How Should the Church Respond on MLK Day?

Moving toward the unity that Dr. King so desired

On January 15 this year—on what would have been his 89th birthday—our country will laud the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his multifaceted quests for justice. Day-long parades will be held in his honor. Service projects will be organized in his memory. Countless speeches will be replayed and social media will light up with talks about his greatness.

King might well be more popular in death than he ever was in life.

Today, of course, his methods to promote love and justice (speaking out, marching, peaceful protest) are widely accepted as producers of change for equality. Yet in the years before his April 4, 1968, assassination, his public image only became more and more negative, according to Gallup polls.

In 1963, an ecumenical gathering of white religious leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, publicly challenged Kings’ “unwise and untimely” methods of peaceful protest. They did so via letters: “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense” (signed by 11 clergy) and “A Call to Unity” (signed by eight clergy).

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In these letters—published in local papers—these religious men affirmed King’s goals of dignity, equality and freedom for everyone, but they rebuked his methods of peaceful marches in the streets and his timing. Instead, they called for unity and patience. They admonished the entire Alabama community (black and white) to wait—wait for justice.

After reading “A Call to Unity” from a jail cell, King penned his famous response: Letter From Birmingham Jail in April 1963. One portion of it reads:

“You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.

“My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

What does this mean for us today?

We are long past these events. Yet significant events in our nation continue to spew the pus of unhealed racial lacerations. The religious community, and evangelical Christians in particular, are still wondering how to achieve unity.

As the nation prepares to commemorate the 89th anniversary of King’s birth and the 50th anniversary of his death, I believe that the congregations of the Evangelical Free Church of America should intentionally celebrate him too. By doing so, we take steps toward healing the wounds.

Though he was far from a perfect man, we recognize King in our tribe, the EFCA, as the “drum major for justice” that he sought to be. He embodies Article 8 of our own Statement of Faith with his example of love, justice, compassion, advocacy and self-sacrifice in the pursuit of God’s will.

These attributes, just as in the 1960s, keep us focused on love and help us remain in opposition to methods that are in opposition to peace. These attributes stay the hand of those who would seed ideologies and activities of hatred, reciprocal injustice and even violence to attain the social outcomes they desire.

King’s methods were not his own; they belonged to a greater One who is to come. I encourage celebrating Martin Luther King Day as a reminder to follow Jesus into justice:

  • Revisit and discuss “A Call to Unity” and King’s response: Letter From Birmingham Jail.
  • Join the efforts of local African American groups that are already planning to commemorate this holiday. Attend the parades, the service projects, the conversation forums and other venues in your area.
  • Turn on the radio and listen to King’s declarations from so many decades ago and absorb his pain, his understanding and his heart. Do this with people who are not like you. Do it in conversation with them. Mourn in their mourning. Live in their moment.

This is our “call to unity” today, Church.

Photos originate from Wikimedia Commons, used with the Creative Commons license.

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