by Dante Stewart
“Martin Luther King Jr. is dead.”
These solemn words were uttered by King’s distant friend and spiritual mentor, Howard Thurman, as he eulogized over a San Francisco radio station on the evening of King’s assassination. The world was shaken. Riots were taking place across 110 cities. King’s murder was declared “a national disaster.” Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights leader who first used the slogan “black power,” went as far as to say, “When white America killed Dr. King, she declared war on us.”
As “pastor of the civil rights movement,” Thurman knew he needed to speak words of comfort and hope but he felt there were no words that could possibly do justice to King’s life and legacy. Still, he knew he must say something.
Weighing on Thurman’s mind was the awareness that King’s assassination “reveals the cleft deep in the psyche of the American people, the profound ambivalence and ambiguity of our way of life.” Just a few hours ago King’s voice could be heard preaching freedom and hope in his majestic sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Now there was only the voice of anguish crying out from “the heart of our cities, from the firesides of the humble and the mighty, from the cells of a thousand prisons, from the deep central place in the soul of America.”
In Thurman’s estimation, King’s greatest contribution was the way he embodied the epitome of Christianity and its ethical implications in America. He was able “to put at the center of his own personal religious experience a searching ethical awareness.” He embodied the revolutionary ethic of the religion of Jesus.
So, Thurman issued a challenge to the conscience of everyone listening; and indeed for us today: “A way must be found to honor our feelings without dishonoring him whose sudden and meaningless end has called them forth.” He called on those listening to “harness the energy of our bitterness and make it available to the unfinished work which Martin has left behind.”
“Martin Luther King Jr. is dead,” Thurman lamented, but he wondered if “it just may be that what he was unable to bring to pass in his life can be achieved in his dying.”
Martin Luther King Jr. and the Life of Hope
Jurgen Moltmann, in his book, Theology of Hope, wrote that “hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.” Those who hoped in Christ “can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.” King was the embodiment of this life of hope in protest. He did not put up with the American reality he experienced, but as one who was charged with the task of carrying on the ministry of Jesus, he suffered against it and contradicted it, which would cost him his life.
As I reflect on King, I am reminded of the language of Zechariah 9:12: “Return to your fortress you prisoners of hope.” He was indeed a “prisoner of hope.” To be a prisoner of hope is not the same thing as being optimistic. Life has been too realistic for that. Optimism is rooted in sentimentalism and believes in the inevitability of progress. Hope is rooted in a redemptive realism and the promise of the victory of God in Jesus. King was not naive about the realities he faced nor did he expect that good was just around the corner.
In the last book he wrote before he was assassinated, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King wrote, “The majority of White Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro,” but, he argued, “unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” White America was willing to welcome some change, but, just as they do today, apathy and disinterest rose to the surface when the next logical steps needed to be taken. Though the real democratic spirit of some of white America resisted this tendency, these were exceptional individuals and far too small in number for widespread change to take root. It was King’s conclusion that the practical cost of change for the nation up to this point had been cheap and characterized by the ever-present tendency to backlash—realities we still live with 51 years later.
While blacks proceeded from the premise that “equality means what it says and they have taken white Americans at their word,” far too often “equality is a loose expression for improvement” and that “whites … are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance.” The hard truth was that “neither Negro nor white has yet done enough to expect the dawn of a new day.”
For King, freedom is not won by passive acceptance of suffering. It is “won by a struggle against suffering.” Standing in the chasm between disappointed cries for black power, stiffening resistance from white backlash, the darkness of Vietnam, and the pervasiveness of poverty, King appealed to our common humanity and care for the common good. He called for the full participation of blacks and whites, rich and poor, natives and immigrants, Pentecostals and Presbyterians—any who would join the struggle for freedom and community. I believe Thurman is right when he claims that King’s greatest contribution was his life, which embodied a radical discipleship and a revolutionary love.
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Source: Christianity Today