NOTE: THESE ARE OUTLINE NOTES ONLY AND NOT THE TOTALITY OF THE SERMON PRESENTED NOVEMBER 18, 2018 AT THREE RIVERS CHURCH, ROME, GA.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: God’s Prophet of Love as Resistance to Evil
Born January 15, 1929
Murdered April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray
MLK was 39 years old.
All Our Heroes Are Flawed
MLK was flawed. “All our heroes have clay feet.” – Thabiti Anyabwile
Jesus is the only HERO.
And Jesus sends flawed prophets to usher forward his kingdom rule.
They are flawed so we don’t worship them. Prophets none the less so we will hear him speaking to us today.
The caricatures of MLK are blatantly false.
We must remember that in Scripture and in life, God has used incredibly flawed men and women to lead great movements.
We must remember that our moral flaws don’t nullify the redemptive and transforming change that God renders through fallen and redeemed creatures.
God hits straight licks with crooked sticks.
Background to MLK’s Context: Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States.
Enacted by white Democrat-dominated state legislatures after the Reconstruction period, in the late 19th century, the laws were enforced until 1965.
In practice, Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the states of the former Confederate States of America, starting in the 1870s and 1880s, and were upheld in 1896, by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” legal doctrine for African Americans, established with the court’s decision in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson.
This is the atmosphere that Dr. King was born into and raised in. We still live in the dark shadow of Jim Crow if not in law in practice.
When I was reading and studying on MLK’s life, 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 continued to resonate in my soul.
Our Banner Over MLK’s Life: 2 Corinthians 2:12-17
2 Corinthians 2:12-17 (ESV) When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, 13 my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So, I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia. 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
MLK’s Early Years
Mother – Alberta Williams King
Gentle, kind, soft spoken.
“Had to confront the age-old problem of the Negro parent in America: how to explain discrimination and segregation to a small child.”
Father – Michael Luther King (later changed his name to Martin)
Strong in word and physical size. Very outspoken with sharp opinions.
Pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Martin Sr. hated segregation. He often witnessed his own father being cheated as a share cropper and sought righteousness only to be shouted down and watch his own father have to go along with it for fear of losing their ability to earn a living.
Pastor King was the President of the NAACP at his time.
MLK speaks about never seeing his Daddy physically attacked like he had seen other black men attacked. This fact caused MLK to be in awe of his daddy, that strong stand gave MLK a model on how to be steadfast in trial.
MLK “joined the church” just to keep up with his sister who did so when he was 5 years old. Back in the day, “join the church” was synonymous with “become a Christian” because you cannot be part of the church unless you are a Christian.
MLK began, as a young critical thinker, to have doubts about the age of 12 and they were relentless. He questioned in their Sunday School class the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This caused a bit of a stir.
But God created a sharp thinker in MLK, and God was working out the kinks.
I believe one could argue that MLK’s conversion experience was a long process going all the way into his college experience.
Two Incidents in Early Childhood That Affected MLK Most
- The death of his grandmother. Very dear to him.
The first time he began to wrestle with immortality. He believed she still lived, and this led to his young belief in the immortality of people. There would be a resurrection one day, and this gave him hope.
This was one of those events God used to move MLK closer to himself, and provide an anchor for his soul in spite of the classical liberal training he would receive later that would call into question such supernaturalism.
- When MLK was 6 a white childhood playmate, whose father had a store across the street from his home, would be forced to stop being friends with him after they started school because his father demanded he would no longer play with MLK because MLK was black.
After discussing why this was the case with his parents at dinner, MLK determined to hate all white people.
This led to a profound question: How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends?
NOTE: This is the result of oppression. Either one gives in to bitterness and anger leading to violence or one is constrained by love.
This is where the gospel “rubber meets the road”. The gospel saves and it fixes wrongs. It addresses attitudes and thus systems that attitudes created.
This would be evident in MLK’s adopted strategy of non-violent resistance through active love.
God would intervene, even in less than ideal theological systems to preserve his chosen prophet!
The Angriest MLK Ever Was (a glimpse into MLK’s world)
At age 14 MLK won an essay contest, and his essay was “The Negro and the Constitution”.
After presenting his paper in Dublin, GA he and his teacher had to ride back to Atlanta on a bus.
When white passengers got on the bus, MLK and his teacher were told to get up and give up their seats.
MLK hesitated, and was cursed at by the driver until he got up at the urging of his teacher.
They both had to ride the one and a half hours back to Atlanta standing.
That makes me want to fight right now.
Imagine the psychology of a man and woman and child who has to endure that kind of treatment because they don’t have options.
MLK entered Morehouse college at the age of 15.
He read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” in which HDT refused to pay his taxes and go to jail rather than support a war that could spread slavery to Mexico.
