Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Great Cloud of Witnesses

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Great Cloud of Witnesses January 15, 2018

Every time I come to work at Bethel University, I pass a display that includes two quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not surprisingly, the first is a familiar phrase from King’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech.” Just as predictably, the second does not come from King the opponent of the war in Vietnam, King the supporter of labor unions, or King the advocate of reparations to African Americans. In that sense, the Bethel display illustrates Ed Gilbreath’s point that King is “known more today as a poetic patron saint of racial harmony than a provocative prophet of social justice, someone who by the end of his life had managed to get on just about everyone’s last nerve” (Birmingham Revolution, p. 93 — Miles Mullin blogged here about Gilbreath’s book not long after it came out).

But the second quotation on the Bethel display reveals another lesser-known side of the man whose birthday we observe today: King the supporter of liberal arts education. It reads: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of education.” Writing in the campus newspaper for Morehouse College as a young student in 1947, King continued, “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

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Martin Luther King, Jr. majored in sociology at Morehouse and studied systematic theology at Boston University, but if his “broad education” didn’t include all that many history courses, it at least prepared and motivated him to read widely about the past. This J-term, 45 Bethel students started a history of Christianity course with me by reading King’s most famous reflection on the history of Christianity: his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

One of our goals in the course — a foundation of our general education curriculum — is to expand for each student the great “cloud of witnesses” that scripture says surrounds and encourages us in our race towards Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” But also to prepare each student to enter someone else’s cloud.

(Remember: education produces “intelligence, plus character” through knowledge plus experience, concentration plus objectives… contemplation plus action. “ It is not enough to know truth,” the young King wrote in an earlier version of his 1947 editorial, “ but we must love truth and sacrifice for it.”)

In his 1963 letter, we meet a man whose understanding of love, truth, justice, and sacrifice has been shaped by his study of the past.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “great epistle to the church” in the solitude of a jail cell, a great cloud of witnesses urged him on: philosophers like Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Buber; political leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln; and prophets like Amos, Paul, and Martin Luther.

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But King’s most powerful appeal to the past doesn’t include a single famous name:

There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians  rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man.  Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Among others, perhaps King had in mind the young women whose martyrdom account our students read two days after his letter: Perpetua and Felicitas, who derived their power from disturbing the “peace” maintained by their emperor, Perpetua’s father (and Felicitas’ master), and the other “people in power” in 3rd century North Africa. (I wrote more about them in an earlier post on this same course.)

Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
11th c. painting of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her friends – Wikimedia/public domain

“If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit” of such early Christians, King warned, “it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” Nor for the twenty-first century.

So celebrate this holiday by participating in one of its customary projects of community service. But also leave some time to study the past: to learn more about King, another civil rights leader, or some other member of the great cloud of witnesses.

(Or do both. Today the Minnesota History Center not only has King’s death covered as part of its 1968 exhibit, but visitors can pack cold weather kits for Catholic Charities to distribute.)

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