April 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The CLC asked several Texas Baptists to write on aspects of Dr. King’s ministry and influence. This is the sixth article.
By Kathryn Freeman
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Dr. King had come to Memphis to join the city’s black sanitation workers in their fight for better working conditions and better pay after two of their co-workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.
Sanitation workers were working full-time and still forced to rely on government programs to feed their families. Dr. King joined these workers in their fight for economic justice and dignity, because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King gave his life to the fight against inequality out a deep reverence for the command found in Micah 6:8, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” He was a drum major for justice, galvanizing people of all ages and races to walk with him toward fulfilling the American promise of freedom and justice for all.
Dr. King’s dream was born out of his study of Scripture and his work as a pastor at Dexter Avenue and Ebenezer Baptist churches. He frequently echoed the call of Amos to “let justice roll down like a river;” the words of Jesus, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees. . . who have neglected the more important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness;” and of the Apostle Paul’s “Macedonian call.” Dr. King’s notion of justice and equality and the Christian response to it is profoundly biblical.
His clarion call for the church mirrored the words of Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Micah, and Amos, who refused to allow the Hebrews to hide behind empty religious ceremonies while oppressing the poor. For both King and the Old Testament prophets, being in covenant relationship with God had both horizontal and vertical requirements, they were to pursue right relationship with God, but also with others.
The American church has often focused on pursuing personal righteousness while ignoring the call to pursue justice. In Leviticus 19, when God speaks to Moses to instruct the assembled Israelites, God first calls them to holiness, but He also tells them not to glean the edges of their fields, thus leaving food for the poor gather. They are not to pervert justice or to show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the rich.
The concepts of personal holiness and communal justice have always been tied together in Scripture. In Isaiah 58, the Israelites ask why they fast and humble themselves before the Lord and yet have not heard from God. Isaiah answers that the kind of fasting the Lord has chosen is to loose the chains of injustice, to set the oppressed free, and to break every yoke.
In A Letter from A Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote to a group of clergymen who had condemned the Birmingham boycotts of segregation. He had “heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
To ignore the cries of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized and to answer their earnest cries with, “go in peace, keep warm and well fed,” is a form of Gnosticism. No such division of the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit are made in Scripture. Our covenant relationship with God through Jesus requires believers to address both the body and the things that would degrade the human spirit.
Sin has both personal and corporate consequences. In Joshua 7, Achan alone stole items that were to be devoted to God, but his sin had consequences beyond his own death, his family was killed, and the Israelites lost the first battle of Ai.
Individual racism affects personal relationships, but it also affects whole systems. From the criminal justice system, to housing policy, to public education there is no system in America that has been untouched by the effects of individual racism accumulated over time. According to a recent report in the Washington Post,
7.5 percent of African Americans were unemployed in 2017, compared with 6.7 percent in 1968 — still roughly twice the white unemployment rate.
The rate of homeownership, one of the most important ways for working and middle-class families to build wealth, has remained virtually unchanged for African Americans in the past 50 years. Black homeownership remains just over 40 percent, trailing 30 points behind the rate for whites, who have seen modest gains during that time.
The share of incarcerated African Americans has nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016 — one of the largest and most depressing developments in the past 50 years, especially for black men, researchers said. African Americans are 6.4 times as likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned, compared with 5.4 times as likely in 1968.
Just as sin has personal and corporate consequences, the pursuit of justice requires both personal and corporate action. Dr. King used the common Sunday school story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate this point. “On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. To pursue justice requires restructuring unjust structures, removing the vestiges of racism and creating something new and beautiful together that is free from racial bias and honors the dignity of all of God’s creation.
If this sounds like a tall task, it is, but Dr. King believed we could reach this promised land, where “the radiant stars of love and brotherhood . . . shine over our great nation.” Just like Dr. King, our generation may not reach this promised land, but we can do our part to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.