Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Resources

The Situation in Birmingham, AL in 1963

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January 17 and 18, 2021
4:00 PM on Facebook & YouTube

On Good Friday, April 12, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, AL after violating an anti-protest injunction and was kept in solitary confinement. During this time, Rev. Dr. King penned the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on the margins of the Birmingham News, in reaction to a statement published in the same newspaper by eight white clergymen condemning the protests. 

Rev. Dr. King’s prophetic call to action to the Church and fellow clergy is grievously and regrettably relevant over 50 years later. As we honor Rev. Dr. King’s dedication to reforming the Church and American culture, you are invited to listen to the African-American voices of rostered leaders of the ELCA, once again asserting a call for action to the Church by reading the very words written by Rev. King. 

The Metro D.C. Synod has partnered with the African Descent Lutheran Association to present this prophetic call to the Church on Sunday, January 17 at 4:00 PM and will be replayed on Monday, January 18 at 4:00 PM. You are invited to watch below, or on the Metro D.C. Synod’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

From the ELCA website

Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Christian Life

 

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most celebrated and honored African American in the latter half of the 20th century. Streets named after him and scholarships bearing his name have immortalized the contributions of this Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning, American Christian minister. Moreover, a national holiday was established to celebrate King's birthday as a way of signaling his influence on American life. Many people around the world struggling for freedom have embraced King's understanding of nonviolent, direct action and his vision of the beloved community.

Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Christian Life by Richard J. Perry, Jr.

[2] Since King's death there have been innumerable analyses of his legacy. Some of these analyses are grounded in biblical imagery such as "dreamer" or "prophet." Still other analyses have emerged from King's academic training as a systematic theologian. These analyses present to us a highly educated, complex and skilled Christian minister who followed the African American tradition of trained pastors. King was a dreamer, a prophet, a systematic theologian, and a Christian minister. However, all of these have their beginnings in his early development as a Christian.

[3] The main contention of this essay is that what King has to say about the Christian life is located in his description of his religious development. Moreover, elements necessary for a complete Christian life are described in a sermon King preached on numerous occasions, "The Dimensions of a Complete Life."1 The contents of these two original documents constitute what I believe King has to say about the Christian life today.

Environmental Influences
[4] Early in King's seminary career, he articulated the importance of environmental influences on the development of a person's life. Writing in "An Autobiography of Religious Development," King says, "It is impossible to get at the roots of one's religious attitudes without taking in account the psychological and historical factors that play upon the individual."2 King goes on to identify his context; home, community, church, and several incidents of racism. In various ways these factors shaped how King understood what it meant to be a loving person and a Christian.

[5] King was born in 1929 on the cusp of the Great Depression. Although King grew up in that era, he did not experience poverty. His parents made sure that he and his siblings had all of the necessities they needed in life. King attributed this to a father who put his family first and who knew "the art of saving and budgeting. He never wastes his money at the expense of his family. He has always had sense enough not to live beyond his means. So for this reason, he has been able to provide us with the basic necessities of life with little strain."3 While King was born into essentially a middle class family, he was aware of poverty and its devastating effect on members of the African American community.

[6] King's autobiography reveals the importance of his family and his development as a Christian. The King family was an intimate family that also included his mother's mother. "I was born in a very congenial home situation," King remembered, and the relationship between his mother and father was such that "I can hardly remember a time that they argued… or had any great fallout."4 Moreover, King grew to love his maternal grandmother who lived in the family home and shared stories with him and his siblings.5 It is no wonder that love would later become a normative ethical principle in King's public ministry and vision of the Beloved Community.

[7] King was born into a family that was steeped in the black religious tradition of the South. King's heritage included ministers who served as pastors of the influential Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. They were part of the African American religious stream that emphasized both the priestly and prophetic tasks of the Christian ministry and mission of the church. The church was the central institution that provided the moral values and leadership for the pursuit of justice for African American people. King was introduced to this type of understanding of religion.

[8] This type of religious heritage makes it exciting for one to grow up in the church. This was certainly true of King. "Religion has just been something that I grew up in," says King. Becoming a member of the church was inevitable. On the other hand, it was something he did to keep up with his sister. It was only a matter of time before he would join Ebenezer. As King says in his "Autobiography," "The church has always been a second home to me."6 The family and church were one to King. This was especially true in his discussion about experiencing "conversion," a process one experiences before joining the church. King explains that he never experienced a conversion per se; however, he does say, "Conversion for me has been the gradual intaking of the noble ideals set forth in my family and my environment, and I must admit that this intaking has been largly unconscious."7 In other words, the church and family were essentially one institution in shaping King's understanding of the Christian life. What was taught at home was similar to what was taught at church. Both nurtured King's faith and understanding of moral values and what it meant to be a Christian and how to live a Christian life. Now we move to King's public expression of what he understood to be dimensions of the Christian life.

