A voice crying in the wilderness

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr., as America’s prophetic voice
By Jessica D. Klanderud
MLK monument
   The Martin Luther King Jr memorial in Washington D.C.
When we think of Martin Luther King Jr., we often see him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial calling to the nation to be true to our creed that all men are created equal. In the words of his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, he declared his vision that looked to a day when little black boys and girls would join hands with little white boys and girls and be judged by their character rather than the color of their skin.

His words stir us because they call to our better natures as human beings and remind us of our common humanity and the brotherhood that we are called to as believers in Christ. This moment, which seemed to encapsulate King and his message, was not the end of his words to America nor was it a beginning. Instead, it was a common theme that he addressed throughout his ministry.

It is important to remember that King was not a great teacher. He was a pastor and a theologian. His faith formed every aspect of his vision for America. It was from his understanding of the nature of God and his relationship with humankind that his dedication to the fundamental equality of all people and also to the principles of nonviolence developed and sustained his work.

For King, it seems, was not a person who wanted political power. In fact, it was important that King was outside of the frameworks of power. Instead, he functioned more like a prophet for America than even a pastor. The goal of a prophet is to call out sin, to cause a nation to seek repentance and to name the idolatry at the heart of people to allow them to draw closer to God.


A history of sin

King served in this role, calling attention to the national sins of racism, segregation, police brutality, economic injustice and, above all, hatred. These sins were so pervasive in King's eyes that the very health of our nation was at risk. If the United States did not turn from their path of segregation and oppression, the land would suffer.

Much like Old Testament prophets, the calls for repentance and a renewing of the faith of a nation often accompanied sustained troubles within the heart of a nation. The United States has suffered with the sin of slavery and its twin of segregation and discrimination for the entirety of our history. In fact, Jim Wallis goes so far as to call racism the original sin of the U.S.

From the earliest colonial days, labor provided by indentured servants and slaves formed the bulk of the work done in the colonies and, following independence, the United States. At some points, unfree laborers made up as much as 75 percent of the population. These numbers brought many new Americans into our growing nation, but the scourge of racism grew alongside the population.

As indentured servitude declined, African slavery increased. Slavery and the concept of race itself developed out of the process of separating indentured servants, who were unfree for a time, from slaves, who were defined as property for life. During the height of America’s slavery, slaveholders used Christianity as a weapon to further subjugate slaves by claiming a biblical basis for their servitude as a punishment for supposed generational sin.

This use of the Bible to justify slavery did not keep slaves from developing their own relationship with God. Through the Scriptures, many slaves saw parallels between their own unjust servitude and the plight of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus into the Promised Land.

After emancipation of the slaves following the Civil War, segregation, sharecropping and the prison system, which allowed for slavery to continue under the 13th amendment, recreated much of the system of inequality that disproportionately affected African Americans. By the development of the modern Civil Rights Movement, African Americans had endured centuries of unequal treatment based on the color of their skin.


The church as moral compass

King stood outside of the halls of power, reminding the leaders of this nation of their responsibilities to all of the citizens of the nation regardless of their color or creed. King's understanding of God led him to call for the church to be the moral compass of the nation. In King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” he compares his work to the prophets “who carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns.”

For King, his work in the cities and towns of the U.S. reflected his commitment to end segregation and the evils of racism in this country. In his letter from the Birmingham jail he wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; … who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

This cry has continued through the decades following the large push of civil rights legislation in the 1960s through to today, as many people continue to question the patriotism of Colin Kaepernick and of people protesting for reforms in policing and meaningful efforts to combat police brutality and the disproportionate killing of unarmed African American citizens.

These issues are not divorced from King's calls for justice for the oppressed and his emphasis that Christians as a whole must engage with the cause of justice since their freedom was bought with a price as well. King’s calls for America to repent of the sins of slavery and segregation have often fallen on deaf ears for many. It is easy to say that my ancestors may have done some horrible things but I am more enlightened than that.

While it is true that we have seen some progress on race relations in this country, it is also evident that we must press on. The promised land of racial reconciliation is still in the distance. This effort to reach a place where all the children of God can be treated equally in this country requires a true repentance that acknowledges the sins of the past, the omissions of the present and the ways that the culture of America.

And yes, the culture of the church does not allow people of color to fully engage with the work of the church as brothers and sisters—co-heirs with Christ. It is only when we are able to repent of our sins of racism and segregation that we will be able to, in the words of America’s prophet Dr. King, “speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’”

Jessica D. Klanderud is assistant professor of history at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college in Hillsboro, Kan.



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