The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

National Civil Rights Museum located in the old Lorraine Motel, site of the Martin Luther King, Jr assassination, in Memphis TN including the balcony on which he was shot preserved as it was on that date

I am about ready to fly back to Chicago from Phoenix, AZ after participating in my first Board Meeting of the Gospel Justice Initiative as a board member. I am humbled to be part of this group that is attempting to implement and carry out in these modern times the words of the prophet:

“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

It’s fitting that today is Martin Luther King Day. Last night as I drove back to my hotel, I listened to a podcast interview of Frank Viola who wrote books like Pagan Christianity and his most recent book, Insurgence. He pointed out in the interview that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees had a problem with Jesus. The Pharisees were the equivalent of the conservative right today, and the Sadducees were the equivalent of the progressive left.

That resonates deeply with me as I survey the world today in and out of my social media feed. While both sides might claim Jesus in their political platforms (more or less), I have the distinct impression that they would be put off by Jesus face to face in their presence. Jesus didn’t conform to the spirit of this world. His was the kingdom of God.

Followers of Jesus, it seems to me, should reflect the character and “aroma” of Jesus. I think of these things when I remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was hated by the ultra-conservative, called a communist and scrutinized like an enemy of the state. He was also despised by the radical left who criticized him for standing in the way of real revolution, a violent takeover and overthrowing of the status quo.

I see Jesus in Martin Luther King and his legacy – not just because he didn’t sit comfortably with the far right and the far left, but because he exhibited the character and carried the aroma of Christ.

In my quiet time after first waking up, talking to God, reading Scripture and listening to what He might say to me, I came across the following short video of Martin Luther King’s granddaughter, Dr. Bernice A. King:

She represents the legacy of Dr. King. She says she grew up in a household in which Scripture was not only spoken, but lived out. She remembers a Scripture that was spoken often during her childhood was this: “He would be the greatest among you who will be the servant of all.” (Matthew 23:11) Her mother invoked that Scripture often as an example of who her grandfather was. She says, “We have to be the Word, and my mother was the Word to me on a day to day basis.”

One way in which her grandmother, Corretta Scott King, was the Word in her life was to transcend the pain and extend her hand and heart to others. This demonstration of Scripture lived out helped Bernice King past long struggle she experienced with anger.

In spite of her family’s poignant demonstration of the spirit of Christ in her life, she developed hate for white people, “Because I felt like they killed my father.” Who wouldn’t tend to respond that way? Only a God who also experienced the same kind of hatred and injustice could possibly help a person overcome that, transcend that.

“While doing justice, we have to love mercy and walk humbly with our God,” Bernice King says, quoting Micah 6:8. Doing what God says, doing justice and loving mercy, invites God, who is utterly transcendent, into our lives and the world. “My father literally embodied the spirit of Christ,” Bernice recalls. There is power in that.

Because of that authentic demonstration of the Spirit of Christ, she was able to transcend the hatred that threatened to subsume her.

For those of us who would deign to follow after Christ in the way that Dr. King and his family has, we need to remember his legacy. He leaves a legacy of social justice, but his granddaughter reminds us that “Social justice needs to be aligned with the Word of God.”

An evangelical world that is characterized not by the words of the prophet that include the instruction to “do justice” is a Pharisaical world. A progressive world that is not characterized by words of the prophet to “love mercy” is a Sadducee world. Neither of them are the kingdom of God.

Did you ever notice that Jesus focused nearly all of his direct criticism of groups of people on the religious leaders? The Pharisees and the Sadducees took the brunt of His harsh words. They were also the immediate political leaders in first century Judea, just under the the Roman rulers, superimposed on the political leadership structure. They worked hand in glove with the ultimate authority in that region of the Roman world, Pontius Pilate, to have Jesus crucified.

If we don’t transcend the world, we are not followers of Christ.

Dr. King could have easily been subsumed by the world in which he lived, hardened by the violence, the hatred and the racial enmity targeted at him, but he wasn’t. He followed a transcendent God and embodied the spirit of God who transcends all of the messiness  and resulting injustice of human existence.

Not that Dr. King was perfect (not that any one of us is perfect – lest anyone feel tempted to cast a stone). He was, as we all are, a sinner saved by the grace of God and forever changed by His love.  In the end, the legacy of Dr. King, which lives on in his family and all who have been affected and influenced by him, is the legacy of God and His great love for us. May we all learn to love and respect each other.


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