MLK: He Taught Me to Dream

I grew up with a deep respect for persons, especially Christians, who refused to compromise their convictions even when standing firm cost them dearly. I remember sitting on the living room floor with my brother and sister while my mother read to us from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot’s moving account of the death of her husband, Jim, and four others at the hands of those to whom they were attempting to bring the message of the Gospel. On those occasions, as my parents led us in prayer for a variety of concerns, I silently prayed for courage to be faithful to my convictions, even, if need be, to the point of death.

Nobody from the modern era embodies the idea of the courage of convictions better than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. He was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. In recognition of his role in the effort to secureMartin Luther King civil rights and racial equality in this country, and to celebrate his life as an example of courageous leadership in the face of overwhelming opposition, the US Congress in 1983 designated the third Monday in January as Martin Luther King Day. That is today.

I came of age in the 1960s, a time of great cultural unrest and political turmoil in this country. I maintain that Americans under 50, who did not live through that era, cannot fully appreciate the emotional stress or the social consequences of that single decade which included the struggle for civil rights, three major political assassinations, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, along with the protests and general chaos spawned by each. It is ironic that one of the most influential figures to arise out of an era marked by such turbulence and violence was a man whose life was devoted to a nonviolent pursuit of justice and whose violent death is nevertheless a source of inspiration for millions who admire his courage and aspire to emulate the quality of his commitment to a worthy cause despite the risks.

Dr. King was not only a major leader in the civil rights movement, he was also an ordained Baptist minister. Many of his most noteworthy speeches were actually sermons preached from a pulpit as part of a service of worship. Rev. King insisted that the church should serve as the “conscience of the state,” raising a prophetic voice for justice and equality and against bigotry and discrimination.

I cannot overstate the influence of Dr. King on my own ministry. For a variety of reasons, both political and theological, at the time of his death and for years thereafter, I neither recognized nor appreciated the profound contributions made by Dr. King to the moral and social character of our nation. I do remember, however, the moment when that recognition dawned and my appreciation began to grow.

It was 1976. I was a senior at Houghton College, taking a course called Persuasion. One of my assignments in that course was to analyze Dr. King’s speech called “I Have A Dream,” I Have A Dream (2)which he delivered on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to 200,000 people participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The assignment was supposed to be an exercise in rhetorical criticism. For me, it was also an exercise in the development of a social conscience.

The seed that was planted in 1976 came to fruition in 2005 when, as a faculty member in a small, Mennonite Bible college, I was asked to teach a course called Peace, Justice, and Simplicity. As a result of the preparation required for teaching that course, I underwent a major overhaul of my thinking about the linkage between the evangelical message of salvation by grace through faith and the “liberal” issues of social and economic equality and justice. I concluded that the distinction between these emphases was unnecessary and constituted a false dichotomy. What emerged, for me, was a far more balanced and holistic notion of the gospel of the kingdom.

My generation is blessed to have lived during the time when Martin Luther King, Jr., came to prominence as an advocate for equality and justice. His example of commitment to a God-given dream, even at the risk of his own life, is a model of courage under stress. I am grateful to God for the impact of this man’s life on my own. He showed me the value of single-minded devotion to a worthy cause. He reminded me that a truly noble idea is not only worth living for, it’s also worth dying for.  He helped me understand that the most effective leaders are bruised and scarred from the struggle. And he taught me to dream.

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