If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: portrait of a prophetic preacher

*This was a presentation I gave to four Faith Journey classes at Western Mennonite School.It included audio excerpts from his sermons and speeches


The "I Have a Dream" speech is what most people associate with Martin Luther King Jr. King’s delivery before the Lincoln Memorial, the “Great Emancipator,” in Washington DC on August 28, 1963, was highly symbolic. As a public figure Martin Luther King Jr. is probably known first and foremost as the leader of the civil rights movement in the US in the 60s and also as an extraordinary orator (speech maker). Having grown up in the 50s and 60s I had a basic awareness of King as a public figure and a dynamic speaker. On my family’s black and white TV I saw his social impact on US society around integration and his focal leadership of the civil rights movement, or should I say the Southern Freedom movement. Few people at the time were unaware of his powerful impact on US society. His march on Washington was an epic event and his “I have a dream” speech was like a bell of freedom heard around the world.

It wasn’t until after King’s assassination and my own call into Christian ministry as a Baptist preacher that I began looking at King in a different light. I was drawn to King more as a Baptist preacher of social justice. King himself often said, “In the quiet recesses of my heart I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.” It’s this aspect of King’s life I want to briefly share with you as a major influence on my life as a Christian and a preacher.

King’s Call to Ministry

It was almost inevitable that King would become a preacher. Reflecting on how God called him into Christian ministry and to lead the Southern Freedom movement, King once said:

My father was a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher and my great-grandfather was preacher. My only brother is a preacher and my father’s brother was preacher. I guess I didn’t have much choice but to be a preacher. I grew up in the church and it was good to me, but one day I realized it was inherited religion. I had never had an experience with God that you must have if you are to walk the lonely paths of this life.

Then as a young pastor I was called to serve a church in Montgomery Alabama, where a woman named Rosa Parks was a member.

She decided she was tired of being tired and would no longer sit at the back of bus. I didn’t know what to do but I knew what Jesus wanted me to do. So we stopped riding that bus. For 381 days, we walked.

Then one night at around midnight, when the house was quiet; and King’s life and baby girl were asleep, he got a telephone call. And it wasn’t a midnight call from God! On the other end was a vicious voice saying mean and hateful things; finally the voice said, “N….r” if you don’t get out of town we will blow your brains out and burn your house down.”
Then the caller hung up. King went on to say:

I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was my precious baby and my wife. I went to the kitchen thinking a little coffee might help me, then I brought to mind all my recent philosophy and theology, but that didn’t help. I realized I couldn’t call upon my Daddy, 180 miles away in Atlanta. I realized I couldn’t rely on the experience of others with God. I had to call upon God myself. I said, ‘God I am trying to do what is right in your sight, but I am weak and tired.’ Around midnight I heard God say, ‘Martin stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for Jesus. I will never leave you alone.’ Does God speak to you? If so, in what ways?

King’s call to ministry came as part of his family heritage, his involvement in church, his own experience of God beyond “inherited religion,” a congregational invitation, a social and historical context of racism and segregation, a woman tired of discrimination, and his personal experience of God’s voice.

King’s Religious Education

King skipped 9th and 12th grade and entered Morehouse College at the age of 15. In 1944, as a high school senior, King won the local and regional Elks oratorical contest.

He went to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA, where he was elected president of the student government and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity in 1951.

King did doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University and received his Doctor of Philosophy on June 5, 1955, with a dissertation on, "A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman".

In the 1980s questions arose concerning the originality of parts of his dissertation. It was determined that portions were plagiarized, but that his dissertation still "makes an intelligent contribution to scholarship." Early on King had hoped to go on to teach theology. His liberal theological education profoundly shaped his political activism as a social reformer.

King’s Early Congregations

King was a product of his black church heritage. It shaped his practice, and preaching. King grew up in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia where his father was a pastor. King preached his first sermon there in 1947 and was ordained in 1948. King served as an associate pastor on breaks from seminary and his doctoral studies and served as co-pastor with his father from 1960 until his assassination in 1968.

King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 at the age of 25, which is pretty young to be a lead pastor. Although I was a youth pastor at 24, I didn’t become a lead pastor until I was 34. King served Dexter from 1954 to 1960. It was at Dexter that King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

King’s Preaching and Public Speaking

King’s public speeches grew out of the black church and its preaching tradition. He brought together the texts and symbols of his faith, theological study, with the words of American leaders, history, and a social vision for the nation. King’s project was to “redeem the soul of America.” The power of King’s speeches are derived from his black church preaching tradition, his prophetic social vision, and his theological education. Great preaching appeals to both the head and heart.