(Thoreau also influenced Leo Tolstoy and Ghandi in his writing about civil disobedience.)
Thoreau influenced much of the non-violent resistance to inequality in the civil rights movement by his calling for “better government” and his peaceful approach to change.
“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
While all of this internal processing is going on, MLK had an inner urge to serve in the ministry, HOWEVER, his collegiate learning was aiding his doubts that began early as a child.
MLK began to see the bible accounts as myth.
MLK also began to resent his fundamentalist Baptist heritage and its emotional expressions. He was embarrassed by the doctrine and the emotional expression.
So, MLK began moving toward medicine or law as his vocation.
As he entered his senior year, the President of Morehouse and another mentor, through a course on the bible, helped him to at least see that behind “legends” and “myths” were profound truths that one cannot escape.
NOTE: THIS IS NOT THE EVANGELICAL POSITION ON THE HISTORICTY OF SCRIPTURE. GOD USED WHAT WE COULD CONSIDER AN INADEQUATE VIEW OF SCRIPTURE TO PRODUCE ACTIONS IN LINE WITH SCRIPTURE.
God provided a thread of “truth” to keep MLK from abandoning the fundamentals of the faith.
So, MLK gave into what he believed was a call to ministry that he experienced all the way back in high school.
MLK was ordained February 25, 1948 at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
June 8, 1948 MLK received his bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Morehouse.
MLK’s Continued Theological Training at Crozer Seminary/Boston University Leading to the Strategy of “Non-Violent Resistance”
From 1948-1951 MLK studied at Crozer seminary in Pennsylvania.
Here MLK was exposed to protestant liberal theology and a multitude of world philosophers that we don’t necessarily study in protestant evangelicalism.
Why this kind of school? Because black men and women were not allowed at conservative schools in the south.
I was taught at a protestant liberal institution in undergraduate school, and it nearly sent me over the edge into atheism.
But what it did for me was teach me how to think, not what to think, and when by God’s grace, I got my legs under me theologically, it turned me into a warrior because I could think for myself with the bible as my framework.
MLK was similar. He incorporated some things I would not into his practices.
But whatever he got wrong theologically pales in comparison to what he got right in practice even if he got there through “back roads”.
During this time MLK learned the practice of loving like Jesus through the study of Ghandi, who took Jesus’ teaching on love to more practical levels than many Christians do.
NOTE: I would argue that one can glean the same strategy from Scripture alone. There are many doctrinal stances we could depart with MLK on. His own Father would likely depart with him on many of those stances. However, what I would argue he got wrong in doctrine, he made up for by getting his practice spot on.
MLK became convinced through his study and experience of God that love as nonviolent resistance to evil was the way forward.
MLK did not believe in pacifism.
MLK departed from Niebuhr’s view of pacifism, where Reinhold Niebuhr critiqued pacifism in favor of armed resistance.
MLK agreed with Niebuhr’s call for action, but action with love. Love was not being passive, but love and nonviolence was the resistance.
“True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power…It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”
This Philosophy would impact how MLK led a movement to resist but to do so with love while not submitting to evil.
For those who want to cast the label “heretic” on MLK listen a doctoral student at Southern Seminary’s push back on that label:
“Folks who dismiss Dr. King as a heretic over a dissertation he wrote in his 20’s at a liberal seminary, but great theologically informed racist-man stealers as simply having theological blind spots have absolutely no theological credibility… It’s insidious. Dr. King applied to multiple conservative seminaries and they rejected him because he was black. He then goes to a liberal seminary, writes a dissertation there, graduates, joined a conservative denomination and white theologians want to reject him based on his dissertation. In other words, “we are going to force you into a box Dr. King. Either you do not get educated and live as an ignorant black man, or you pursue the only education you are allowed as a black man and we will use it against you throughout your life and forever after your death.” – Kyle J. Howard
MLK’s Visit to India
After his visit to India, MLK would speak about non-violent resistance as action against evil in this way:
“I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a nonviolent campaign. India won her independence, but without violence on the part of Indians. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. The way of acquiescence (compliance) leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”
MLK wanted there to be redemption and reconciliation as a consequence of seeing the gospel applied in the freedom and equality of the black person.
Regarding the Role of Preaching in the Movement
MLK said that preaching was of the most vital needs of society if used correctly.
He saw it as a call to a prophetic work of proclaiming with intelligence and yet profound conviction doctrines applied in light of the people’s settings and circumstances.
He believed preaching should never be left in the fog of theological abstraction. In other words, preaching had to move from the theological down to the specific needs and sins of a society.
He would point to examples like Jeremiah who addressed painfully specific issues applied to his people coming from the doctrine of God.
