Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday we have observed since 1986 that commemorates the efforts of the Civil Rights movement in our country, and especially one of the most important voices: Martin Luther King Jr. Though Dr. King spoke and wrote much, it is his “I Have a Dream” speech that is most remembered by the public. I would encourage you to take time today and read through this iconic speech for the first or hundredth time, for its message still speaks today and needs to be heard.
No doubt phrases like “I have a dream” and “Free at last” are recalled by hearers, but as we ponder this speech and the work it represents today, let us remember something else in this speech that Dr. King left us: “We cannot walk alone.”
In context, this phrase refers to the white persons also involved in the cause to end segregation, injustice, and racism in America. King was highlighting that, in order for a community, a society, a nation to truly achieve his dream, all had to strive together to accomplish it.
As I ponder this thought, I am reminded of other writings that King left us relating the cause of civil rights with the nature of the Gospel and the calling of action upon the churches in America:
All men, created alike in the image of God, are inseparably bound together. This is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. This is clearly expressed in Paul’s declaration on Mar’s Hill: ‘…God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, … made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth….’ Again it is expressed in the affirmation. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ The climax of this universality is expressed in the fact that Christ died for all mankind.
This broad universality standing at the center of the Gospel makes brotherhood orally inescapable. Racial segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ. Segregation is a tragic evil that is utterly un-Christian. It substitutes the person-thing relationship for the person to person relationship. …
Therefore, every Christian is confronted with the basic responsibility of working courageously for a non-segregated society. The task of conquering segregation is an inescapable must confronting the Christian church. …
The churches are called upon to recognize the urgent necessity of taking a forthright stand on this crucial issue. If we are to remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ we must not rest until segregation is banished from every area of American life.
At the root of King’s argument (and most of his arguments pertaining to racial injustice) is basic anthropology. If we claim to believe in the testimony of Scripture that all are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), then we need to further recognize that there is an inherent equality from person to person. In other words, there is no such thing as sub-humans or super-humans. There are only humans.
Further, when we understand the nature of the Gospel—that salvation is offered to all indiscriminately—it should erase any thought of classes of people with greater or lesser inherent worth. If Jesus’ loving work is offered to all, then it should be unfathomable for any church, or members thereof, to treat others in a manner less than the all-encompassing love offered in and through Jesus Christ.
The truth of this theology is given lip-service by many who claim the name of Christ in our pews, churches, conventions, and fellowships. “Of course this is the right theology,” many proclaim. Yet, in their actions, these same bodies still participate in the systemic injustices that plague our communities now 62 years after King wrote these words.
It would be naïve for any Christian to look at the communities throughout our land and think that we have achieved the dream of equality for which King and others fought. Sure, there has been progress (good progress), but making progress is not the same thing as achieving the goal of racial reconciliation. Clearly our nation is in turmoil on this issue, and too often the church has been silent.
No longer should we relegate the issues of racial reconciliation to bodies that know nothing of true reconciliation. The reunifying of that which was lost is central to the work of the Gospel. Proclaiming good news to the captives is a work relegated to the church of Jesus Christ. It is a long and hard work that needs to be accomplished by all spirit-filled bodies who have understood the unconditional love of reconciliation in their own lives. We need to affirm with King and others that, for those who are in Christ, we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. today, let us not merely commemorate the work of a man, but let us remember so that we may also become participants in the Christological and ecclesial task of proclaiming the Gospel that brings reconciliation between God and man, and man and man. It is a task incumbent on all who claim the name of Christian, no matter skin color or economic status. From our unity in Christ, may we exemplify unity in society. But in order to accomplish this reconciliation, we need to heed the words King gave us in 1963: We cannot walk alone.
Martin Luther King Jr., “‘For All … A Non-Segregated Society,’ A Message for Race Relations Sunday,” February 10, 1956, published in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958, edited by Clayborne Carson, Susan Carson, Adrienne Clay, Virginia Shadron, and Kieran Taylor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).