Martin Luther King Jr.: Exemplar of Hope

The Civil Rights leader’s life and legacy embodies the revolutionary ethic Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther King Jr.: Exemplar of Hope
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection

“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.

Radical Discipleship

“Just as Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world,” King wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “I was compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my hometown.”

In King’s mind, this gospel of freedom called for radical discipleship, particularly to be “transformed nonconformists.” Working from Paul’s words in Romans 12:2, King preached in his book Strength to Love that “we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists.” We are called to be people who take up the cross of conviction, not conformity, of moral nobility, not social respectability.

King was a student of theology, well-versed in the prevailing theological views of his day, but he was not content with the Christocentric method of Karl Barth, the soteriological method of John Calvin, the correlation method of Paul Tillich, or the praxis-oriented method of Walter Rauschenbusch. He clearly benefited from each, but King went beyond them all, embodying a radical discipleship at the intersection of theology, sociology, and history that was dynamic and communal. He reoriented discipleship to be deeply rooted in the liberating and reconciling ministry of Jesus and what God is doing in our world.

In light of this radical discipleship, King lamented that much of American Christianity “often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion.” Sanctioning slavery, war, and economic exploitation, “the church has preserved that which is immoral and unethical.” The church more often embodied the reign of empire than the reign of God. He concludes that “the church must acknowledge its guilt, its weak and vacillating witness, its all too frequent failure to obey the call to servanthood.” If the church in any place and any time fails to recapture its prophetic zeal, “it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

In opposition to this placid acceptance of the status quo, Christians need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians, who were nonconformists in the truest sense of the word. Willingly they accepted persecution as they testified not only to the spiritual but also the social reality of the kingdom of God in the world. To be called into the community of Jesus meant embodying the politics of Jesus. Radical discipleship breeds compassion. Compassion breeds proximity. Proximity breeds relationship. Relationship breeds justice. Justice breeds flourishing.

Radical discipleship is ethical discipleship. We do not seek to be nonconformist for its own sake, rather we aim to be reformed and reoriented. Much more than that, we must be resocialized so that we both live in the gospel and live out the gospel. We must no longer be content simply to learn the truths of Jesus, we’re obligated to embody the reality of Jesus—a radical reorientation of discipleship from solely the individual's piety to joining in God’s cosmic story of grace in our world. Because the Resurrection was an event and a reality that touched this world, so too when we live out Resurrection power, it must touch and be touched by this world.

King took very seriously the reality that identification with the crucified Christ means real solidarity with the suffering and the alienated. Likewise, identification with the risen Christ means protest in a world built on dehumanization at all levels of human experience. It is God’s eternal “No!” to death and “Yes!” to life. We as nonconformists do not use the weapon systems of this world, which are bent on domination, violence, unforgiveness, exploitation, selfishness, and a disregard for life. Instead, we press on with the liberating and reconciling weapons of revolutionary love.

Revolutionary Love

Any radical discipleship that is not undergirded with revolutionary love is an illusion. Revolutionary love for the Christian finds its root and fruit in the revolutionary love of Jesus. King wrote that “every time I look at the cross I am reminded of the greatness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.”

King saw the cross not only as a reminder “of the unlimited power of God” but also as evidence “of the sordid weakness of man.” King was convinced that the cross is not only central for salvation, it is also central for ethics. We “must see the cross as the magnificent symbol of love conquering hate and of light overcoming darkness.” In contrast to a fallen world of death and violence, the revolutionary love of Jesus “affirmed from the cross a higher law.” Generations will rise and fall and men will continue to worship the “god of revenge and bow before the altar of retaliation” but “ever and again this noble lesson of Calvary will be a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate.”

This revolutionary love that King spoke of was “not referring to some sentimental love or affectionate love.” King recognized it “would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.” It is a love, to use the words of theologian Paul Lehmann, that liberates as it binds and binds as it liberates. This is not a passive love but a love that will go to any length to preserve and create community, not simply in the church but in God’s world. It is love in action.

King wrote, the cross is an “eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community” and the resurrection is “a symbol of God’s triumph over all forces that seek to block community.” The Holy Spirit, then, “is the continued community creating reality that moves through history.” Communal life in love reflects the heart and future of God insofar as it has a profound concern for new community in which is relationships are centered around love as equals and a just sharing of the resources of earth (Acts. 4:32). This calls into question all totalitarianism and radical individualism that subverts the common good of not just the household of faith, but all of creation in God’s world.

Revolutionary love is justice and freedom and flourishing in holy communalism that anticipates the intended future of God’s love in community. We may be powerless to stop dehumanization, polarization, and injustice but we can never lose the power of revolutionary love-in-protest that has community as its goal. Philosopher and activist Cornel West puts it this way: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Building on this language in the thought of King, liberation is what revolutionary love looks like in action, reconciliation is what revolutionary love looks like in equity, forgiveness is what revolutionary love looks like in unity, and community is what revolutionary love looks like consummated.

So, on this day that commemorates the life of Martin Luther King Jr., we return to Thurman’s words: “Martin Luther King Jr. is dead.”

These words should remind us of his life and his ministry and the sad state of our world. Yet, as James Bevel, a close friend King’s, powerfully uttered at King’s funeral:

There’s a false rumor around that our leader’s dead. Our leader is not dead. Martin Luther King is not our leader. Our leader is the man who led Moses out of Israel. Our leader is the man who went with Daniel into the lion's den. Our leader is the man who walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot be put in jail. He has never lost a war yet. Our leader is still on the case. Our leader is not dead. One of his prophets died. We will not stop because of that.

Our leader is not dead.

Dante Stewart is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of Clemson University, where he was a student athlete and received a BA in sociology. He and his wife, Jasamine, live in Augusta, Georgia, where he teaches Bible at Heritage Academy Augusta.

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