By Michael Eric Dyson
March 31, 2018
In June 1966, less than two years before he was killed, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from his Atlanta pulpit of the dynamic dance between Good Friday and Easter, between death and resurrection, between despair and hope.
“The church must tell men that Good Friday is as much a fact of life as Easter; failure is as much a fact of life as success; disappointment is as much a fact of life as fulfillment,” he said. Dr. King added that God didn’t promise us that we would avoid “trials and tribulations” but that “if you have faith in God, that God has the power to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain.”
From nearly the moment he emerged on the national scene in the mid-1950s until his tragic end in 1968, 10 days before Easter, Dr. King was hounded by death. It was his deep faith that saw him through his many trials and tribulations until the time he was fatally shot on that motel balcony at 6:01 p.m. on April 4 in Memphis.
Faith summoned Dr. King, an ordained Baptist preacher, to the ministry. It made him a troublemaker for Jesus and it led him to criticize the church, criticize the world around him and, in turn, be criticized for those things. In honoring his legacy today, we must not let complacency or narrow faith blind us to what needs to trouble us too.
Dr. King passionately believed that a commitment to God is a commitment to bettering humanity, that the spiritual practices of prayer and worship must be translated into concern for the poor and vulnerable. Dr. King would want us to live his specific faith: work to defeat racism, speak out in principled opposition to war and combat poverty with enlightened and compassionate public policy.
In his lifetime, he was disappointed in the complacency of both black and white churches. He would be as disappointed today. The white church largely remains a bastion of indifference to the plight of black people. White evangelicals continue to focus on personal piety as the measure of true Christianity, while neglecting the Social Gospel that enlivens Jesus’ words for the masses. Dr. King saw faith as an urgent call to service, a selfless ethic of concern that, he said, quoting the Hebrew prophet Amos, made “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Today, in the midst of resurgent bigotry and deep divisions in this country, faith is too often viewed as an oasis of retreat, a paradise of political disengagement. On this Easter Sunday, as we mark 50 years since Dr. King’s death, it is a perfect and necessary time to remember his faith — and rekindle its urgency.
Dr. King often declared his preacher’s vocation by citing something like a biblical genealogy of black sacred rhetoric that traced through his family: “I grew up in the church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher. My daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice.”
But Dr. King’s faith underwent significant change. At first, he was discouraged from the ministry by a strain of black preaching that was long on emotion and short on reason. Then, at Morehouse College, his encounter with preachers like the school’s president Benjamin Mays convinced him that the ministry was intellectually respectable.
A midnight kitchen experience over a cup of coffee after he received phone calls threatening to blow out his brains and blow up his house during the Montgomery bus boycott gave the fear-stricken Dr. King a sense of God’s unshakable presence. He said that instead of inherited faith, he had to forge the terms of his own relationship to the Almighty.
“I had to know God for myself,” he explained. “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”
For the rest of his life Dr. King did just that. His faith propelled him to fight Jim Crow, the ugly hatred it bred in the white soul and the haunting inferiority it left in black minds. It led him to speak valiantly against the lynching, bombing and shooting of black people who merely wanted what white people took for granted: a cup of coffee at any lunch counter, a room at any hotel they could afford, a drink at any water fountain they passed, a seat on a bus wherever they pleased and a desk in the nearest schoolhouse.
Dr. King’s faith put him at odds with white Christians who believed it was their mission to keep separate the races — the same people whose forebears believed it was their duty to enslave Africans and punish blacks who sought to escape their hardship. Dr. King realized that he wasn’t simply in battle against a society built on legal apartheid, but that he also had to fight against a racist culture that derived theological support from white Christianity.
White evangelicals were opposed to Dr. King because they conveniently divided body and soul: Race was a social issue that should be determined by rules in society and laws generated by government. Such a view meant that the racist status quo was sacred. The point of religion was to save the souls of black folk by preaching a gospel of repentance for personal sin, even as segregation often found a white biblical mandate. After Dr. King spoke at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961, the most prominent institution of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, many white churches in the South withheld financial contributions to the school.
