Our country pauses today to honor the memory and challenge of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We remember him as a prophet for civil rights who, throughout his public ministry, dared to bend the arc of history toward justice.
But it didn’t start out that way. As recounted in Parting the Waters: America During the King Years 1954-1963, (published in 1988) historian Taylor Branch outlines King’s educational history: undergraduate study at Morehouse College in Atlanta, seminary at Crozer Seminary in Philadelphia, and PhD received at Boston University. When he received his doctorate, all King wanted to do is stay in the North, read books and teach theology. To study God’s holiness as intently as he could.
King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Senior, challenged his namesake. He urged his son to get some pastoral experience before he sequestered himself in some northern ivory tower. King reluctantly agreed, and was soon called to be pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he told his father he would stay for a couple of years before returning to an academic life.
His arrival in Montgomery coincided with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which began when Rosa Parks refused to get up from her seat at the front of the bus. Soon after his arrival in Montgomery King was invited to a community meeting to discuss ongoing strategy for the boycott. King decided to attend, in part to support his parishioners, show solidarity with the larger community, and possibly to please his father.
He arrived late to the meeting. The organizers, seeing him come in, almost immediately come to the same inspiration: ‘he’s young, he’s new, he hasn’t made any enemies yet (some would add he is expendable), let’s make him chair.’
King accepts the invitation, not fully aware of what he was signing on for. His “yes” transformed his life’s trajectory, not to mention the arc of history and our perception of and engagement with America’s story.
When King assumed the chairmanship of the Montgomery Improvement Association, he joined together God’s holiness, which had been his spiritual and academic passion, with God’s justice. His leadership enabled him to align with the ancient prophets who maintained that God’s blessedness and belovedness need to be extended to everyone – in equal measure. As was the case with his spiritual ancestors, King noted – passionately, eloquently and continuously, what we as a human family have done: we have created categories and hierarchies of blessing. That some children of God warrant more blessing than others, and that other children of God are not as beloved. He pointed out that we have ritualized the hierarchy and prejudice in the verbal and mental images we use, and in the practices we follow.
Dr. King challenged the country to join with him in saying yes to God’s holiness and justice. And called out our collective temptation to keep them separated. That separation tends to fall across political lines. Conservatives tend to line up on the side of God’s holiness, forsaking God’s justice. And liberals tend to line up on the side of God’s justice, at the expense of God’s holiness. If you go out far enough on either end, you end up in the same place – arrogance. People who are passionate about justice at the expense of God’s holiness often become arrogant and self-involved, because justice becomes limited to what they say it is; it is not God’s at all. And people who are passionate about holiness at the expense of God’s justice often become arrogant and self-involved, because holiness is limited to what they say it is; it is not God’s at all.
Like so many prophets before him, Dr. King brought holiness and justice together.
He challenged us to do the same.