And yet he also noted there was a price to be paid for such preaching. Martyrdom.
Little did he know that is the price he would pay for his preaching.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama
Here is where life circumstances intersected with providential timing in the divine sovereignty of God.
MLK said that he felt that this moment sought him out. He did not seek this out himself.
After weighing the options of for an academic career and options for teaching or being an academic dean, there was a sense of calling to the pastorate to preach and lead.
Also, during this time there was a temptation to stay in the north and avoid the harsh Jim Crow laws that continually reminded them of the bitter division of race they grew up with.
April 14, 1954 MLK accepted the call the Dexter Avenue, and would focus on completing his dissertation, and would permanently move and take up work September 1, 1954.
A Sense of Calling to be in the South
…to be in the south and work toward being a healing agent of the racism that made growing up in the south so hard.
Here, MLK joined the NAACP’s work and the Alabama Council on Human Relations.
One used legal action, and the other used education as means of addressing the challenges of segregation.
Montgomery Movement Begins (December 5, 1955-December 20, 1956)
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the defining movement that would launch MLK into his role as a civil rights leader, and would test his belief in non-violent resistance to evil.
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat at the front of the bus to protest the Jim Crowe laws that treated black people like second class citizens.
She was arrested and her trial was set for December 5.
E.D. Nixon and Ralph Abernathy (pastor of first Baptist Montgomery) suggested to MLK that a bus boycott was a necessary effort to bring attention to this issue. They agreed, and set a meeting for Saturday morning.
More than 40 people showed up and they planned the boycott for Monday the 5th, the day of Rosa Park’s trial.
Black folks would not ride the bus to work, school, or any place.
People would take a cab, sharing a ride or walk. They would then gather for a mass meeting on that Monday at 7pm for further instruction.
During this time a black person would have to step onto the front of the bus, pay, then step off to go to the back entrance of the bus to ride. Often the bus would leave before they could get back on in the back.
MLK’s Christian Conscience at Work…
MLK actually thought through whether the bus boycott was the best way. The boycott was the same type of approach that an organization called the “white citizens council” used to keep the Jim Crow laws in place.
MLK was so concerned as a Christian that their actions represent Jesus well that he would ask regarding this action, “Was the boycott unchristian? Was it a negative approach to the solution of a problem?”.
“I had to recognize that the boycott method could be used to unethical and unchristian ends. I had to concede, further, that this was the method used so often to deprive many Negroes, as well as white persons of goodwill, of the basic necessities of life. But certainly…our pending actions could not be interpreted in this light. Our purposes were altogether different. We would use this method to give birth to justice and freedom, and urge men to comply with the law of the land. AS I THOUGHT FURTHER, I CAME TO SEE THAT WHAT WE WERE REALLY DOING WAS WITHDRAWING OUR COOPERATION FROM AN EVIL SYSTEM, RATHER THAN MERELY WITHDRAWING OUR SUPPORT FROM THE BUS COMPANY. THE BUS COMPANY, BEING AN EXTERNAL EXPRESSION OF THE SYSTEM, WOULD NATURALLY SUFFER, BUT THE BASIC AIM WAS TO REFURS TO COOPERATE ITH EVIL.” – MLK
The boycott was a success.
Some walked up to 12 miles to work and home.
At the evening meeting the newly formed MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) vowed to continue the boycott until: 1. courteous treatment by the bus operators was guaranteed; 2. passengers were seated on a first come, first served basis, 3. Negro bus operators were employed on predominantly negro routs.
Rosa Parks was convicted, fined the total of $14, and she appealed the case.
“Ultimately, victory in Montgomery camp with the United States Supreme Court’s decision; however, in a real sense, the victory had already come to the boycotters, who had proven to themselves, the community, and the world that Negroes could join in concert and sustain collective action against segregation, carrying it through until the desired objective was reached. In conclusion, then, Montgomery gave forth, for all the world to see, a courageous new Negro. He emerged, etched in sharpest relief, a person whom whites had to confront and even grudgingly respect, and one whom Negroes admired and, then emulated. He had thrust off his stagnant passivity and deadening complacency, and emerged with a new sense of dignity and destiny. The Montgomery Negro had acquired a new sense of ‘somebodiness’ and self-respect, and had a new determination to achieve freedom and human dignity no matter what the cost.” – MLK
The Expanding Struggle Against Injustice
February 14, 1957MLK becomes the head of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
After the integration of the bus lines, a wave of bombings ripped through Montgomery.
Ralph Abernathy’s home and church were bombed.
There was another attempt to bomb MLK’s home.
