The Man Who Saved America
Today we celebrate the birthday of a man who saved America: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was an undergraduate student the first time I heard Na’im Akbar say, “Dr. King saved America.” Akbar, a Muslim, did not mean “save” in the spiritual and eternal sense in which Christians use the term. Rather, Akbar claimed that God used Dr. King to rescue America from the self-destructive contradiction of racial bigotry and meritocratic promise. King came along at a pivotal moment to smite the conscience of the country with a remembrance of its highest ideals: freedom, equality and opportunity.
A son of the Black Church, educated initially at Baptist-founded Morehouse College, King placed the ethos, logos and pathos of the Black Church and the Black community into every living room with a television during the 1950-60s. The Civil Rights Movement mainstreamed Black Christianity. The tenor of Black preaching, the response of Black audiences, the deep emotion of Black gospel and Negro spirituals and the resilience of Black protest all reached climactic crescendo in Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.
Not only did Dr. King represent Black Christianity to an America stubbornly refusing to acknowledge Black humanity, he also set a template for many pastors in following generations. In many quarters the ideal for Black pastors since King is the public theologian, community organizing preacher. King’s incredible oratory set a gold standard for mainline Black preaching. His unwavering courage and constant concern for the community came to define “pastoral heart.” He embodied the noble ideals of sacrifice and love.
Moreover, his ministry was redemptive. It’s how he thought of righteous suffering, for example. A redemption of the human spirit colored his approach to race and racism. He understood that the sin of racism disfigured the racists as much as it oppressed the disenfranchised. He knew that the only course of healthy development for the country lie in a love ethic that emphasized justice and grace.
Today, King still provokes responses from a variety of people. The great many admire him for his martyrdom. A good number still try to emulate aspects of his ministry. Some seek to keep his dream and memory alive. A few still resist his message and find it difficult not to meet every commendation with a reference to his flaws—both theological and moral.
But perhaps the most problematic group of King admirers are those who would use his legacy to destroy America rather than save it. There are the ultra-conservatives who claim that King’s dream has been realized and push for an America that is ever more individualistic and selfish. They take King’s endorsement of the American dream as warrant for the protection of extreme privilege. They have no conception of “the beloved community,” unless that community is restricted to those who share their status.
But there are also those ultra-liberals who talk of “justice” and “the beloved community” but seem to have lost any mooring to the biblical themes and tropes King used so well. They claim to extend King’s activism to issues like gay marriage, homosexuality and abortion. They think these issues are equivalent to the moral issues at stake in the Civil Rights Movement. They risk destroying America, too. Not with selfish individualism but with an amoral inclusivism. They fail to recognize that the genius of the Civil Rights Movement was a profound and penetrating application of biblical morality to society. The Civil Rights Movement was a religious movement at heart.
We occupy an interesting historical moment. The symbolic power of an African-American President suggests to many that much of King’s dream has been realized. Yet, for all the wonderful progress, there’s still more tiresome toil to complete. The critical question Dr. King provokes is, Where will leadership in the Black Church and the Black community come from and what will be its moral character?