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Remembering the Real Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Remembering the Real Martin Luther King:                Forgive us, Lord

J. ALFRED SMITH | JANUARY 12, 2022

Schools and streets have been named after Martin Luther King Jr. Churches and libraries are named after him. He is the only African American and the only American clergy honored with a national holiday. In many countries around the world, he is numbered with global heroes like Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

Some discredited him by calling him a communist, a detractor and troublemaker. Sophisticated ideological historians are deconstructing his history in order to distort the powerful truth of his ministry. Those who pass laws against teaching Critical Race Theory are making sure that present and coming generations will not learn as Professor Cornel West said, that King’s universal religious commitments led him to internationalize the American ideals of democracy, freedom and equality.

Those who misrepresent King and Critical Race Theory are illogical, and they only reveal their fear of him. There is no need to fear this American Black preacher who preached nonviolence and love. King was a peaceful warrior who was radically obedient to Jesus, who taught us to love even our enemies.

“There is no need to fear this American Black preacher who preached non-violence and love.”

Forgive us, Lord, for our ignorance.

Forgive us, Lord, for reducing Martin Luther King to being only a civil rights leader. Forgive us, Lord, for our ignorance. All many people know about him is that he had a dream. He was more than a dreamer. Forgive us for ignoring your calling of Martin Luther King as a minister with good news for a bad news world.

Striking members of Memphis Local 1733 hold signs whose slogan symbolized the sanitation workers’ 1968 campaign. (Via Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University)

In keeping with Luke 4:18-19, King — like Jesus — had a deep commitment to the poor, pushed down, left out, disrespected Black sanitation workers of Memphis. He addressed, to the displeasure of the white power structure, the basic constitutionally guaranteed rights of the Black population — equitable education, decent housing, jobs that paid living wages, and equal justice in the courts. The sanitation workers had lost their lives working long hours for dirt-poor pay with unsafe trucks that had taken the lives of several workers.

The workers had a strike with the support of many in the community. They carried signs that said, “I AM A MAN!” Some critics of King did not understand his identification with the cause of sanitation workers.

Professor Luther D. Ivory states in Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement that King used the teaching of Imago Dei to counter the notion of Black inferiority. Everyone irrespective of race, gender, education or economic status is to be valued and treated with respect and dignity. Blacks needed this message to overcome feelings of shame, inferiority and self-hatred caused by the absurdities of racism.

With this understanding, the foundation is built for Blacks and whites to live together in the beloved community. Living in the beloved community calls for Blacks and whites to work together to transform existing injustices in institutions and public life.

Forgive us, Lord, for our distorted gospel.

Lord, forgive American Christians — Black and white — for their middle-class captivity with a distorted view of the gospel. This understanding of the gospel was concerned about life after death and not life after birth, addressing only the sweet by and by while ignoring the nasty now and now. This gospel condemns the personal sins of the individuals while ignoring corporate and institutional evils. This gospel refused to oppose chemical and nuclear waste dumps that are built on the edge of communities where the poor and politically powerless live.

On March 28, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Sam Melhorn)

In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King corrects the distorted view of the gospel saying: “The gospel deals with the whole man, not only his soul, but his body; not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. … Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the conditions that scar the soul is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”

Forgive us, Lord, for our white nationalism.

Forgive America, Lord, for her ethnocentrism and white nationalism that justifies her behavior whether it is right or wrong. American arrogance has been promoted by persons who have held the highest leadership positions in the nation. America has promoted herself as being No. 1 among the wealthy nations of the world.

In “A Lament for Humanity” on Humans Rights Day 2021, pastor, author and judge Wendell Griffen wrote, “The world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people. Nearly half the world’s population of 3.4 billion people lives on less than $5.50 per day. Every year, 100 million people are pushed into poverty because they must pay out-of-pocket for health care. Currently 258 million children (one out of five) will not be allowed to attend school.”

Pastor Griffen adds: “And it came to pass that humanity appears to have cursed itself and the world by that greed, lust for power, inequality and bigotry that make community seem like a global fantasy instead of a human imperative.”

The inequality is not accidental; it is deliberative, calculated and purposeful.

Martin Luther King speaks to an overflow crowd at a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church in Memphis. (AP Photo/Gene Herrick)

Forgive us, Lord, for we were warned by King in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here? He wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to learn to live together, Black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu. A family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who because we can never live apart, must somehow learn to live with each other in peace.”

Forgive us, Lord, for our violence.

Forgive us, Lord, for our worship of guns. There are more guns in America than people. Our money says “In God We Trust” but there are 121 firearms for every 100 residents. And 75% of homicides are related to guns. America leads all other nations in gun deaths. Our children have fears of being killed in school by a student. Black Christians in churches and Jews in synagogues have been killed while worshipping. Our shopping centers have had mass killings.

On Jan. 6, 2021, the U.S. Capitol was invaded by persons with guns attempting to stop the counting of the Electoral College votes. The reports say the lives of the vice president and the speaker of the House were marked for death.

Guns are used to settle differences. The United States is the No. 1 seller of arms to the countries of the world. Forgive us, Lord, for giving deaf ears to the apostle of nonviolence. He preached against what he called the triplets of evil: war, poverty and racism. It was he who said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

A prayer for hope

May those of us who have become discouraged because racism seems to be on the increase find hope. May those of us who have become discouraged because white supremacy and white nationalism are boldly obtaining a stronger foothold in state and national governments find hope. May those of us who have become discouraged because voting rights for which people shed their blood so we could vote are now being stolen, placing democracy in jeopardy find hope.

Martin Luther King delivers a sermon on May 13, 1956, in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Forgive us, Lord, if we forget how Martin Luther King told us in his very last speech that we would face difficult days. Those days are here.

Two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, he spoke powerful words of hope. We must not forget them. He said, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”

Yes, the immediate future may not look promising. Negative news about climate change may haunt us. Young college graduates are uncertain about career opportunities. The COVID-19 virus and its mutations trouble us. These finite disappointments multiply geometrically, but we must not lose infinite hope.

I am not speaking of blind hope but an infinite hope that presses forward believing that if we do our part, our way-maker God, who brought us through the Middle Passage, the horror of runaway slaves chased by bloodhounds and beaten with many stripes if caught, the sexual abuse of the slave woman bearing a mulatto child for the slave owner, and the way-maker God of liberation who helped us survive the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and inspired our preachers to preach on after their churches were burned and to rebuild them back bigger — that this God will inspire us and create in us the power to keep the dream alive.

Not the God of the slave master’s preacher who told us not to steal the master’s chickens when our babies were crying from hunger, but the God of infinite hope, the God who creates ex nihilo, who makes a way out of no way. The way-maker God inspires us and creates in us the power to keep the dream of Martin Luther King alive.

Dante Stewart reminds us how Pastor James Bevel spoke about infinite hope: “There is a false rumor around our leader’s death. Martin Luther King is not our leader. Our leader is the man who led Moses out of Egypt. Our leader is the one who went with Daniel in the lion’s den. Our leader is the man who walked out of the grave on Easter morning. Our leader never sleeps nor slumbers. He cannot be put in jail. Our leader is still on the case. Our leader is not dead. One of the prophets died. We will not stop because of that.”

J. Alfred Smith Sr.

Smith served four decades as pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. Now pastor emeritus, he is a member of the American Baptist Churches in the USA and dually aligned with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, where he served as the organization’s 12th president.

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