Each year as mid-January rolls around, I begin to think about Martin Luther King Jr., his birthday and the gift that he was to this world. I wonder what this country would have been like without him. I wonder what my life would have been like without him. I wonder how I can best write about and honor this man, even though I am not African American, even though I can never fully understand the pain and agony that so many people have endured for centuries. Each year, as I begin to write, there is a moment—a flash—where I feel a fraud. How can a North American white woman—a child of the south in the 1960s and 1970’s—write about such a man?
In this past year, I have thought about Martin Luther King Jr. frequently as racism, along with so many other acts of injustice, appears to have gained acceptance in this country once again. Some would argue that racism has never really ceased but, somehow, it feels that the acts of racism, that so many worked so hard to abolish, have again emerged as frequent behavior, as if many in our country feel that it is a right to engage in such horrible thoughts and actions. Racism is not a right.
Today, as the moment occurs when I felt a fraud writing about Martin Luther King, Jr., my question suddenly became: “How can a North American white woman—a child of the south—who was raised to understand and believe that all people are equal, NOT write about such a man? I must add my voice to the cries for justice, so that all people can be safe and thrive, no matter how different we are on the outside. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, in the 1965 Commencement speech at Oberlin College, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
In July 2017, my son, Ethan, and I traveled in Germany to explore the historical sites of the German reformer Martin Luther. It was the 500th anniversary of a peculiar protest that led to the Protestant reformation. The peculiar protest was a list of 95 theses that were composed by Martin Luther, a young priest and theologian, to invite debate on some of the most common practices of the church—practices that he felt were not theologically sound and played upon the fear of the common people. The most significant practice was the practice of selling indulgences in order to guarantee a loved one would escape purgatory and enter heaven.
Before the trip, I discovered something that connected Martin Luther, the protestant reformation leader with Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, GA, on January 15, 1929, and was named after his father Michael Luther King and was known as M.L. or “Little Mike.” When young Mike King was five years old, his father, Rev. Michael King, embarked upon a months long study trip that included places important to scripture and church history. His travels took him to North Africa, the Holy Land, and Europe, finally ending in Germany where he toured the historic sites related to the life of Martin Luther the protestant reformer.
When he returned to Atlanta, Reverend King, Sr. was welcomed home with great celebration. There was a great reception, several prominent speakers and newspaper coverage. To mark the importance of the trip and to pay tribute to the great reformer, Reverend King changed his name from Michael to Martin Luther King. He changed his young son’s name as well to Martin Luther King, Jr.
That Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father would change their first name from Michael to Martin, in honor of the great reformer, fascinated me. I wondered about such an action all through that trip to Germany as I discovered Martin Luther in his home and in the places that he lived and worked. I imagined Martin Luther in the pulpits of the churches where he preached and wondered if his passion for the truth to be preached was similar to the passion that Martin Luther King, Jr. displayed in his preaching and speaking.
I wondered about the determination that gripped both Martins to bring those who held power to their knees in order for the truth to be expressed in both of their situations. Martin Luther was caught by a passion to reform the inconsistencies in the church that kept people at the mercy of an act of injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. was caught by a passion to reform the inconsistencies of the white churches and public policy that kept people at the mercy of acts of injustice.
Off and on, over the last year, I have pondered these two Martins. Is there a real connection that is important for me to think about? If these two Martins were able to sit down for a cup or two of coffee, what would they say to each other? What would they say to me? What would they have to say to the church or to our society?
Recently, I read a quote from one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s unpublished sermons in an article written by the late James H. Cone, and it has pointed me toward one answer for these questions. Perhaps, experience is one common thread that draws the two Martins together and draws them together with us all. In the article, titled, “Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” in the Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Cone sites King as saying, “Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician?’ He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often and the evil people prospering. Centuries later our slave foreparents came along and they too saw the injustices of life and had nothing to look forward to morning after morning, but the rawhide whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton and the sizzling heat, but they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And they could sing, ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’”
It was the experience of those slave foreparents who witnessed and lived the injustices that led them to proclaim their faith and God’s desire for justice by turning a question mark into an exclamation point. In the songs that came out of the slave experience, the call for justice is sung loudly and the desire of God’s heart is echoed in the notes. Experience can lead to the call and action for justice.
