Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Schools, universities and government institutions across the country are closed for a day to consider the monumental impact of one man’s life that was part of an entire movement that helped to move humanity forward toward a more just society.*
But if you work for a (white) church** today, you’re probably at work. And this morning I have to ask, “Why?”
Don’t get me wrong…I know that taking a day off doesn’t necessarily correspond to actually honoring someone. There’s probably many people who are off today who won’t really take much time to consider the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or his life. But even if the church didn’t take today off, why didn’t most (white) church even mention Dr. King in their services yesterday? Many of our churches acknowledge Veteran’s Day or the 4th of July. We do special services for Mothers Day and Fathers Day. But Dr. King’s legacy is conspicuously absent from our church calendars.
Reverend King was one of our own. He was a Christian man who tried to connect his faith with his life in real, tangible ways and in the process ended up altering the course of an entire country along the way. He modeled what it looks like to radically “love your neighbor” and lead the way in a non-violent, Christ-like movement that righted injustices in a our country.
Why does this bother me? It seems to me that Protestantism has generally failed at finding role models to help us aspire to Christ-like living for a variety of reasons.
I know some are afraid to honor Dr. King because he struggled with some areas of morality. My question to that fear is whether or not we’ve read our Bibles recently. Do we aspire to the example set by people like Noah, Abraham, David, Peter, or Mary Magdalene? Because these people had gigantic character flaws. For me, that’s part of the beauty of their stories, actually. When I look in the mirror, I see someone who has huge character flaws, too, but the stories of these Bible heroes and the stories modern day heroes, such as Dr. King, remind me that God can work through me despite my flaws. That he is strong in my weakness and is not limited by my limitations.
Some are afraid to honor people like Dr. King because we ought to be aware of making an idol out of anyone, but should follow only Christ. However, even Paul said “follow my example as I follow Christ.”*** Now, I’m not suggesting that we should idolize anyone. I agree that Christ is our ultimate example. But I also think others can aid us in following Christ, that their example can help us to grasp more fully the example of Christ. I’m not in any way suggesting substitution. But most of us acknowledge the worth of mentors, of accountability groups, and of the worth of others’ influence on our lives. So why not consider people like Dr. King and what they have to say to us as we walk with him toward Christ’s Kingdom?
So today I hope that you’ll take some time (even if you can’t have the whole day off) to think about who Dr. King was, about the way that he lived his life, and consider what inspiration it might be to you as you live your life. Here’s some resources to help with that:
- Harvard Sitkoff’s book “Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop“, is a readable, fair treatment of Dr. King’s life that is both inspirational and realistic.
*I’m not suggesting here that Dr. King managed to accomplish this on his own or in a vacuum. I readily acknowledge there were many heroes in the civil rights movement. I’m also not suggesting that the work of racial equality is done. There is still so much to do.
**I mostly interact with white Protestantism, so my thoughts here are directed toward that slice of the church. This may actually point to some of the work that is left to do…that there is “white” church and “black” church (though we don’t tend to speak so bluntly about our gatherings). Many have observed that Sunday morning is one of the most racially divided times in America. Anyway, as a “white” male, I’m speaking to my slice of the church in this post.
***I Corinthians 11:1