MLK’s Christian Call and Why It Matters

By Wendy Murray

Today is  Martin Luther King,.Day, which also marks the release of a new book highlighting King, his legacy and the Christian faith that animated it. Birmingham Revolution (IVP) by Edward Gilbreath, offers an intimate exploration of how King’s faith informed his vocation during the challenging issues of his time.

I worked with Ed for several years where we both served as editors at Christianity Today magazine. We cut our teeth together learning the important role of religious reporting and writing.

Ed recently took time to answer a few questions regarding his new book:

(This post originally appeared in EQPlog magazine)

Do we need another biography about MLK, Jr? How does your book stand out?

That’s the big question I had to ask myself before daring to add my contribution to the massive catalog of books on King and the civil rights movement. Obviously, I arrived at the conclusion that there was room for my book, but every moment of writing it was fraught with trepidation. I knew early on that I wouldn’t write a strict biography of King—it needed to be something a little different. I decided to use Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a way of looking at his whole life and ministry. I wanted to plainly connect King’s life and work to the church, since I believe it was the church and King’s Christian convictions that inspired and empowered the movement he would lead. And I contend that the events of Birmingham in the spring of 1963 represent the defining moment of King’s ministry, where he fully embraced his prophetic call.

What has been your personal “journey” with this figure, given that you are too young to have remembered his impact firsthand when he was still alive?

I was born in 1969, a year after Dr. King’s death. Many people from my generation and younger don’t always have a clear picture of who King was—his faith, his radicalism, his humanity. “I Have a Dream” is often the extent of our knowledge of him.

As I write in the book, I grew up hearing stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and reading about the mythologized version of the man. I went from viewing King as a sort of folk hero like John Henry or Santa Claus to seeing him as a flesh-and-blood man whose words and actions were prophetic. I think young people are understandably introduced to a gentle MLK who gave great speeches and wanted to bring people of all races and colors together. That’s a good King to know, but it cannot stop there. As an African American who spent a lot of time in predominantly white schools, churches and workplaces and witnessed the complications of race in our lives, over time I came to recognize just how radical King’s vision of a “beloved community” was. He was calling the nation to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality; he was calling the church to live up to the prophetic mission of the gospel; and he was calling all of humanity to recognize the image of God in one another. That’s a lot more radical than John Henry wielding a hammer or Santa jumping down a chimney.

The evangelical community—especially the white evangelical community—has had an uneasy relationship with Dr. King over the years. They’ve wrestled with embracing his vision of racial and social justice, and at times they’ve used questions about his more liberal theology as an excuse for dismissing him altogether. I wanted to show that King’s vision was actually more in tune with a complete understanding of the Christian gospel. That despite his failings as a human being, he was operating out of a God-inspired, Christian ethic of justice and reconciliation. Many evangelicals are just now catching up to what King was articulating 50 years ago in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’m hoping Birmingham Revolution can help folks see King in a new light. I wanted to shed light on other aspects of King and, above all, show today’s church that everything he did was driven by his Christian faith and values.

What has the process of the writing this book taught you that you did not already know, both generally and specifically? 

One of the most surprising things for me was the realization that Martin Luther King was both a man and an event. Civil rights pioneer and King contemporary Ella Baker famously observed that “it wasn’t Martin who made the movement; it was the movement that made Martin.” But based on my study of the history—and especially the events of Birmingham 1963—one could argue that during some of the civil rights movement’s most pivotal years, the movement became Martin Luther King. I’m not saying King was the primary person driving the movement but that the countless men, women and youth who comprised the movement were empowered by the public performance of MLK. And, at the same time, King’s message and work were enabled by those same men, women, and youth.

I’m a big superhero fan, so at times I was tempted to look at King’s work through that narrative lens. Take the Dark Knight movies, for instance. Bruce Wayne required the aid of Alfred, Lucius Fox, and Commissioner Gordon to pull off the “performance” of Batman. It took a village for Bruce Wayne to become the Caped Crusader. Similarly, to become a civil rights crusader, Martin Luther King needed the help of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference associates, generous benefactors from around the country, and numerous grassroots foot soldiers from churches and NAACP chapters across the South. I was especially taken by the influence and contribution of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the courageous Birmingham preacher who was the one to originally invite King and his team to the city to confront its pervasive segregation. He told them, “If you come to Birmingham, we will shake the country.” Rev. Shuttlesworth endured beatings, bombings, and unjust arrests long before King finally came to Birmingham, and it was his tireless work that paved the way for the ultimate success of King’s Birmingham campaign.

What message would Dr. King render us today in the current fractured and highly-charge cultural, political and religious climate? 

In Birmingham, Dr. King went to jail to help make the point that the pursuit of racial unity and justice is an essential part of the Christian mission. Today, in many ways, we’ve allowed our politics to divide us and define who we are as people of faith. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a call to grace, justice, empathy, and reconciliation. Today issues like immigration reform, healthcare, and gay rights are forcing us to figure out what it means to live out the call of Micah 6:8, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” We can’t presume to know what Dr. King would believe on this or that issue. What we do know about him is that he was a believer in the dignity and humanity of all men, women, and children. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote,

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

So whatever political opinions he might have held, at the root of his beliefs was this idea that all people are created in the image of God, and that to abuse, oppress, or mistreat some people ultimately affects all of us, and that we should take it personally.

In King’s day, even the people on his side were telling him to slow down and wait. He knew that was another way of denying true justice. Today, in regards to many issues, we may face the same dilemma as the American church of 1963: Do we wait or courageously seek to live out the truth of our faith today?


What would he say about Twitter?

As a man who loved the power of language and wordplay, King likely would enjoy the challenge of using 140 characters to share bursts of truth and hope. I’ve got to believe the man who wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “The time is always right to do the right thing” was a guy who would get a thrill out of the immediacy and wide reach of today’s social media.

How do you yourself respond to this reactionary and incendiary climate related to various media frenzies and accusations? Are they legitimate?

I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with the current media environment and the expectation placed upon all of us to constantly have something profound, witty, or inflammatory to say. So much of our public discourse today is driven by the need to counteract, discredit, or one-up our ideological opponents. Our words are too often reactionary and uncivil and I’m convinced that very little good can come of it. At the same time, I’m reminded that Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” perhaps his greatest written work, grew out of one of his most angry and agitated moments as he responded to the criticism of white clergymen who believed his presence in Birmingham would be counterproductive. King responded that there comes a time when the church has to “disturb the peace” and demand justice. Even then, in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and in all of his communication, King always sought to treat his detractors with respect and dignity. He never tried to dehumanize them. We’ve lost that sense of honor and empathy in our communication today.

~    ~    ~

 

Ed currently serves as executive director of communications for the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination in Chicago. He was formerly the editor of Today’s Christian and New Man magazines, and was the founding editor of Urban Ministries Inc.’s online magazine, UrbanFaith.com. He is the coauthor of the book Gospel Trailblazer: An African-American Preacher’s Historic Journey Across Racial Lines (Moody, 2003)—the autobiography of the late evangelist Howard Jones, the first black associate on Billy Graham’s crusade team.  Ed’s 2006 book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity (IVP), was a 2007 Merit Award winner in Christianity Today’s annual Book Awards.

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About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.