The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiness, and God
King has never stood for holiness for me. Growing up in the South there were always rumors about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so hearing the FBI reports revealed in the last couple of years was a shock, but not a surprise. Nor are those reports easy to take at face value due to the nature of the FBI and civil rights movement’s relationship.
But it does remind us of a fundamental issue with theology for Christians: the particularity of the incarnation. God comes to us, reveals himself to us, and is known by us in the particular, specific moments of history, and in specific people. Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God was a particular person who lived at a particular moment of history in a particular place.
Those elements of God’s revelation are fraught with difficulties, sins, and all kinds of baggage. Our lives, too, are fraught with the baggage of sins, difficulties, and history. Yet it is in such lives that God is revealed in Christ, and in us when the Holy Spirit abides in us.
God can use you as you are, where you are, and when you are. God loves the you that you are. Though God will certainly not leave you as you are if you give yourself to him.
The unspeakable name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush means something like Being that is Being Itself, or I AM that I AM. God is. And God exists beyond and outside of history, time, and sin. We do not.
It is difficult to wrestle with the times we live in, the physical mental and emotional troubles we are born into, and the repercussions of our own and other people’s sins. Yet, this is exactly where we are and where we can meet God.
God called Dr. King in the 1950’s and 1960’s of the American South, a place still ravaged by slavery, racism, and the economic and cultural oppression that still continues for many, but not all people of that time and place and our own. I believe that we can see plainly both the calling of his life and legacy in the advancements made, and his sins and shortcomings too.
That is how it is with saints. We gather at the table with those alive today and those who have gone before us to be fed and made new as Christ’s body, but we are not the eternal part of the equation. Our lives are temporal, grounded in our time, place, and bodies. And we are sinners.
This is why our Lord taught us and is still teaching us not to judge others, because we cannot see all the factors of their lives, or even our own. Our job is to love them, forgive them, and lift them up as Christ’s own, as children of God, until they accept it and let the Holy Spirit have them.
The legacy of Martin Luther King should not be lost in the sins of his age or ours. He charted an ethical stance for a people who would be Christians in the face of terrible and powerful sin.
He taught that it was possible to stand against evil without doing evil, and he taught it without denying that stance had real and terrible costs because he knew the cross. He stood for people of color, yes, and the poor and the sick. In his later career, his cause moved beyond just racial justice to economic issues and peace for all people. He never denied that white people in the South were also harmed by their participation in evil and by the same economics that were so oppressive to former slaves and their descendants. It was remarkable given his times. He was deeply shaped by the Bible and the universality of God’s grace. But he also needed that same grace.
God did not call us when we were at our best, most sinless, and unstained. God did not call us in some more pure age and place. “But while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
I am a son of Mississippi, but I am an heir of the same legacy of Martin. I am God’s child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and I have sat at literal picnic tables eating and laughing with friends, not knowing that it was a moment of dreams long cherished coming true.
That dream is still a dream we must enact if our times are to be less sinful, our places more filled with love, and our history to be finally free of the legacy and sin of racial injustice. We must be intentional about where we stand and whom we stand with.
As a Christian, Martin is more than a historic dreamer to me. He is my brother in Christ, a sinner of God’s redeeming, and a bearer of the banner of Christ that calls us still to another stand in the spiritual battle for our world. We must stand against evil without succumbing to it, stand for love without the tools of hate. We must stand together though none of us is truly good but God alone.
We must eat together, the body of Christ on Sundays, but also the body of Christ on Tuesdays at the lunch counter and the break room table.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a sinner and a saint, like us, like me. His remembrance asks us what we will do with our time. What will we do in our place? How will we stand for Christ in our age?
We too have failed, and we will fail as human beings do. But God has come, particularly to us, revealed in Christ, and calls us particularly to his kingdom, his work of redeeming of the world.