At first King, as a young intellectual, was repulsed by the emotionalism of his black church heritage and its hand clapping, shouting, and “amening.” He would come to encourage these elements of black church tradition not only as a means of connecting with his audience, but for empowering them for action.

There is a rhythm in African-American preaching that King used effectively. One form of rhythm is the call-and-response, derived from African music. In African music it is a verbal or rhythmic pattern of back and forth music conversation. In preaching it is the conversation between preacher and congregation punctuated by expressions like “Well,” “Help him, Lord,” “Preach it!” “Amen!,” “Hallelujah!” King would call “How long shall we have to suffer injustices?” and the people would respond “God Almighty!”

The African rhythms of preaching are also found in the King’s language when he used 1) Alliteration- (The repetition of the first sound of several words in a row)- not… by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character; 2) Assonance- (The repetition of similar vowels sounds followed by different consonants)- That magnificent trilogy of durability; and 3) Anaphora- (The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of several sentences)- How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long, not long, because… 4) Epistrophe- (The repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of several sentences)- In the midst of…I’m gonna still sing, We Shall Overcome…In the midst of…I’m gonna still sing…

It was King’s use of the black preaching style, his prophetic vision of social justice, and his keen intellect, that made his preaching and speeches powerful forms of mass communication and mobilization for social action. As a preacher, those are things that I appreciate about Martin Luther King Jr.

King, the Inconvenient Hero

I have had the privilege of knowing a neighbor, friend, and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr.--- Dr. Vincent Harding. I invited him to lead a national Mennonite peace gathering I organized when Mennonite Church USA met in Atlanta in 2003. Vincent was an African-American Mennonite pastor who went to Atlanta in 1960 as a representative of the Mennonite Church and founded the Mennonite House, a place for voluntary service and a gathering place for the Southern Freedom movement, which is what Vincent names the so-called “Civil Rights movement.” He was the first director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and the Institute for the Black World, both in Atlanta. Vincent taught church history at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, was the senior academic advisor for the PBS series Eyes on the Prize on the Southern Freedom movement, and initiated the Veterans of Hope project, collecting the stories of peace and justice leaders around the world.

Vincent Harding, in his book Martin Luther King; The Inconvenient Hero, points us to the post-1963 King, who was more troublesome and dangerous, a King most Americans opposed, particularly when he came out in opposition to the Vietnam War.

Vincent Harding wrote the prophetic anti-Vietnam speech that King gave at the Riverside Church in NYC on April 4, 1967. A year to the day he delivered the speech, King was assassinated.

Vincent presents us with an “inconvenient hero,” a hero I admire more than the sanitized hero we name streets after and build monuments to. This King railed against the three great evils of militarism, materialism, and racism. This King opposed the Vietnam War. This King fought for the rights of the poor. This King critiqued the privileged minority in the world and the inequitable distribution of resources. This King challenged white power and privilege.

This is the inconvenient hero that we so readily praise on his birthday, but find difficult to follow in today's social and political contexts. Like the radical Jesus who challenged the oppressive systems of his day, we have domesticated both Jesus and King into more palatable figures who remain distant from the enormous gap between the rich and poor, granting privileges to the wealthy and large corporations while forgetting the poor, the gutting of social welfare and domestic programs, continuing systemic racism, unchecked greed and consumerism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of dollars spent on the military-industrial complex, and the establishment of thousands of U.S. military bases around the world to protect U.S. interests. These are the realities that go unchallenged by an America who celebrates King's birthday. This is the inconvenient hero who we can sigh over, name streets after, and name a national holiday after now that this prophet is gone. Everyone can sing the praises of a dead prophet! Few follow a living one.

In 1969, following King's assassination, poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr. penned these most appropriate words that we should keep in mind concerning King, the inconvenient hero:

Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
cannot rise
to challenge the images
we fashion from their lives
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
So, now that he is safely dead
we with eased consciences
will teach our children
that he was a great man...knowing
that the cause for which he lived
is still a cause
and the dream for which he died
is still a dream,
a dead man's dream

It is King, the inconvenient hero, the prophetic preacher that has inspired my faith journey.

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