The faith of a King

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is widely celebrated as the most notable icon of the civil rights movement. But perhaps he ought to be celebrated first and foremost for his role as a preacher and as a Christian pastor.

King’s role as a Christian minister was at the heart of everything that he sought to achieve in the civil rights movement. As the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, King based not only his preaching, but also his political philosophy and commitment to justice on his religious beliefs. Dr. King came from a deep legacy of faith. His faith was one that saw its best fruition in moments of crisis and adversity and faced hardship with courage and the hope of a better tomorrow.

Last week, in the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley addressed the faith that healed her state after its recent racially motivated tragedy — the attack on Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston.

“Our state was struck with shock, pain and fear, but our people would not allow hate to win,” Haley said.  “We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world.”

Haley’s words resound deeply today, as we celebrate the life of man who changed America for the better.

Dr. King’s most eloquent words revealed that the source, motivation, and power behind his resolve was his faith in God. Dr. King was first and foremost a Baptist preacher, like his father and grandfather before him. Before he was a doctor of philosophy or a civil rights leader, he was the Reverend King. For him, faith was not merely a crutch or a nominal acquiescence to tradition. Instead, his faith was the source of his courage and strength especially in the hardest moments of the civil rights movement.

In one sermon, King shared how the Lord fortified him in his fight for justice.

I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

In his weakest moments, he turned to his Lord. King continued,

And it seemed at that moment that 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.”

I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not simply hold this abiding faith personally, but he challenged members of the non-violent resistance movement to also maintain this faith.

And I’m going on in believing in him. You’d better know him, and know his name, and know how to call his name. Don’t be a fool. Recognize your dependence on God. As the days become dark and the nights become dreary, realize that there is a God who rules above. 

King understood that faith and the values that it inspires is what makes our nation free and strong.

In his autobiography, when explaining just what motivated the participants in the nonviolent movement, he wrote: “It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation.” For King, non-violence was an expression of “Christianity in action.”

That faith was tested on Jan. 30, 1957 when King’s home was bombed. But, after asking if his wife and baby were alright King said “strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

Today, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams are embodied in our continued desire for justice to be the theme of our society and for peace to characterize our streets. But for many, his legacy is one not just of rights, but of justice motivated by faith. It is this faith that compels the Little Sisters of the Poor to help the elderly in our society and compels the Black Ministerial Alliance here in Boston to give so much of themselves to ensure that our communities are strong and prosperous. Expressions of this faith are protected by the First Amendment, practiced by millions of adherents week after week, and are the deep and abiding identity of people who, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.”

Jonathan Alexandre is Legal Counsel to the Massachusetts Family Institute. Read his past columns here.