On Monday, we celebrate the national holiday of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 91st birthday. Stop! Consider that fact. No other such federally recognized national holiday exists for any individual U.S. citizen. Even President George Washington now shares his birthday holiday with President Lincoln. It is the only federal holiday that celebrates so vividly, not only Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and dream, but also the dream and challenge of many cultures, languages, races, and peoples still becoming “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.”
In this time of national political turmoil, in the midst of a life and death pandemic, when violent white insurrection struck at the heart of the U.S. Capitol, the MLK, Jr. national holy-day stands as a beacon of memory and hope. It symbolizes the proper means to the political ends we all long for. It invites us to fight the good fight for all that is noble, true, loving and just, no matter what.
In his autobiography, Dr. King tells the story of when he was 14 years old. He had just received an award at an oratorical contest in Dublin, Georgia for a speech he gave entitled, “The Negro and the Constitution.” He and his teacher, Mrs. Bradley, boarded a bus to return to Atlanta. Along the way, some white passengers got on the bus and the bus driver ordered him and Mrs. Bradley to give up their seats. They didn’t move fast enough for the driver, who vulgarly cursed them. Martin writes, “We stood up in the aisle for ninety miles all the way to Atlanta. That night will never leave my memory. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
Young Martin began to despair. It was a turning point for him. He wondered whether the power of love, which he knew so intimately and so personally from his extended family and church, could ever truly solve the racist social system in which he found himself. He began to imagine, like so many other times before and since, that the only way to solve the problem of racism, segregation, and evil was armed revolt. This nagging thought kept recurring in his mind spurred on by others around him. It seemed violence was the only language white folks would understand. “How could I ever love a race of people who hated me so?” he asked.
One can almost hear in these words of despair, the words of the Zealots and other oppressed peoples of Jesus’ day. They, too, argued that the Roman empire’s own racial and ethnic oppression was entrenched and deeply systemic. They rightly asked of Jesus, “How can you ever ask us to love a nation of people who hate us so?” Violent revolution seemed to be the only just response. Rev. King noted that it was in just those darkest days of his life that he heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Fight on, Martin. Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world…but, Martin, fight with the weapon of love because love overcomes all evil.” Martin recounted his own response to this divine voice, “I tell you the truth. I’ve seen lightning flash. I’ve heard thunder roar. I’ve felt sin breakers trying to conquer my soul. But, that day, I heard the voice of Jesus saying, ‘Fight on with love!’ At that moment, I experienced the presence of God as I had never experienced before. Almost at once, my fears began to go. I was ready to face anything.” And, face anything, he did.
Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered that the love he knew personally and intimately was also a fierce and determined love (what Gandhi called Satyagraha or “love force”). God’s love was a force so fierce and dogged that it was greater than any love shared just between individuals. It was a powerful and resistant love, a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. “Such love,” he writes, “was the only morally and practically sound weapon open to subjugated people.”
In this season of political tumult, a deadly pandemic, and the threat of violent insurrection by white vigilantes, Berkeley School of Theology honors the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. by insisting that our teaching and learning remains embedded in the fierce love of Christ. For us that means, one hand up in resistance saying “Stop!" to all injustice. The other hand is extended saying “Welcome!” to the beloved community. We honor this day when our conscience compels us to do what is right and just and loving, whether it is safe or not, politicly popular or not, or immediately effective or not. Such fierce love can work miracles, like help elect a black U.S. Senator from Georgia, in his first ever run-for-office, from the very church where MLK, Jr. first learned that “love never fails.” May the words of Jesus spoken to a young Martin Luther King, Jr. resound in our hearts once again on this national holiday and every day: “Fight on. Fight on with the ultimate weapon of love. Never give up. I will never leave or forsake you, no matter what.” Love wins!