Why MLK Day matters more than you think

January 17, 2022

A local Baptist association in Alabama once adopted a resolution that included these lines:

“Martin Luther King, by his advocacy of total integration of the races, is contributing to the breaking up of a friendly, helpful and peaceful relation that has existed for many years, between the white and negro races. This we believe is the Christian way for people to live.

“On the race question, we believe there are certain God given differences that make our traditional way of separation the best way for the two races to live.”

I wish I could tell you that this unanimously adopted resolution from a local Baptist association in Alabama during 1961 was unique. But it wasn’t. This group of Jesus-loving, gospel-proclaiming, believer-immersing white Southern Baptists was replicated in scores of similar letters, newspaper articles, and local church association resolutions. I’ve read countless letters from white Baptists all over the South who called Martin Luther King Jr. a communist, an agitator, rabble rouser, self-promoter, false teacher, and even “the Devil himself.”

That’s one reason why Martin Luther King Jr. Day matters. It’s a day that should force us as Americans — and especially as evangelical Christians — to pause and remember. We remember not only the victories of the civil rights movement, but we remember what it cost and why it was necessary. Nearly half a century after King’s murder, we have far too often forgotten our past. We’ve lost sight of the pervasive wickedness, injustice, and barbarity of a society guilty of racial hierarchy, dehumanization, and violence.

And here’s the scary thing. A lot of people in churches concluded things were just fine; that the status quo was not only reasonable, but biblically supported, and those who challenged that system were motivated by inherently anti-Christian motives. That haunts me.

Where did this day come from?

The whole history of this day is complex. For most Americans, the annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is now something of an assumed and accepted reality. However, its establishment was one that forced the United States to seriously consider the legacy not only of King, but of the civil rights movement itself. And that moment quickly became one of bitter debate and controversy. As historian David Chappell documents in his recent book, Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr., the effort to establish a national holiday to honor King was prolonged and deeply contentious.1David L. Chappell, Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Random House, 2014).

It’s now been over 30 years since President Ronald Reagan signed into law the legislation establishing the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It now feels familiar. Every year we hear the same snippets of speeches, read the same scripted platitudes from elected officials, and pause to consider King’s legacy. But the holiday is about much more than that. In fact, it’s about much more than Martin Luther King Jr. That’s because the movement King led, and the vision he held up for America, was one that demanded commitment and sacrifice from everyday people.

The day also forces us to remember that King was no saint. How a courageous hero for social justice and righteousness could find it seemingly impossible to refrain from adultery is not something to be easily glossed over with patronizing allusions to his “humanity.” Nor should we suggest that the well-documented evidence of his plagiarism as a graduate student at Boston University — whatever the reasons for it may have been — was anything less than a moral failure.

But here’s the thing. A day like this reminds us that God uses sinners like King to carry out his purposes. He did it with King, and he did it through countless Americans — often anonymous — who marched, organized, protested, and were even martyred for the sake of justice and freedom. Every one of them was a sinner. The ultimate hope of the civil rights movement was never in one man, or even in millions of men and women marching. For those that understood it rightly and fully, it was hope in a resurrected carpenter from Nazareth, the God-Man.

The Church and the beloved community

Half a century later, King’s vision of what he called the “beloved community” still calls out to us. It cannot be a vision rooted in the vapor of liberal Protestantism, one that has eviscerated the centrality of the bloody cross and empty tomb and thus undermined the exclusivity of Christ.  Richard Niehbuhr famously indicted this kind of false Christianity as summed up in the axiom, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”2H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1937), 193.

An evangelical vision for the beloved community will be marked by a gospel-framed vision of the Kingdom of Christ. And if the driving ethic of that kingdom is love, it will continue to press against the kingdoms of this world. It will transform our churches and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, serve to demonstrate to the world that we are indeed Christ’s disciples. Furthermore, the beloved community will not only confine itself within the walls of our local churches. It will, and must, spill over into our communities, our neighborhoods, and our cities.

However, evangelicals must be especially clear. The vision for this beloved community finds its locus in the local church and in the good news of Jesus Christ. If our own incarnational outposts of the Kingdom of Christ are still marked by strife, hostility, racism, and ethnocentrism, then we must repent, look to God for fresh mercies, and renew our commitment to pursue reconciliation by the power of the Spirit. We must also recognize that our failures within our churches have spilled out into our communities. If the church loses its prophetic witness and credibility, we should not be surprised that our cities and neighborhoods — even our nation — fall off course in building a culture that values those things that matter most.

What King understood, and what we must as well, is that reconciliation is central in this call. In the gospel, God calls sinners to be reconciled to himself through the saving work of his Son. And he also offers hope that we can be reconciled to one another. This call to reconciliation with one another is not an optional additive for some Christians. As civil rights hero and gospel preacher John Perkins has pointed out, it is central to the Christian life and is best understood as a matter of discipleship. Maybe today is as good a day as any to renew our commitment to that vision and confess that we still have a long way to go.3Charles Marsh & John M. Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

A call to the Church

As a national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day calls all Americans to pause and reflect on our national history. It should prompt good civil discourse that assesses where we’ve come from, where we need to go, and how we might get there as a society. This is an important part of the legacy of King and the black freedom movement — calling Americans of every color and creed to work together for the common good, to preserve and ensure that the promises made in our constitutional freedoms are protected for every one of our fellow citizens. It’s a call to make sure we live up to the standards and ideals we say are at the very heart of the American experiment.

But this day also calls Christians in particular to renew a gospel-centered vision for our life together. King spoke to our national conscience and organized for legal change in ways that transcended sect or creed, to be sure. But the heart of the civil rights movement was in its appeal to the church. Yes, King and the civil rights movement appealed to our national conscience to live up to the democratic promises of our Founders. But the animating ideas, songs, and vision of the movement were not most fundamentally in ideals of American democracy but in ancient and divinely revealed truths, in what God has said to be true. And that legacy still rings true for evangelicals in 2015.

Preaching in New York as the brutal Freedom Summer of 1964 was nearing its end, King articulated a call for this kind of witness. A true Baptist at heart, he understood the necessary connection between religious freedom and the church’s obligation to be faithful in its witness, even when the state would seek to suppress it.

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”4Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Knock at Midnight.” Sermon preached at Riverside Church (New York, NY) on August 9, 1964.

That call from King still rings loud and true. Evangelicals of all people are those that understand that this call to justice and reconciliation is no “social gospel.” As those identified by our own designation as “gospel people,” we are those that confess the centrality of the salvific act at Calvary, the necessity of a substitutionary bloody sacrifice offered up for sons and daughters of Adam, the vindication of the crucified King by his bodily resurrection and empty tomb, and the good news that by grace through faith any sinner can be declared righteous in Christ, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic class. That’s good news. That’s gospel truth. 

But we still urgently need to hear King’s call to recognize that our creed must manifest itself in deed. If we preach calling sinners to be reconciled to God, but perpetuate the dividing walls of hostility that Christ came to tear down (Eph. 2:14), we have likely not understood the gospel.

Today my family will say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for Martin Luther King Jr. I hope you will too. Even as we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we look toward a day when peace and justice will reign. That day is sure to come.

Photo Attribution:

William Lovelace / Stringer

Matthew J. Hall

Matthew J. Hall was appointed as provost and senior vice president for academic administration of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in April 2019. Previously, Hall served as dean of Boyce College in 2016 and senior vice president of academic strategy at Southern Seminary. Read More by this Author