The spiritual legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

The spiritual legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. January 20, 2013
MLK (Yoichi R. Okamoto, White House Press Office, Wikimedia Commons).

In the fall of 1956, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech and asked his audience to imagine that the Apostle Paul had penned an epistle to American Christians just as he had done nineteen hundred years before to believers in Rome, Galatia, and Colossae.

What would he say? Since the apostle usually wrote to encourage and convict, what faults might he seek to correct?

According to the imaginary letter that King presented, Paul took particular offense at disunity in the church, including racial division. “You have a white church and you have a Negro church,” he said. “How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ?” Such divisions are “against everything that the Christian religion stands for.”

One need only consult Paul’s real epistles—Romans, Galatians, and Colossians—to see what King is getting at. Consider this from Colossians: “[Y]ou have put off the old self with its practices and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

Basic Christian doctrine teaches that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. We are all living icons of Christ. While that image was defaced in the Fall and damaged by sin, it is still a fact of our nature, and in Christ this image is “being renewed,” as Paul said.

Communion with both God and our fellow man was sundered in the Fall. Fratricide followed our expulsion from the Garden, and every kind of hatred and division came with it. But as our nature is restored, our communion is reestablished with God as well as man. Ethnic distinctions need no longer divide because “Christ is all, and in all.”

Racism is “against everything that the Christian religion stands for,” as King said, because the Christian faith is about elevating man’s fallen nature and restoring divine and human communion. But racism refuses to see the image of God in another. “The segregator relegates the segregated to the status of a thing,” said King, “rather than elevate him to the status of a person.” The racist does not see Christ in all, only in himself, and it is a false Christ. As a result, the racist misses the grace and goodness that God gives because it manifests in people and communities he spurns.

Martin Luther King Jr. taught one basic fact: that we should esteem all of God’s children regardless of color, that we should honor God’s image wherever and in whomever we find it. As we uphold King’s memory today we should view his task as incomplete as long as we devalue, obscure, or ignore the image in others.

If we cannot see Christ in all, then we will not see Christ at all. King said as much in his close of Paul’s imaginary letter to American Christians: “As John says, ‘God is love.’ He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.”

Previously published, January 2011.

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  • “If we cannot see Christ in all, then we will not see Christ at all.” That’s very true. Learning to see Christ in all..that’s gonna be my meditation this week. Great post to Start a week….Thanks for writing!!

    • Glad to celebrate MLK’s legacy today. Thanks for reading.

  • I think just closing our business on this day in honor of his memory is a start. I am amazed at how many stay open. It may seem trivial, but people have to start by remembering.

    Great post.

    • I agree. If we don’t remember his work, we selfishly take the benefits of it without honoring the sacrifices that made it possible. And if we don’t honor his sacrifices, we risk losing all those benefits.

    • That’s an interesting response Mike. I work for an evangelical company and we are working today, likely without corporate regard. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of it any other way. Did you post on this today at your blog?

    • agreed. This is the first year our kids private Chrisitan school has closed to honor the day. last year we kept our kids home & sent a letter to the school explaining why we did so, in honor of the day. Glad to see things changing, slow but sure

  • This is a fabulous and sober reminder. Thank you. I hope all of our brothers and sisters will read this.

    • There are some other sobering things in King’s “Pauline” epistle. Well worth reading.

  • Joel. This isn’t just a good post, it’s a great one. What a fantastic view and perspective about racism.


    • Thanks, Kyle. It’s helpful to remember what’s at stake. Racial reconciliation has to go beyond fixing bad policies. It has to extend to our hearts.

  • Helena

    Thanks for posting this! It has taught me new things about MLK.

  • charlie reid

    Thanks. It is amazing how often Dr. King spoke directly to Christians, and yet we as Christians spend our time trying to find fault with his life.
    No wonder we question the church.
    Some things never change.

    • Every great man has failings and critics. We should not shrink from his sins. We should instead remember that God uses people in spite of their sins and that he raised up King at a time he was desperately needed.

      We should also not be embittered by his detractors. It’s no good for our hearts and doesn’t do them any good either.

  • Thank you for this wealth of insight! Your post, along with Michael Hyatt’s consolidated list of posts on his Google Buzz account, have really inspired me today. So much that I too had to post about it on my blog, and provide links back to these great posts.

    I grew up in the deep South, and, even though I am very proud of my cultural heritage, I am disappointed in my lack of understanding of Dr. King’s real message. Thank you all again.

  • Jason

    Two things:
    1. My employer is closed today in honor of MLK, but it’s not being treated as a paid holiday. Instead the work schedule has been shifted around it. Would that be considered an ingenuine regard for MLK? Of course it’s up to each employee how he/she spends the day, but it makes one wonder about the corporate attitude.

    2. I’ve heard that in the most northern, ice-infested parts of GA, where school was out of session for 5 days in a row, that today was made a school day in order to try to make up for the unscheduled magnitude of loss in the ice days. In response to that action MLK advocates are complaining. Now doesn’t that seem ironic…that MLK preached for equal civil rights, including access to education, yet those certain MLK advocates think that it’s wrong to have an active school day? Wouldn’t it be more of an honor to him to hold school, in this extreme context, and make that part of the day’s topical coursework?

    Just sayin’….

    • Re No. 2, it might be. My general attitude about tiffs like this is to avoid them. Not my school district nor my students. That said, if the school were to execute and communicate your solution, it might be a worthy thing to do, but it doesn’t sound as if they did.

  • GREAT POST!!!!

    I didn’t know Dr. King had used that example. Thanks for pointing that out. I believe another thing we can do (and I do) is trascend beyond color. We also ought to be united in social status and denomination.

    The division over denominations is insane. If I was Christ and my body was broken into several pieces (several denominations), I’d be in pain! This is how I can imagine Christ feeling. Any thoughts on this Joel? How could one further model unity in the church?

    • In King’s “Pauline” letter he also goes after denominational divisions. Christ clearly desired that we be one as he and God were one. Unfortunately we’ve had divisions of one sort or another since the beginning (or virtually so). That doesn’t mean that they cannot be lessened and diminished. True unity comes with humility and conciliarity. I think the best model for that is in the Early Church. In studying the doctrine and practice of the ancient Christian Church I think we find a model for unity today — but only if we pair it with humility.

  • One also wonders how Paul would view the various forms of “racial” theology (African American etc.)

    • Given Paul’s statements in the passages mentioned above, I think it’s safe to say that he opposes any sort of ethnic or racial theology. Ethnic divisions run counter to the Gospel.