Image by Andre Engels, cc 2.0 generic.
Did you know he was a Reverand?
He was brought up in a family of ministers, to be a minister. He graduated from high school when he was 15, then graduated from a prestigious black university, downtown Atlanta's own Morehouse College, from which he went to a white seminary in Representative Murtha's Rednecksylvania, Crozier, and became senior class president. It was now clear what God had made him for in this life, and he seemingly took note. Earning a fellowship, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston College, and after becoming the Reverand of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in that hang out of the old Southern rich known as Montgomery, Alabama, he went on to become the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. More can be found on his life here.
The reason I'm thinking about this is yesterday I read a little on Nero Ceasar. Large sections of Rome burned down, and no one knew whether it was accident or arson. A group of Christians confessed to have committed arson, but this confession was likely extracted by torture. They were hated group in society, and they were rounded up, at first for the arson, and later just for some kind of hate. They were put in animal skins and torn to death by dogs, burned alive to keep the city illuminated at night, and, like their Lord and Savior, crucified. They were hated for the "abomination" of believing different in Rome, which historian Tacitus described, in Annals XV, as: "where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular."
Martin Luther King was killed, by a gunman, for the abomination of believing in human decency and respect, for "one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." ("I have a dream" Speech) For merely asking, in his I Have a Dream Speech, for America to fulfill its own promise, its own principle. He wasn't asking even for an alteration of the nation, but merely for it to genuinely fulfill what it is, to not allow its soul to be devoured whole by the flames of hate!
This was not the first time he had been persecuted. In Birmingham, King had protested non-violently, in the greatest traditions of Apostolic (pre-Catholic) Christianity, just as Saint Paul and Saint Peter had so many years ago. He did not tear apart city and civilization, but even as the firehoses inflicted much pain and panic, and dehumaized him and his followers, they, in the model of his leadership, stood for love and decency that they would never receive. Likewise, the Christians, through their conduct in Rome, proved that they could not have possibly done what they were accused of, just as MLK proved, through his conduct, that he would not have destroyed the South.
In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that his killer may have destroyed the South by doing away with the one person who seemed to know what he was doing. As such, I accept the hard ship that Georgia and Atlanta have been through, in crime, in poverty, in humiliation, with despair, but knowing that it is a righteous judgement by God for righteous blood, shed by the hands of hate. "'VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,' says the Lord. 'BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.'" (Romans 12: 19-20, NASB) For it is often through the very consequences of our actions that the Lord judges.
Of course, for King, justice did not mean punishing the wicked, did not mean inflicting hate and pain in repayment or retribution, I'm not even sure Malcolm X believed in that, but the correction of behavior, the righting of wrongs, the establishment of good. Or as Paul puts it in the very line after the one I quoted: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. " (Romans 12 : 21, NASB)
MLK was a Reverand, and used the church to advance an agenda of hope, faith, and love, as it was made to advance. The Southern Christians Leaders Conference helped organize every one of Kings rally's, and gave him a powerful platform from which to speak on humanity. He saw how powerful the wretched KKK was in the South, and he found the organization, the church, that footwashing Baptist southerners love far more. And through the church, love conquered hatred, civility conquered tyranny, and respect conquered fear.
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5: 43-48, NIV)
MLK was a true martyr of Christ, and it's too bad we don't have more extremists of this type, extremists of love, extremists of decency, extremists of faith. How extreme? Extreme enough to allow himself to be killed for people who didn't even deserve his company. Extreme enough to grant respect that would never be returned. That's the kind of extremism we need today in this world. The extremism to never let yourself be the darkness, no we're too extreme for that, but to be the light that overcomes it, speaking loud, speaking true, but above all, speaking with love.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, MLK's Church, in Montgomery, Alabama. Image Public Domain by Altairisfar (wikimedia user)
Update 2/11/09: Representative Murtha, of "Rednecksylvania," has passed away recently due to complications from a routine surgery. We hope God is with his family during this difficult time. I guess the good news about being responsible for the most infamous single quote of the 2008 election is I'm sure it was much easier to forgive and be at peace with the doctor who messed up, and for that, we both can be grateful.