On the third Monday of January, people all around the country typically gather to perform acts of service in celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Often these celebrations, while beneficial, emphasize King's socio-political contributions to the exclusion of his ministerial identity.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was named after Martin Luther, and Luther's grace-filled theology formed a cornerstone of his work. An aspect of this work that often gets lost is his emphasis on the prophetic dimensions of his call. In his open letter "The Negro Is Your Brother," he notes:
"Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their 'thus saith the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home."
King's work was also infused with a profound emphasis on the coming kingdom of God—how it is growing ever closer, and how we are called, as the body of Christ, to enact that kingdom whenever possible. What is often referred to as King's "Mountaintop Speech" is actually a sermon he preached at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN, his last sermon before his death. In it, he predicts that he is likely to die soon and comforts the crowd, remarking:
"I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
For Reverend King, combating racism was thoroughly a theological imperative. So, as we plan for a socially distanced day of remembrance this year, in which many typical service opportunities may not be available, I encourage you to engage your families and congregations in pondering how Reverend King's emphasis on prophetic justice as an enacting of God's holy kingdom might influence their own faith. As a minister who was imprisoned 29 times, how might Dr. King's ministry influence us to work on behalf of those who are imprisoned today? As a faith leader who developed the Poor People's Campaign and led it in presenting an extensive list of demands to Congress and then spending six weeks occupying the Washington Mall, how might King's powerful witness influence us in taking bold prophetic action grounded in radical community organizing? Whatever your plans, I encourage you to move beyond remembering just King's role as a socio-political figure and celebrating the faith that led him to proclaim, "Free at last, free at last—thank God almighty I'm free at last!"