A Letter to American Christians
Two days ago, as the United States celebrated the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, it occurred to me that King often gets praised for his civil-rights work, but little is said about his probing and intense preaching, which he considered his "first calling and greatest commitment."
Last year, I listened to A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an audio collection of eleven King sermons, each introduced by a key leader such as Wyatt Tee Walker or Billy Graham.
In the earliest sermon, "Rediscovering Lost Values" (1954), a very young King shows flashes of the oratorical brilliance that would come to maturity later. He retells the story of Mary and Joseph traveling home from Jerusalem only to find they have left behind something precious — Jesus. Thus they must go back before they can go forward. King uses that position as an analogy for the position of our society: though full of knowledge and scientific discovery, we must go back and rediscover precious values we have lost.
King names two specific values: 1. that this is a moral universe, the laws of which we violate at our own peril; 2. that there is a God over all, whom we unconsciously have drifted away from through our materialism. As King puts it, "We must remember that it's possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and to deny the existence of God with your life. The most dangerous form of atheism is not theoretical atheism but practical atheism."
The next sermon, "Paul's Letter to American Christians" (1956), builds on this theme, and I found it one of the most thought-provoking in the series. As I listened to the tape in my car, I furiously scribbled notes (trying hard to avoid an accident).
King imagines what the apostle Paul might write, if he were sending his epistle to 20th-century America rather than 1st-century Corinth. King uses contrasts to drive home his points, and I leave you with 7 sample quotations, any one of which should cause us to think — and to change:
"Through your scientific genius you have been able to make of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius, you have failed to make of it a brotherhood."
"Though you live now in the colony of time, you must always take your orders from the empire of eternity."
"Too many people are more concerned about making a living than about making a life."
"O America, how you've taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes."
" … Use only the weapon of love and let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Look at your oppressor hard enough to see in him something of God's image; yes, it might be just a spark, but if you work on him long enough, it can develop into a leaping flame."
"The festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro."
"The end of the universe is not to be happy. The end is not to avoid suffering. But the end of life is to do the will of God, come what may."
P.S. I find preaching is better ...