MLK addressed a crowd that gathered at his home, “We must not return violence under any condition. I know this is difficult advice to follow, especially since we have been victims of now less than ten bombings. But this is the way of Christ; it is the way of the cross. We must somehow believe that unearned suffering is redemptive.” – MLK
May 17, 1957MLK and a host of leaders lead a prayer pilgrimage to DC to commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw segregation. Here MLK makes his speech “Give us the ballot.”
MLK and other leaders meet with President Eisenhower. The movement is growing.
September 17, MLK’s first book is published, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story”.
September 20, MLK is stabbed in a Harlem department store by Izola Ware Curry. Had he sneezed he would have died, he said. A young white lady wrote him a letter saying she is glad he didn’t sneeze. That letter was profound enough he mentions it in his autobiography.
MLK visits India and continues to affirm and grow his commitment to non-violent action.
MLK moves from Montgomery to Atlanta to devote his whole attention to the work of the SCLC, and he gains an audience with the presidential candidate JFK.
October 19, MLK is arrested during a sit-in demonstration at Rich’s department store in Atlanta. He is sentenced to four months hard labor for violating a suspended sentence he received for a 1956 traffic violation. He is released on $2000 bond on 27 October.
April 16, MLK pens “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a piece written by “clergy” questioning the timing of the movement’s boycotting of businesses and their peaceful protests.
They called the protests “unwise and untimely”.
May 7, Conflict in Birmingham reaches its peak when high-pressure fire hoses force demonstrators from the business district.
In addition to hoses, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor employs dogs, clubs, and cattle prods to disperse four thousand demonstrators in downtown Birmingham.
August 28,The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom attracts more than two hundred thousand demonstrators to the Lincoln Memorial.
Organized byA. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the march is supported by all major civil rights organizations as well as by many labor and religious groups.
At this gathering, MLK delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech.
After the march, MLK and other civil rights leaders meet with President John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House.
September 18,MLK delivers the eulogy at the funerals of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Dianne Wesley, three of the four children that were killed during the 15 September bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
March 26,MLK meets briefly Malcolm X.
MLK writes that he totally disagreed with many of his political and philosophical views and wishes he would speak less of violence.
Malcolm X had an incomplete view of MLK due to others who did not adequately communicate MLK’s theology of non-violent resistance.
Malcolm X would express some of his questions and dislikes of Black Nationalism and his growing unrest with the political ideology.
MLK had great compassion for Malcolm X as a man who had to live under torment of the knowledge of how his grandmother was treated and the murder of his father under the systems of social order as they stood.
MLK even believed there was some kind of stirring in his soul toward what he was doing.
MLK believed Malcolm X would come to see his way as better.
Malcolm X would be assassinated February 21, 1964 before his journey toward MLK’s view of things could be complete.
March 7,Marked the Selma to Montgomery march that would be a horrible day in which the marchers would be attacked by state police for their peaceful march.
August 6, President Lynden B. Johnson would sign the voting rights act into law allowing black people to vote.
March 28,MLK leads a march of six thousand protesters in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
The march descends into violence and looting, and MLK is rushed from the march.
April 3,MLK returns to Memphis, determined to lead a peaceful march. During an evening rally at Mason Temple in Memphis, MLK delivers his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
April 4,MLKis shot, murdered while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis by James Earl Ray.
April 9,MLK is buried in Atlanta.
- We have to be a prophetic people who are God’s voice in our world for the truths of God’s kingdom.
- We must not be pawns in a political system to keep powers that be in power. Rather, we are to be a kingdom of priests to God and agents of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
- God’s sovereignty is our sanity. From MLK’s early doubts leading to him becoming a sharp thinker to God’s designs to place MLK in Montgomery when he did.
Trust that as we walk by faith and not sight we are right where God wants us to be.
- We have a responsibility to make application of the gospel to salvation and simultaneously to justice. Justice is bound up in the cross of Jesus Christ and his Justifying work. THIS IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM AND THE GOSPEL OF SALVATION.
Let our gospel be full and robust for salvation and for all things being brought under the rule of Jesus Christ.
- We must learn to love well not just be against something well.
- Sin ignored today affects generations tomorrow. (Slavery and Jim Crow laws)
Let us not leave sin intact for our children to have to deal with later.
By not allowing MLK and his contemporaries to study in Evangelical schools, our ancestors sowed cancerous seeds that we are still reaping fruit from.
Don’t be fooled into believing that a refusal to only preach the gospel applied to our eternal destinies and not applied to our cities, states and nations is a full-gospel.
If we ignore sin’s effects on systems don’t be surprised by deadly fruit.
- Work like mad to apply Christian doctrine to our world.
May our preaching of Christian doctrines never fail to land in the dirt of application to our world.
Example: MLK’s refusal to respond to violence done to him with violence done in return. He turned the other cheek, and he birthed a movement.