Now it has been spoken
He would come again
But would we recognize
This king among men
There was a man in our time
His words shine bright like the sun
He tried to lift the masses
And was crucified by gun…
He is a picture of Jesus
In his arms so many prayers rest
With him we shall be forever blessed
Ben Harper, “Picture of Jesus”
By R. William Carroll
I’m writing this on the eve of the feast of Martin Luther King. He was assassinated forty years ago, on April 4, 1968. With the rest of the country, we celebrate his birthday in January, but there is something even more powerful about the day of his death. Saints are remembered then, because many of the first saints were martyrs. King was certainly a great martyr, a Christian witness who gave his life for his testimony to the Gospel. He was also a pastor, who died tending God’s flock. In response to the teaching and example of Jesus, King came to understand that oppression was not only bad for his people, but for all people. “Until all are free, none are free.” At the same time, he understood the dreadful asymmetry of position between the oppressed and the oppressor: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Every saint is a picture of Jesus, who shows us possibilities for our own life in Christ. Elizabeth Johnson, in her feminist interpretation of the communion of saints in Friends of God and Prophets, makes use of J. B. Metz’s notion of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus. As we remember “blessed Martin, pastor, prophet,” (LEVAS II, hymn 46) his memory is also dangerous. We remember King as “moral conscience of his nation,” “teacher of Christ-like non-violence,” “preacher of Christ’s love for neighbor,” and “champion of oppressed humanity.” (Ibid.) We dare not let our politicians tame his memory, as he becomes part of the pantheon of civil religion, invoked with ease by leaders who stand against nearly everything he stood for. As hypocrites do when we invoke God, we honor King with our lips but not with changed lives.
We need to remember how King marched with striking workers and tied the struggle for civil rights to the struggle for workers’ rights, in a society that is increasingly hostile to labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively, in which politicians from both major parties knowingly adopt policies that promote capital flight to the least worker-friendly regions of our nation and to the least worker-friendly countries in the world. (I write this from the heart of the rust belt, in the poorest county in Appalachian Ohio.)
We also need to remember King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and how he tied it to the oppression of poor people and people of color, in this country and abroad. Now, after five years of war in Iraq, more than 4,000 U.S. troops are dead, and, by one count, 700,000 or more Iraqi civilians. And for what? Has it made us safer? Has it brought democracy to the region? Or was it, as many of us suspected all along, a grab for oil, which is now at or near peak production? One can do a lot of things already with alternative forms of energy. It’s hard to fuel an F-14. The now bipartisan effort for “energy independence” (with different emphases from party to party, and regrettably including a resurgence of nuclear power and a push for so-called “clean” coal) indicates that even the powers that be know we need to do something—and soon.
Frequently, King pointed out that so many aspects of his thought were taken directly from Jesus, sometimes by way of Gandhi and the theology of the Social Gospel. So much of what he named the “beloved community” was akin to what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. Likewise, his emphasis on non-violence and love for enemies comes straight from the Sermon on the Mount. But, as obvious as it may be (for those with ears to hear) that King’s central teachings are rooted in the Gospel, it is equally obvious that the Church has not caught up with him, any more than we have caught up with our Lord.
We still live in a world that crucifies the prophets, and the Church itself is all too willing to forge alliances with the legions of death, instead of the power of love. The Good News for us this Easter season is that God’s love is real, and it is always, already with us, whether we accept it or not, whether we respond to it or not. God’s love is not even defeated by the cross, where the arms of Jesus open wide to embrace the whole world in all its ambiguity, violence, and sin. The risen Lord returns, not to condemn us, but to bless us, forgive us, and make us whole. His love will not leave us in our sins, nor will it simply accuse us in ways that make us unable to act. “I am with you always,” says Jesus. And, in him, so is Martin Luther King.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson and keeps Blog of the Good Shepherd. He is a novice in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.