Some pundits label Martin Luther King a modern day Moses. They witnessed in King a Moses like towering figure who confidently exclaimed he saw the promised land, and pled with Pharaoh (the nation) to let his people go. Whoever one chooses to analogize King with, he certainly fits the role of a traditional Old Testament style prophet. In addition, the very name Martin Luther sparks New Testament imagery. It reminds us of the 16th century Protestant reformer who boldly challenged the Pope to remain true to Biblical authority in matters of faith. Both prophets and reformers alike travel as companions down the same fateful road when calling aberrant cultures back to a higher purpose. They end up patiently enduring persecution and inevitably succumb to martyrdom. Such was the fate of Martin Luther King.
From a Birmingham jail King wrote his famous letter that later became a manifesto for oppressed people everywhere. Following this provocative event, King marched on Washington and delivered his eternally celebrated "I have a dream" speech. The Birmingham jail incident stamped the prophetic seal on King's character. Of particular note I find these words directed toward the church from the "jail letter" especially compelling and timeless:
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists. 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. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, 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. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Dr. King, I believe the American Church has failed to heed your prophetic warnings. She continues to willingly compromise the truth of Jesus Christ. We label its devil today, not social injustice, but materialism. And indeed a new prophet may very well enter the fray sounding the clarion call to move up on a higher plain. And, like the prophets before, he too will suffer his own martyrdom, only to be enshrined by subsequent generations.