For Martin Luther, the experience of his era led him to the moment when he challenged the church to stop and think how their actions denied the people a clear understanding of God’s love and mercy. In the years leading up to that moment, people lived in fear. Poverty and illness claimed many lives too early. Death was a constant companion. There was a fear that death would arrive before confession could be made, so constantly, the fear of hell loomed before the people. Illiteracy made it difficult for the common people to understand the scriptures. Latin, the language of the church offered no consolation for the majority of the people since they could not understand it. Even Martin Luther, educated and accomplished, feared that every moment led him to unforgiven sin and hell.
The security for the people came falsely through the practice of buying indulgences. That is, for money, the church would issue a piece of paper to a person indicating that their loved one had received salvation and would enter heaven. Especially for those living a life of poverty, this practice was unloving and unmerciful.
These experiences pushed Luther to study the scriptures until he found what he was looking for in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans — “The righteous shall live by faith.” Assurance of God’s mercy and grace came through faith, not through the buying and selling of indulgences, and the scriptures proved this. These experiences pushed Martin Luther to protest and call for action, to improve the lives of the faithful in the face of unjust practices.
It was experience that helped to guide Martin Luther King, Jr. into his role as theologian, preacher, and leader in the movement that called for civil rights justice in a time of blatant racism. King’s experience led him to become a theologian of action, a preacher of God’s truth, calling for the transformation of the structures of oppression. It was the experience of the pain and sickness of racism that led him to plan, promote, and carry out such significant moments as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma March for voting rights, and others. It was the experience and needs of the people whose lives were a constant struggle that gave King the drive to work for and call for justice.
So, what about the rest of us? We all come out of our experiences. I come out of the experience of a white child that grew up in the South during the civil rights movement. I remember thinking that everyone had the same experience as I had—that everyone must have parents who loved them, siblings to play and argue with, piano lessons, grandparents with a farm that always produced good food and provided acres of land to explore. I remember the day I discovered that my experience was not the same as others’ experience, and I began to understand that my experience as a white child growing up in the south needed to include hearing and believing the experiences of my African American friends and classmates.
The reality, in twenty-first century North America, is that, for many of us, our experiences are not broad enough to provide a clear picture of how so many of our neighbors still struggle for justice and equality, and some don’t want them to be any broader. The reality is, that in our time and place, there is a resurgence of racism, poverty still claims the strength and energy of many families, and the right for all people to be equal is, sometimes, ignored. We have a difficult time welcoming all people. We have a difficult time admitting our fear. Injustice is still the companion for many and, unfortunately, there are those who simply don’t care.
In 1968, just before April 4th, the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I discovered a book that my father was reading. I was in the first grade and was learning to read, so I noticed everything that contained words. The book was Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, by Martin Luther King, Jr. I was fascinated by the title and asked my father about it. He knew that I couldn’t understand everything about the book because I was young and because my experience was so different from the African American community. It was before desegregation, and there was no integration in my school. But my father was wise enough to know that I was old enough to realize that not everyone’s experience was the same as mine and that situation was wrong. He hoped that I would grow into someone who would work for justice for all people.
So often, through the years, I have thought about the book that caught my attention that day and set me on a path to discover the stories of people whose experience is not the same as mine, but who, like me are children of God. I may not understand all that Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, experienced and continue to experience, but I know that Jesus Christ, whom I follow, called us to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, console the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked and know that in the face of each person, is the face of Christ.
In the last chapter of Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Maybe, it is the experience of every generation to discover and work toward justice. Maybe, it is the task of all of us to listen to the experience of others and to boldly respond with a call for justice, even if we don’t quite understand. This year, as I observe the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am still hearing the call of Jesus to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, console the sick, work for freedom for those in bondage, and work for equality and acceptance for all people because it is the desire of God’s heart. I pray that you are hearing that call, too.