Men need strong leadership. Man has proven himself, across the ages, over and over to be sheep-like. I believe that is why much of the New Testament paints Christ as a shepherd. Let’s face it, we are just not that bright. Even with proper teaching and guidelines, we fail time and time again. Thus the need of the perfect sacrifice of Christ. Throughout history, mankind has always had someone to rally around. Being a devout lover of history, I have always taken pleasure in learning about the men and women who shaped our human existence by their leadership.
In my mind, when history looks back on the 20th century, there will be plenty of bad leaders to look at. Men who created hell on earth for others. Men who used violence, intimidation, and the threat of death to create empires that only served themselves. Though, with the dark, there must also come light. The 20th century provided many examples of what was right, and good, and true for men to follow. Millions of unnamed soldiers who answered the call of liberty when the world went to war twice. Men who, with the help of God, advanced our medical knowledge farther than any time since man began writing down what he did. Humankind expanded our borders to the heavens and created things no one had ever imagined possible. But for all those physical things, there was a handful whose sole impact on history was to bring light to the darkness.
When asked to write a piece for Martin Luther King Day, I jumped at the opportunity. I have a deep respect for Dr. King and an even deeper respect and admiration for him after I accepted Christ. Years ago, my wife bought me an iPod. On it were two albums, one a Ray Charles Greatest Hits album, and the other, a compilation of the speeches of Dr. King. She knew that I had an abundance of Christian music to put on there, but she responded that “she knew me” and she knew that I would enjoy Dr. King’s speeches. I stayed up the most of that night listening to the words, and more specifically the heart of a man who saw darkness and chose to confront it.
Is that not what we are called to do? Be the light in a dark world? Matthew 5:16 reads, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Martin Luther King, Jr. could have chosen to ignore what he saw going on around him. Everyone with any sense realizes there were parts of the country where you did not want to be African American in that day. He could have continued being a minister, telling his flock that one day change would come, and not get involved. But that was not who he was. That was not the call he had on his life. He once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” What a powerful condemnation of those who had good intentions, but allowed atrocity after atrocity to happen.
Sadly, and to our shame, some in the church felt his efforts to be “unwise and untimely.” During one of the thirty times he was imprisoned, he wrote one of the most famous documents written while incarcerated: "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." In it, he wrote to eight pastors who had publicly condemned the non-violent Civil Rights movement. He said, “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”
Eternal and natural law? Such deep words from a man who would forever alter the course of the United States, and indeed the world. Great civil leader that he was, Martin Luther King, Jr. was always a minister first. There are legions of articles across the web that visit the similarities between the message of Jesus and the message of King. This is no accident. One can almost hear Jesus when King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It was his faith in Christ that allowed him to take up such a needed and reviled mantle.
Deep down, I believe King never set out to be the face of the civil rights movement. Though, as a friend once told me, "God does not call the equipped, he equips the called." God, in his infinite wisdom, called a man who could lead, and lead well, at a time when this nation sorely needed guidance. King assumed the role God called him to. And though he commanded great power, he never used it for evil. He responded the way Christ would, in love. Love does not always mean agreement with one’s persecutor. Love means acknowledging the fact that this world is not our home. That we are to strive for the Light. That the darkness of this world will not overcome the Light that we all long for. The Light that we hopefully have in us. The words of Jesus in John 16:33 are just as true now, as then, and for all eternity: “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Overcome: to conquer, defeat, subdue, surmount. Christ has overcome this world. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that. Do you? Do you believe that whatever issues face mankind that Christ can overcome them? Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that to truly overcome the oppression of the South and to a greater extent the nation in the 50s and 60s, he must follow God’s path first. “The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”
What is God’s will for your life? What is He calling you to do for Him? To be a great leader as King was, or to be a humble servant in your local church and community? Or is He calling you to just live for Him, so that others might see His Light in you? Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who bucked the established societal trends to bring light to the darkness, met a horrible end. His work was not yet done, though he had changed the conversation forever. I believe deep down in my heart of hearts, that King would have forgiven the man who killed him. I think, in light of JFK's assassination and other happenings during that era, Dr. King knew that his life could be taken from him: “When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately, that you die on.” Thankfully, though, he accepted and did not shy away from the fact that he was going onward for a greater purpose.
On the day named rightfully for him, I leave you with his words, which carry far more weight than mine. The words of a prophet, cut down far too early:
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies."