Yesterday, our country celebrated the important work of Martin Luther King Jr. My social media feeds were filled with inspirational quotes with trendy fonts and backgrounds. In many ways it was an appropriate response to a man who dedicated and lost his life pursuing equality and justice for all. Yet, as a few friends bravely reminded me, only remembering the words of Dr. King that are easy to affirm gives an inadequate picture of the man, his mission, and their implications for us today. We must also seek to understand the more controversial but equally important parts of his legacy, the parts devoted to some hard truths about injustice. Take these words from “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” directed to white pastors who had called on Dr. King to slow down and take a quieter, less public approach for the sake of “peace.”
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Many Americans would be slow to place these words on a coffee cup. The truth is that in 1964, 73% of Americans agreed that, “Negroes should stop their demonstrations now that they have made their point.” In 1966, two years before Dr. King’s assassination, a Gallup poll found that 63% of Americans didn’t approve of him or his methods. Billy Graham called on Dr. King to, “put the brakes on a little.” A week after he was killed, Senator Strom Thurmond told an audience that he was, “an outside agitator, bent on stirring people up.” It took 15 years of trying before the Senate passed a resolution to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday and even then it was shrouded in controversy.
As I tried to research and read Dr. King’s words in fullness and context, I was struck by how often we do the same to Jesus by sanitizing the more difficult parts of his message. Just as we’re quick to remember the encouraging parts of King’s“I Have a Dream Speech,” we’re prone to point to the things Jesus said that are easy to agree with. But what happens when Jesus says hard things? What happens when he says,
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up their cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24
Jesus doesn’t just offend our modern day sensibilities, though. His words were often hard for those closest to him from his family:
When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” Matthew 3:21
to his disciples:
When Jesus’ disciples heard this. Many of them said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Jesus was aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” John 6:60-61
As C.S. Lewis famously writes in Mere Christianity,
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
When we say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus were about love without drawing attention to the fact that they were also about justice and that justice is often a controversial, costly, and bloody business, we celebrate a false image of an American icon and worship the god we want, not the God who was and is and is to come. The truth is that both were radical men who said radical things. Things that were unpopular to the people around them, so unpopular they were imprisoned, beaten, maligned, and eventually assassinated. The truth isn’t always as convenient and pretty as we’d like it to be. If we use Dr. King’s words to silence those who are hurting because of systematic injustice, we’re undermining, not honoring his legacy. If we use Jesus’ words to silence the hard parts of His Gospel message, we’re failing to worship him for who He really is and harming the souls of the people He came to save.