Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017 > Prayer and Worship: Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

JANUARY 18–25, 2017

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Homily Notes
By the Reverend Dr. Gary V. Simpson

2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

For the love of Christ compels us.
          The Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians 5:14a

I am many things to many people, but in the quiet recesses of my heart I am fundamentally a Baptist preacher.  This is my being and my heritage for I am the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great grandson of a Baptist preacher.
  — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965

            To reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. in the context of our theme, is to reflect upon his essential struggles with his identity as a leader among the followers of Christ; and, his hopes for and disappointments with the church, its clergy and congregations.

There is perhaps no more poignant and direct challenge to church leaders than his response to white pastors in Alabama who were calling for slow and minimal change.   King’s response formed what we now know to be “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in April 1963.   This letter is perhaps the seminal representation of King’s understanding of the challenges of reconciliation within the faith community.  A careful and continuous reading of this missive is a necessity for all who are serious about examining his life and work from the perspective of his identity as a person of faith.

            Reconciliation is a hard concept to understand and to live into.  The first and central point of our text is that Reconciliation is of God.  The trouble with contemporary conversations about reconciliation is that we somehow innately believe reconciliation is a human enterprise.  We believe we can accomplish this reconciliation in and of ourselves.  We think that nations, peoples, races and communities can of themselves bring about reconciliation in and of themselves.  According to Paul, God has already accomplished this reconciliation in Christ. 

            In the terms of divine reconciliation, according the words of Paul, God gave up something to achieve this holy reconciliation.   God gave Jesus Christ to us.  As result, humanity gains something that it did not and could not have of its own strength, redemption.

            If we concede that reconciliation is God’s work and not ours, we often surrender our culpability and responsibility for bringing it to fruition.  After all, if reconciliation is of God, then maybe we needn’t do anything to realize it in the human community.    As God’s work of reconciliation through Christ has already happened,  it creates and necessitates an urgency among Christ’s followers as the ambassadors of this reconciliation.  There is only one human response to God’s action and that is to bear witness to that eternal truth.  In our identity as “compelled ambassadors,” we are to respond to this work with urgency.  This becomes our immediate agenda for right now.

            This reconciliation is not to happen at some more appropriate time.  God has already reconciled us.  Some take great comfort in the words declaring “At least we are not where we once were.”  Because the orientation of the reconciled is the realized future, there is no consolation in minimalist incremental change.  The work as ambassadors is always a work in progress.   “We are not there yet” is the sobering reminder that our work as ambassadors is not fulfilled.

            This urgent witness shapes our vision and mission for the future. As the 2 Corinthians text asserts, the idea of reconciliation, is by definition, future oriented.   It is our working toward the vision and identity God has claimed for us through the reconciliation in Christ. 

            Martin Luther King, Jr. identifies three aspects of reconciliation that are essential to our theme:

We are compelled to engage and confront the sources of our disharmony and brokenness.

            In a culture of the unrealized reconciliation, brokenness is manifest in systemic (think pervasive ideological thought and social practices) and systematic ways (think structural and organized entities and their policies.  Granted this sounds rather imposed and daunting.  That is the reason why the naming of these powers is the work of the ambassadors of this reconciliation.  There is something inherently wrong with continuing in an unreconciled status quo. If society remains the same as it always was, it denies the power of God’s reconciliation to make all things new.

            Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in the future orientation of this reconciliation, we can be never satisfied with things as they are, but work to bring them to where they ought to be because of God’s work.  Engaging and confronting the sources of disharmony helps us to rise above the pettiness of personal attacks.  These sources are to be defeated not individuals.  Individuals can be changed.

We are compelled to live in transformative reflection-action

            As we seek to transform human condition and relationships, we are pulled to another salient truth.  In 2 Cor. 5:11 Paul acknowledged that that whole argument is an appeal to the conscience of his listeners (readers).  The work of reconciliation is an appeal to human conscience.  What happens when humanity does not act with conscience?  Apathy is precisely the place where marginalization, stratification, violation and abuse occur and are permitted to continue.  We are complicit in these failures and fractures when we do nothing but pray and wait for God.   Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged and confronted the spiritual and ecclesial “moderate”, The one who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection
  — Martin Luther King, Jr.  Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1965

            To change the world, we must be willing to change ourselves.

We are compelled to empower the victims of our disunity to become full and equal partners.

The present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. 
  — Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” 16 April 1963

            Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of this reconciliation is the acknowledgement that to be reconciled requires an a priori shift in our engagement with each other.  As human beings, we cannot ever accomplish reconciliation until we accept human equality.  We cannot be reconciled with each other before God if we are in any way stratified.  For the marginalized, protracted, systemic stratification is both soul and social trauma.  No doubt, some southern Blacks were scarred and shaped by the systems of degradation that characterized the Jim Crow South.  In their view, “go along to get along” or better yet, “go along to live another day” was a necessary survival strategy.   A major and significant part of the Civil Rights Movement was about recognizing the dignity and worth of every human being.

            As we seek to be the ambassadors of God’s reconciliation today, we must understand the skepticism  and suspicion of the marginalized and disenfranchised.   Repeated, historic empty and inadequate gestures of reconciliation  are often cloaks for assimilation into the mores are ethos of the ones who have the marginalized to the margins.  “Be like us and we’ll all have peace.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. acknowledged that there are moments in our human interaction where “peace” is a euphemism for the absence of tension.  He criticized both Blacks and whites in the South who confused “law and order” (the façade of peace) with true peace that was grounded in justice and human dignity.  King understood that the work of reconciliation was not clean, pristine work.  To pursue peace that was grounded in justice meant to face the tension that surrounded it. 

            As embodied by King himself, authentic, deep and transformative commitment to reconciliation is not only a life-consuming mission, it is also life-threatening.  That notwithstanding, we give thanks be to God that Dr. King was committed as Ambassador to the life giving struggle of the new creation. 

Harder yet may be the fight;
right may often yield to might;
wickedness a while may reign;
Satan's cause may seem to gain.
There is a God that rules above,
with hand of power and heart of love;
if I am right, he'll fight my battle,
I shall have peace someday.   
  — Charles Albert Tindley, ca. 1906

Gary V. Simpson is Senior Pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn, New York and Associate Professor of Homiletics at Drew University Theological School, Madison, NJ.