January 15, 2018
On Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, and Today
One of the things that intrigues me about the Christian stories of Jesus is that he knew he was going to die young—that his work wouldn’t be completed without his being killed by society. And I’m talking about the historical characterization, not suggesting that he had actual inside information from an omniscient being. I am not a preacher of the gospel, so I leave the Christ part up to each individual to contemplate or ignore. But I do have a sense that there was a man roaming the earth who had an inner drive to set some important concepts in motion that would have wide-reaching consequences long after his death. And those concepts can be simplified with the phrase “be loving in all things.” He performed his mission and, as a young man in his 30s, was killed for it.
Martin Luther King Jr. moved through the world with that same inner drive and with that same message. He also knew that he would be killed, and that his killer would represent a large segment of society. Am I saying he was “Christ-like”? No. I’m saying his journey bears a strong resemblance to the journey ascribed to Jesus.
According to the story, Jesus was directly killed by the State—a State that believed in capital punishment and sentenced him to just such a punishment. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been killed by the State just a few years earlier in history; as it was, his death sentence was not officially sanctioned by the State. But it was a death sentence just the same. Capital punishment by proxy.
Both of these men—men who preached that love is the answer, period—were killed because they inspired fear in the world around them, especially in the State. The murderers were afraid that the messengers of love would be followed, afraid that the message of love would contradict the ability of the State to govern as it saw fit. So Jesus and MLK were killed. In the aftermath, the killers and their progeny have often attempted to appropriate the messages of Jesus and MLK for their own agendas—sometimes with horrific results. But in stillness love reveals the truth.
Our present U.S. government is the most fearful of any government in our young history, and the appropriation of the messages of Jesus and MLK to affirm the fear is accordingly loud and desperate—yet vacant of the truth.
If you follow leaders who govern out of fear then you are also fearful. If you follow leaders who lead with hate borne of their fears, then you are embracing hate borne of your own fears. Our present government, as a unit, leads with hate borne of fear.
Fortunately love and courage work the same way. And hate never trumps love unless you let it.
Regardless of your religious attachment or your theological point of view, the biographical story of Jesus is one of love and courage. Is the story “true”? Doesn’t matter. The love and courage are true. I’ve observed and experienced it many times in my life. Martin Luther King Jr. is just a profoundly visible example of those traits. For that, I’m grateful.
My goal, a goal I’m a long way from achieving, is to move beyond this world and have people in my wake say, “he led with love and courage.” Some of us—myself included—say those words about Martin Luther King Jr. And I could add many names to the list of those for whom such words are a fitting epitaph.
In stillness love reveals the truth behind the words.
My friend and teacher Will D. Campbell, who led with love and courage, stands
at the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered earlier that same day.