Heroes of the Faith

April 2018: Martin Luther King - conquering hate with love

February 4 2018Martin Luther King wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, something which would cost him his life. Chief Advocate of World Vision Australia, the Revd Tim Costello, pays tribute to a modern-day Isaiah who warned that the Church would become an irrelevant social club unless its leaders courageously confronted injustice. The 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination occurs on 4 April.

I feel a deep personal connection with Martin Luther King.

I named my youngest child Martin after him. I was inspired, in part, to become a Baptist Minister because of him.

King’s extraordinary words and actions – conquering hate and brutal persecution with love – introduced me to a deeper understanding of Jesus and salvation. I was informed by his witness as an exceptional follower of the way of the Cross.

It’s strange to think of it now, but at the time of his assassination, Martin Luther King was one of the most unpopular public figures in America.

His prophetic views were too confrontational for many of those in power.

He dared to speak out, not only about the wicked treatment of Afro-Americans but against economic tyranny, US “imperialism”, the Vietnam War and the plight of ALL Americans living in poverty.

The Washington Post denounced him as “irresponsible”. Time Magazine described King’s views as “demagogic slander” and complained that he, as a pastor, should stick to civil rights issues.

The last popularity/unpopularity Gallup poll taken on Dr King before he was gunned down revealed he had a 32 percent positive and 63 percent negative rating among the US public.

He was, as one of his contemporaries described him, “a lonely pilgrim, derided and disowned by many, alternately branded an ‘impractical visionary’ and a ‘dangerous agitator’”.

Yet, his universal message of equality and dignity, and an unwavering commitment to non violence – despite persistent calls for him to become militant – appealed to the highest aspirations of the many who enlisted in his cause.

For many who joined the mission it came at a cost – reviled, put in jail, beaten and sometimes killed.

Dr King, who described himself as “first and foremost a preacher of the Gospel”, was more than a dreamer. His mission, as he spoke it in that distinctive musical intonation, was “to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”.

It was a call to action against the status quo.

As he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, Martin Luther King wrote in longhand a letter to moderate clergymen in white mainline Churches. In it he expressed his disappointment in the Church’s inability to be a people formed more by a vision of Jesus than by fear of cultural rejection.

He wrote: “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.

 “If today’s Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…”

He wrote of the moral duty to break unjust laws. He agreed with St Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all”.

In King’s mind, justice was interchangeable with freedom, and injustice inseparable from oppression.

King emphasised the importance of faith to achieve social change and the redemptive power of love to transform individuals. He never wavered from that course.

“Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist,” King wrote. “I am certain that Jesus understood the difficulty inherent in the act of loving one’s enemy. He never joined the ranks of those who talk glibly about the easiness of the moral life.”

King realized that every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God. His was a sacred mission.

His famed ‘I have a dream’ speech was really a sermon rooted in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who also dreamt of a world made new with God’s loving justice.

King was, of course, not perfect. But he had a clear vision – a dream – of what the world could be like. His words ring true today even though the dream is, as yet, unfulfilled.

Like Gandhi, Mandela, the prophet Amos and Jesus, King challenged us to leave our comfort zones.

In his last sermon, days before his death, Dr King pleaded for his audience not to sleep through the world’s continuing cries for freedom. He urged the congregation to be alive and awake to great revolutions in progress.

The explosive message of this modern-day Isaiah still matters.

We need leaders who can truly lead. We need leaders who can address the issues that face us all with determination to make positive changes. We need leaders who are not afraid to make a difference. We need leaders with courage.

God makes it quite clear that He is deeply concerned about justice and fairness. There are more than 2000 verses about justice and poverty in the Bible.

The voices of hate, injustice and oppression are still with us. They are using different, far-reaching platforms impacting on many more lives. The voices of inaction and fear of moving from the status quo are equally potent. We have come so far and yet regressed in many areas.

It is still time to rattle the cages, to go against the tide, to speak truth to power. Even when it costs us.

Martin Luther King’s memory is an inspiration and an encouragement for those of us who seek a new resolve and determination that God’s will be done.