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Blog #374 – Martin Luther King, Jr Was a Christian, First and Foremost

We Canadians don’t do as Americans do on the third Monday of every January: have a holiday in honour of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But Canadians do seem to know that he was, first and foremost, a Christian whereas the American media and politicians tend to downplay or ignore that as they focus only (or, almost fully) on King’s wonderful work towards racial equality and the overcoming of systemic racism within the United States. Truly, what King, Jr. did was remarkable, courageous, and nation-changing (in fact, world changing). However, what he did was shaped by him being a Christian. Somewhere in the modern telling of his story, why he did what he did should be acknowledged. Author Lee Habeeb, writing on the Blaze Media website, had this to say on the Monday celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – ‘Americans will be inundated with stories today about Dr. King. We won’t hear many stories about Reverend King, or the book that animated his life and his father’s too: the Bible.

King never operated on any patients because he wasn’t that kind of doctor. He was a doctor of the academic variety, earning a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University in 1955. Which is a really fancy way of saying he studied the Bible a lot. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary. King understood early on that the greatest things that ail mankind — yesterday, today, and tomorrow — are spiritual in nature. That our greatest enemy is the person staring back at us in the mirror. And that our greatest struggles are with our own minds and hearts, our own demons and angels. What you won’t hear as we celebrate King’s life is much about his early life or his father, Martin Luther King Sr., who studied the Bible a lot too. The senior King received a bachelor’s degree in theology in 1931 and led the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta as its pastor for 40 years. You likely won’t hear the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s name and how it came to be. His birth name was Michael, as was his father’s. A 1934 trip to Germany, the birthplace of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, prompted King Sr. to change his first name to Martin. He changed his son’s name, too. His son was 5 years old at the time. You won’t hear anything about Martin Luther King Jr.’s first job as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. After preaching there for six years, King Jr. served until his death as a co-pastor at his father’s church in Atlanta, the city he called home until his assassination. You won’t hear the countless references to scripture and God in King’s best sermons and speeches.

One is an epic sermon called “Knock at Midnight,” first delivered in February 1962 and adapted over the years, which focused on Jesus Christ’s parable of the friend at midnight, found in Luke 11:5-6: And he said unto them, Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves; For a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? Why did King begin his sermon with one of Christ’s parables? What possible relevance could such an ancient story have in the middle of the 20th century? King wasted no time explaining: “Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.” King was just getting started. He went on to talk about the miracles of modern science but also its limits. “But alas! Science cannot now rescue us, for even the scientist is lost in the terrible midnight of our age,” King said. He then launched into a broadside against moral relativism: “Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm. This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of moral standards, and the midnight of moral degeneration deepens.” King was tough on the technology and science crowd but didn’t leave the church unscathed: “When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church?” King was referring to the white churches in the South that did little to end the injustice of racial segregation and much to perpetuate it. King also understood that sin and believers who sinned against their God were nothing new but were as old as the Old Testament. Here’s how he closed that sermon: “The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows. “Weeping may endure for a night,” says the psalmist, “but joy cometh in the morning.” This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.” I doubt you will hear a word of that sermon anywhere else today, though you can find it with one quick search on Google.

Here’s another sermon of King’s you likely won’t hear. He delivered it in 1967 in his father’s home church. This time, he began with a story from the Old Testament: There was a day when many of the Israelites found themselves in bondage in Babylon. There was a king of Babylon by the name of Nebuchadnezzar, who was a mighty king, and when he issued an order, he meant business. And Nebuchadnezzar issued an order. He made a golden image, and his order was that everybody under the reign of his kingship had to bow before that golden image and worship it. But there were three young men around there. One’s name was Shadrach, the other one’s name was Meshach, and the other name was Abednego. And they answered — and I read it from the scripture — and said to the king: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this manner. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.” King then did what great pastors do, connecting ancient scripture to real-life applications: “I tell you this morning, my friends, that history has moved on, and great moments have often come forth because there were those individuals, in every age in and every generation, who were willing to say, “I will be obedient to a higher law.” These men were saying, “I must be disobedient to a king in order to be obedient to the King.” And those people who so often criticize those of us who come to those moments when we must practice civil disobedience never remember that even right here in America, in order to get free from the oppression and the colonialism of the British Empire, our nation practiced civil disobedience.” King wasn’t finished: “For what represented civil disobedience more than the Boston Tea Party? And never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal! It was legal to do everything that Hitler did to the Jews. It was a law in Germany that Hitler issued himself that it was wrong and illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I tell you, if I had lived in Hitler’s Germany with my attitude, I would have openly broken that law. I would have practiced civil disobedience. And so it is important to see that there are times when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, there are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine laws. And when that happens, you have an obligation to break it, and I’m happy that in breaking it, I have some good company. I have Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I have Jesus and Socrates. And I have all of the early Christians who refused to bow.” King concluded this remarkable speech by returning to where he started, to those three men in the Old Testament who challenged that ancient king: “Now, the second interesting point is that these men never doubted God and his power. As they did what they did, they made it very clear that they knew that God had the power to spare them; they said that to the king: “Now we know that the God that we worship is able to deliver us.” And that grew out of their experience. They had known God, they had experienced God in nature, and they knew God as the creator. And then they had seen God in history. And then they had seen God, I’m sure, in their personal lives. They never doubted God’s power to deliver.” King understood why tyrants and totalitarians throughout history hated Christians: because Christians believe there is a higher source of power than man or the state. It’s why the secular media — especially secular liberals and progressives — don’t much care for Christians, either. Because they believe Christ is the solution to many of our problems, not the government.

Of the many speeches you won’t hear or see in the coming days, King’s last on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, may be his most prophetic. There were a dozen references to the Bible, and he even spoke about his own death as he ended things: “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!” King didn’t know those would be the last words he’d ever speak in public. His life ended the next day by an assassin’s bullet on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. You won’t hear any of this today. And there’s no good reason — and lots of bad ones. Either indifference to or ignorance of King’s faith – or worse, antipathy. Leaving the Bible and Jesus Christ out of King’s life is like leaving basketball out of Michael Jordan’s life or hamburgers out of Ray Kroc’s. The truth is, one of the most influential men of the 20th century was inspired to do the things he did by a book written thousands of years ago. That book remains meaningful to more than 200 million Americans today who call themselves Christians and millions more who call themselves Jews. And all because it expresses eternal truths — timeless truths — about the nature of man and the God they serve. Like the statesman who led the charge against slavery in America, King’s desire to serve the God he loved forever changed the country he loved. That’s a truth that the media can’t change or erase, no matter how hard they try.’

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