One of the darkest days of U.S. history occurred on April 4, 1968. On that day, a prominent preacher stepped onto the balcony outside the Motel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee, and was shot dead by an assassin’s bullet. The preacher’s name was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Had he lived, I believe America would be different today—and better. We may still have been struggling with pockets of racism, but this passionate follower of Jesus would have assailed (and conquered) the high places of racial prejudice. He certainly would have prevented the ‘takeover’ of the civil rights movement by proponents of ‘black power’ and the movement’s subsequent derailment from its true purpose.
But he would have done more, because the greatness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not exclusively in his attacks against racism. His greatness lied in his core belief—that the principles of Jesus Christ would give us a just and better society. And because of that essential belief, King is more than just a great black leader, he’s a great American. I’ve no doubt that Dr. King would have crusaded against pornography and abortion and a host of other evils that subjugate the human spirit. Dr. King was not a perfect man. He struggled with (and was too often overcome by) significant sin issues. But he was a clarion voice for the church to be engaged with its culture.
His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” ranks, in my mind, as one of the greatest pieces of literature in American History. At one point King wrote:
“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”
February is Black History month throughout our nation and it’s a good time to reflect on the contributions of some fantastic Americans who happened to have been black. Two of my favorite Americans were black (Dr. Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas). Their writings have helped to significantly shape my thinking about the church and its role in society. If you’ll study them and their writings, they’ll teach you one of the greatest lessons you could learn—the church of Jesus cannot be silent or idle in the face of injustice and immorality.
In the days of slavery, the prominent American poet Henry David Thoreau once went to jail rather than pay his poll tax to a state that supported slavery. His good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson hurried to visit him in jail and, peering through the bars, exclaimed: “Why, Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “No, Ralph, the question is, what are you doing out there?”
Long before Dr. King had a dream of racial equality, Jesus had a vision for His church and prayed “that they all may be one” (John 17:21). Paul wrote “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And in one of our favorite worship songs we sing of the redeemed church from “every tribe, every tongue, every people, every land” (Revelation 5:9). I love to see people of color in our congregation. It gives us a better visual picture of heaven. I feel closer to God when I’m worshipping with other races and I long to see our church even more integrated.
But leaving philosophical and religious writing aside, consider some more practical examples like the refrigerator, the clothes dryer, the ironing board, the fire extinguisher and the lawn sprinkler. All of these were invented by black Americans. We need to confront our own biases and prejudices and we need to lead our nation to confront its prejudices and racism. Mostly, we need to be engaged in the great battles of our time and advance God’s cause of justice.