By David Gushee
American life offers us very few heroes today. Certainly there are few people that everyone admires. Instead, our semi-heroes come in shades of red and blue, like the rest of our public life.
Martin Luther King Day seems especially meaningful to me this year. It’s not because, even now, every American admires the late civil rights leader. Perhaps this holiday strikes me as particularly significant because we have had such significant racial troubles this year.
But I think it’s also because, in this rare case, the longer I live, and the more I learn, the greater my esteem for this particular human being — this particular Christian — Baptist — minister. The enormity of his accomplishments and legacy only seems to grow in retrospect. I do deeply admire this man, as we mark what would be his 86th birthday, and I would like to offer seven reasons why I do.
I admire Dr. King’s decision to choose a hard rather than safe vocation and place of service. When he graduated from Boston University at 25 with his doctorate, he had an appealing and wide range of professional choices. The safe choice would have been to go north. The prestigious choice would have been to take an academic post or a major pulpit in a large city. Instead he went to Montgomery, Ala., directly into the belly of the beast. Soon enough he was drawn into leadership of the bus boycott, and the rest is history.
I admire Dr. King’s intellect and the practical uses to which he put it. Amidst the civil rights struggle he deployed every strand of the education he had received both at historically black Morehouse College and white liberal Crozer Seminary and Boston University — as well as the historic resources of the black church tradition. His intellectual breadth was perhaps demonstrated most amazingly when he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” without benefit of a library and while referencing much of western intellectual history. It was a tour de force.
I admire Dr. King’s fierce commitment to justice for his people and for all people. He operated from a genuinely biblical understanding of justice as lifting the yoke of oppression off the shoulders of the oppressed, setting the captives free, and elevating the dignity of those who have been humiliated. Biblical justice is justice from below, justice for those whose faces are ground into the dust — it is not “law and order justice,” or justice as the maintenance of an unjust status quo through the suppression of dissent by armed state authorities. King’s understanding of justice carried him forward not only in the fight for the liberation of his own people but other oppressed people around the world.
I admire Dr. King’s willingness to suffer for his cause. Especially in the context of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was suicidal for any black person to take on white racism as directly as he did. You could get yourself disappeared in large parts of our race-sick country for far less than what King and his movement were doing. But over time, deeply empowered by his faith, Dr. King learned to live with the abuse, threats and attacks that became a ubiquitous part of his life. I think it must have been divine protection that enabled him to survive as long as he did in a country where black lives certainly were not treated as if they mattered.
I admire Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence in action and attitude. At one level, the nonviolent civil disobedience in which he led his movement was a practical strategy — really the only strategy available for a people vastly outnumbered and outgunned. But of course for King, nonviolence was more fundamentally a matter of obedience to the way of Jesus — not just his teachings but also his life and death. Jesus prevailed through suffering love, not through force, and he prevailed by way of the Cross. King’s ministry was Cross-shaped, and his nonviolence was part of it.
I admire Dr. King’s approach to his people’s oppressors. He understood the nature of the culturally transmitted structural sin of racism. He obviously opposed and resisted the snarling white people who so mistreated him and his people, but he was able to see their hateful words and actions as, in a sense, detached from them as individuals and as expressing a kind of collective racist toxin. Dr. King understood that white people were more and better than the oppression they inflicted — and that in the end hatred curves in upon the haters in ways that may do more harm to them than anyone else. So his liberation movement was for white people too.
Finally, I admire Dr. King’s version of Christian faith, church and ministry. His was an activist church, following in the tradition of the prophets and Jesus, fighting for justice but doing so without violence, training Christians in the way of Jesus while also advancing public ethics and social change.
Events of the last year remind us of how much of Dr. King’s work remains unfinished. That racist toxin still can be found in our national bloodstream. It must be fought just as vigorously today as he fought it then. But this takes nothing away from the legacy of one of America’s greatest moral leaders.