Dimensions of the Christian Life
[9] King was very much in demand as a speaker and as a preacher throughout his public career as a Christian minister. One of the sermons that King preached regularly after he was ordained was titled "Dimensions of a Complete Life." Calling upon Revelation 21: 16: "The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal." King says that for life to be complete, it is necessary for it to have length, breadth, and height. Equating life to a triangle that is equal on all sides, he said that length is the individual, breadth is other persons, and height is humankind's reach for or grounding in God. The complete life for the Christian must include all three working together. Let us look at each of these dimensions briefly.

[10] Length. One of the basic drives of the human is pursuing his or her self-interest. Here individuals seek to discover what they want to do with their lives. King makes an interesting connection that may be of special interest to the readers of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. King says the individual discovers "what he is made for. After he discovers his calling he should set out to do it with all of the strength and power in his being." King goes on to say that one should do it as if God called the person to do it at this particular time in history.8 A critical contribution King would make about the Christian life is that each Christian should discover his or her vocation (vocatio). King's own discovery of his calling is instructive here. "My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something, on the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity."9 With the ELCA's emphasis on the "priesthood of all believers" and a person's calling to a specific roster in the ELCA, King's experience may be useful, especially among communities of color.

[11] Breadth. The second dimension is related to our service of God's people. The guiding principle here is that all of humanity is tied together. King said it this way, "We are all involved in a single process, that we are all somehow caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Therefore whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."10 The Christian life today would have to be concerned about those who are unable to get health care, those who are suffering from diseases, and the health disparities suffered by communities of color. The Good Samaritan story is the example for King of how the Christian is to serve humanity without concern for self. A meaningful life, according to King, includes this type of service. "Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that."11 Agape love becomes the operative principle because now the individual has gone beyond length or individual self-interest and is practicing breadth of life.

[12] Height. Once one has mastered the length and the breadth of life the complete life must connect with God, the height of life. I believe King would say that our era is no different than the era Christians faced in the 1950s. Materialism and new knowledge have become gods of our lives. They are where we have, in some instances, placed our faith. King would go on to say, "All of our new knowledge, all of our new developments, cannot diminish [God's] being one iota."12 This new knowledge would only reveal humankind's deep need to have God in his or her life. King's point, then, is that the height of life resides in humankind loving God with our whole being. Our faith must be in the God who is to bring joy to our hearts.

Conclusion
[13] What does the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have to say about the Christian life today? I have attempted to show that Dr. King would say, in the first instance, know one's self. That is, know the environmental factors that have shaped one's self because they are critical in understanding one's religious or faith development. Second, Dr. King would say that the Christian life is three-dimensional. It is length – pursuing one's calling (vocatio) as if God called one to do it at that particular time in history. It is breadth – being concerned about the other; that is service and recognizing that all of humanity is tied together. It is height – being grounded in God. Our life cannot be complete without loving God totally and having faith in God. The Christian life will be complete and in this sense will be fresh and dynamic and contribute to the transformation of society.

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is an Associate Professor at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

ELCA Social Statement

Race, Ethnicity and Culture

Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture expresses the ELCA’s calling to celebrate culture and ethnicity.  This calling commits the ELCA to confront racism, to engage in public leadership, witness and deliberation on these matters, and to advocate for justice and fairness for all people. The statement is grounded in the conviction that the church has been gathered together in the joyful freedom of the reign of God as announced by and embodied in Jesus. That reign has not come in its fullness, but the message of God's yes to the world breaks down all dividing walls as we live into that promise.

In daily life, cultural, ethnic and racial differences matter, but they can be seen and celebrated as what God intends them to be – blessings rather than means of oppression and discrimination. We are a church that belongs to Christ, where there is a place for everyone. Christ’s church is not ours to control, nor is it our job to sort, divide, categorize or exclude. This statement was adopted by the 1993 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sermon, "A Knock at Midnight"

The Poor People's Campaign

The project that Martin Luther King, Jr. was working on when he was assassinated in 1968, the Poor People's Campaign, is being continued by NC's own Rev. William J. Barber III. Click the link below to find out more.
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