Posts Tagged 'Martin Luther King Jr.'

Why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to die, and why I think he knew this

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and, of coarse, all over people were talking about it. There were articles, radio programs, shows, etc. On one particular radio segment on NPR, interviews were held with family and friends recounting his life and the events taking place in the days leading up to 4 April, 1968.

On April 3rd, Dr. King had been in Memphis, Tenn. speaking in a crowded church regarding a strike that was taking place by sanitation workers over poor pay and working conditions. “The issue is injustice,” Dr. King stated in his message, “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.” Addressing the racial inequalities in the city, and consequent economic injustices, Dr. King spoke boldly and prophetically.
Drawing from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, Dr. King spoke of the responses of the Priest and Levite toward the man on the side of the road:

“And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” (All right)

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. (Yes) Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” (Yes) The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question. [applause]

Dr. King was very well aware of the dangers and threats on his life that were being made as he spoke on April 3. Having been stabbed in the chest several years earlier by a demented woman with a letter opener, the tip of the blade on the edge of his aorta, he daily bore a reminder in the form of a scar. Making his awareness more explicit during his speech, Dr. King acknowledged to his audience that though he had seen the Promise Land, he may not make it there with them. In speaking of his uncertainty about what the “difficult days ahead” may hold, he, nevertheless, proclaimed great personal commitment to the mission at hand:

“[I]t really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [applause] And I don’t mind. [applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

As a minister of the gospel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in quoting the biblical prophet Amos, sought to see “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Seeking to bring justice to “the least of these,” those to whom justice had been withheld, Dr. King ran against the contemporary cultural current in pursuing justice and righteousness, in the name of love, by means of nonviolent protest. So why did he have to die, and why do I think he knew it? He had to die because he was seeking to live out the gospel of Christ, and I believe he knew this would most likely result in his death because he was aware of the subversive implications of this gospel-it undercuts and stands directly against all other powers and authorities.

Arthur McGill, in his book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, also draws from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan and speaks of the “shocking impracticality of Jesus’ teaching.” McGill asks

“If a man really possesses a readiness to expend himself for others, will they not take advantage of him? Will they not soon take all his clothes and borrow all his money? Of course, says Jesus. Of course, if you live in this way, you will be used up by others. Of course, they will take everything you have. That is why you should expect this self-expenditure to lead sooner or later to your death. He is quite clear and unafraid about the practical implications of his teaching” (McGill, 55).

Discipleship consists of following Jesus, and the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Therefore, following him in his life of self-expenditure will lead to death. However, this is exactly what you want to happen, what you want people to do. McGill continues, “It is the essence of your love to want to be expended for others, and even to die for others” (McGill, 55).

Now, I know that many would likely object to using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of an exemplar Christian due to his extra-marital relations, etc. Nevertheless, just because someone doesn’t reflect Christ in one area of their life doesn’t mean that they can’t in another. My point is not whether or not he was an exemplar Christian in his whole life or had a perfect theological understanding of all of life (no one does!). I simply want to acknowledge that much of his life, his concern for racial equality, economic justice, his non-violent approach to those in opposition, and his willing self-expenditure, was self-confessedly rooted in the gospel, whatever other motiving factors there might have been. Because of this, he stands as a witness to the power of the gospel, a power that demonstrated in weakness, in self-expenditure, and love. In seeking to follow the call of Christ, he sought a life of self-expenditure, rooted in love, for the other. For Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., death was the logical outcome of such a life, just as it is for all who seek such a path in the service of our Lord.