The Thing about MLK’s Bible…

MLK preaching in church

He knew what it said.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had received a thoroughgoing education. His education began with the Scriptures, included extensive study of history and philosophy, and ended with the Scriptures. He followed the vocation of a churchman. He lived in church–reading, hearing, contemplating, and trying to explain the Bible.

He knew the contents of the Bible. When he thought, he thought about things that he had read in the Bible. When his prodigious imagination churned, and he envisioned the future and the path toward it, what was churning around in there? In his mind’s eye? All the things that he had read, and re-read, in the Holy Bible.

Below you will find extensive citations from his most famous speeches, by which I try to demonstrate the truth of what I have just asserted. Please read.

Before that, I hope you will forgive me for briefly pointing this out: Today I have read widespread comparisons between Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. I make no moral comparisons between the two. I simply point out this one fact:

When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke, he expressed the contents of the Holy Bible. Simple fact. For good or ill, that’s what he did. And Dr. King himself would be the first to tell you that such was his mission in life. To know and to express the Bible.

MLK Time magazineBarack Obama does not do this. Simple fact. As I said, I make no moral judgment in pointing this out. It’s just a fact. Barack Obama can put his hand on any man’s Bible, as many times as he wants. But when he speaks, the Bible does not speak. Simple fact.

Ergo, the two men, MLK and the President, are not similar. Yes, they are both black. But in this all-important respect (ie., the “Biblicality” of their speech) they are not similar.

Before the quotations, let me add one more thing: Martin Luther King, Jr., succeeded enormously in his endeavor. Why?

He was a good-looking, charismatic man, with a voice of stunning clarity and power. He came along at the precise historic moment when television made it possible for everyone to see him and listen to him. And everyone could see how the people who followed his leadership suffered righteously and peaceably, and those who harmed them were violent villains.

All these factors, however, are externals. Martin Luther King never would have succeeded if he were solely a good-looking man who managed to get himself on television. What people saw when they saw him: that’s the heart of the matter. And they saw nonviolence. They saw peacefulness, love. The quiet confidence of genuine righteousness.

And where did this come from? Is the answer not as clear as day? From Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King loved the Scriptures because he loved Jesus Christ. If Martin Luther King is a great man, it is for one, single reason: because he lived as an eminent servant of Jesus Christ.

From “Birth of a New Nation” (Montgomery, Alabama, spring 1957)

ten commandments

I would like to use as a basis for our thinking together a story that has long since been stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. It is the story of the Exodus, the story of the flight of the Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness, and finally to the Promised Land. It’s a beautiful story. I had the privilege the other night of seeing the story in movie terms in New York City, entitled “The Ten Commandments,” and I came to see it in all of its beauty — the struggle of Moses, the struggle of his devoted followers as they sought to get out of Egypt. And they finally moved on to the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. This is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom. It is the first story of man’s explicit quest for freedom. And it demonstrates the stages that seem to inevitably follow the quest for freedom…

That’s the way it goes. There is no crown without a cross. I wish we could get to Easter without going to Good Friday, but history tells us that we got to go by Good Friday before we can get to Easter. That’s the long story of freedom, isn’t it? Before you get to Canaan, you’ve got a Red Sea to confront. You have a hardened heart of a pharaoh to confront. You have the prodigious hilltops of evil in the wilderness to confront. And, even when you get up to the Promised Land, you have giants in the land. The beautiful thing about it is that there are a few people who’ve been over in the land. They have spied enough to say, “Even though the giants are there we can possess the land, because we got the internal fiber to stand up amid anything that we have to face.”

MLK speaking Life magazineFor I can look out and see a great number, as John saw, marching into the great eternity, because God is working in this world, and at this hour, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God, because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism, to break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. And then we will be in Canaan’s freedom land.

Moses might not get to see Canaan, but his children will see it. He even got to the mountaintop enough to see it and that assured him that it was coming. But the beauty of the thing is that there’s always a Joshua to take up his work and take the children on in. And it’s there waiting with its milk and honey, and with all of the bountiful beauty that God has in store for His children. Oh, what exceedingly marvelous things God has in store for us. Grant that we will follow Him enough to gain them.

O God, our gracious Heavenly Father, help us to see the insights that come from this new nation. Help us to follow Thee and all of Thy creative works in this world, and that somehow we will discover that we are made to live together as brothers. And that it will come in this generation: the day when all men will recognize the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Amen.

From “I Have a Dream” (at the Lincoln Memorial, August 1963)

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.

There is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence…Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

From “Where Do We Go from Here?” (1967)

The Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit – One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn’t get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn’t do. Jesus didn’t say, “Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery.” He didn’t say, “Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively.” He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic – that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, “Nicodemus, you must be born again.”

mlk_photoHe said, in other words, “Your whole structure must be changed.” A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, “America, you must be born again!”

…And so I say to you today that I still stand by nonviolence. And I am still convinced that it is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. And the other thing is that I am concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice. I’m concerned about brotherhood. I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

From “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (the night before he was killed):

If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”– I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

…We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery.

…Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.

…Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”

…One day a man came to Jesus; and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points, he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew, and through this, throw him off base. Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.

Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to church meetings–an ecclesiastical gathering–and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.

But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles, or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the day of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” 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?”

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One thought on “The Thing about MLK’s Bible…

  1. I really enjoyed your post .And my question is where do we go from here ?.There is so much hatred in the world . I just want the love of God in my life and in my heart,

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