If rabid racists were a clear threat to black well-being, it was the white moderates who claimed to support civil rights but who urged caution in the pursuit of justice who proved to be a special plague. In 1963, eight white Alabama clergymen issued a statement pleading for black leaders to slow their aggressive campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Ala. The clergymen cited “outsiders” who had come to Birmingham to lead demonstrations that were “unwise and untimely.”
The white clergymen blamed the black protests for inciting hatred and violence through their “extreme measures,” arguing that their cause “should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”
Their statement led Dr. King, imprisoned for his protests against injustice, to draft his well-known “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he “almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” It was the same white moderates who led Dr. King near the end of his life to conclude that “most Americans are unconscious racists.”
It wasn’t only the white church Dr. King had to combat. In 1961 he joined other black ministers who were dissatisfied with the conservative leadership of the National Baptist Convention to form a rival body, the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Dr. King reserved some of his harshest criticism for the black church. Less than two months before he perished, Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference organization convened a meeting of ministers in Miami.
“We didn’t come to Miami to play,” Dr. King warned his listeners in an address titled “To Minister to the Valley.” And he didn’t. “Let us admit that even the black church has often been a taillight rather than a headlight,” Dr. King preached. As social injustice roared, these ministers kept silent “behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.” As their members struggled with poverty, they mouthed “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
Then Dr. King came in for the kill: “Let us honestly admit that all too often we’ve been more concerned about the size of the wheelbase on our automobiles, and the amount of money we get in our anniversaries, than we’ve been concerned about the problems of the people who made it possible for us to get these things.” Dr. King argued that “the great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge.”
Christianity is again failing to see that edge.
While black bodies are punished or disappear into oblivion, under the repressive reign of police brutality, many white churches remain silent. Instead, an overwhelming number of white evangelicals line up in support of a president who has evinced even less of a public embrace of religion than Ronald Reagan did. Yet President Trump has been prayed for by white evangelicals as his administration and his words have preyed on black people, immigrants, transgender people and the poor. There are some brave contrarians among Southern Baptists, like the Trump critic Russell Moore, who have dared to dissent. But their voices are too few.
The black church’s behavior has been shameful as well. With a few notable exceptions, black churches have often been chronically indifferent to the fight against white supremacy. . On this Easter Sunday, many ministers will dutifully preach about a crucified God without dwelling on the death in Sacramento of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in a police shooting that even the city’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg, said was “plain wrong.”
Instead, black churches have been invested in personal prosperity and upward climbing at the expense of the Social Gospel that Dr. King preached. For every progressive pastor like Frederick Douglass Haynes in Dallas, there are hundreds more who turn their dire warnings about sin into bigger cars and more cash for their lucrative pastoral anniversaries. For every preacher of the virtue of social conscience, like Gina Stewart in Memphis, there are so many more pastors who use the Bible only to reprimand fornicators and backsliders.
Some black ministers have even frowned on Dr. King for his moral failures as an excuse to avoid the message that he trumpeted as an itinerant preacher for social justice. To Dr. King’s credit, he acknowledged his flaws and warned people against making him a saint.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of faith who didn’t mind making trouble for God. He believed his purpose in life was to bring justice to as many of God’s children as possible while proclaiming the revolutionary power of belief. And that wasn’t a mere metaphor: He believed that America must undergo a “revolution of values” so that it might begin to fulfill the mandate of the Gospel to look after those who needed God’s help the most.
“God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now,” Dr. King said in his famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, delivered from his home pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta two months before his assassination. “God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, ‘Don’t play with me.’”
As America in its present incarnation, with its present leadership, teeters toward an arrogance, isolationism and self-importance that are the portals of moral decline and political self-destruction, the nation must recall the faith of Martin Luther King Jr. He saw faith as a tool for change, a constant source of inspiration to remake the world in the just and redemptive image of God. On this holy day, instead of shrinking into the safety of faith, we should, as Dr. King did, bear the burdens of the less fortunate and rise again to serve humanity.