe that a new reality can become our reality, can this dark and broken world emerge into a new world of justice and peace. King was an evolutionary thinker.  His essential message was this:  let go, resist oppression on every level and live into a new future, realizing that God goes before us as the power of love. Here are his words:

“We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

“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,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” 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. So often it is an arch defender 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.

Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.

For more than two centuries our forebearers labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

I have a dream . . .


Image Credit: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington D.C – Photo by Raffaele Nicolussi on Unsplash

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