The black and white photo of Martin Luther King Jr. laying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, with several people pointing toward the direction of the gunshot that killed him, has always been seared in my mind.
My grandfather, James Hampton, first showed me the photo when I was about 9 years old. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, who pastored and planted churches in North Carolina and Virginia. My grandfather gave me context that extended my knowledge of a time period in which I have not lived. And the images from that time paint the picture that the Civil Rights era occurred in a remote distant past.
My grandfather spoke of Martin Luther King Jr. as a man who nonviolently raged against the “way things used to be” and led a movement with the hope of Christ to the “way things ought to be.” So, as we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., it is my hope that we have the hope of Christ championed in us the way things ought to be.
Dr. King was the “drum major of justice,” organizing and leading the effort against the backdrop of bigotry and racism. The celebration of his life, his dream, his legacy and the fruit of his sacrifice seems more poignant today than ever. This country (and the church) has come a long way since those wet-soaked streets stained with the blood of marchers. Deemed a hero today, this was in stark contrast to the general sentiment of his time.
Historically, Dr. King was attacked on all fronts from critics of his passive, nonviolent resistance to fellow clergymen who believed he was “stirring the pot.” He had his detractors, but he also had countless numbers of supporters — both white and black — who not only gave their lives for the cause of civil rights, but also suffered the trauma of living in a time where “separate but equal” was a standard of living enforced with the legislative muscle of the federal government.
As great as Martin Luther King Jr. was, his greatness was fueled by his surrender to the true architect of justice — Jesus.
As we reflect on Dr. King’s life and legacy today, consider the following portion of his sermon titled “Loving Your Enemies.”
“Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who seek to defeat you, those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point. This is a basic philosophy of all that we hear coming from the lips of our Master. Because Jesus wasn’t playing; because he was serious. We have the Christian and moral responsibility to seek to discover the meaning of these words, and to discover how we can live out this command, and why we should live by this command.”
As great as Martin Luther King Jr. was, his greatness was fueled by his surrender to the true architect of justice — Jesus. The hope that became the catalyst for change was rooted in his Christian faith. This is the beauty of what reconciles us all, first to God and then to each other.
The shame of the past is cleansed by the redemptive nature of the cross, but the residue of sin and its consequences remain until Christ’s return. So we celebrate Dr. King with the continued cry for justice and equality but with the realization that God has placed in us the hope of eternity that is expressed through His one and only Son, Jesus.