MLK and the Grace We Don’t Deserve
We’re all flawed human beings. But we can all learn eternally valuable things from each other. Those heralded in history as our civil rights champions were no different. They had a calling on their imperfect lives that drew women and men to their cause. In the murkiness that is our humanity, light breaks through in glorious ways.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was inarguably imperfect but perfect for the time and the unenviable space he occupied. The world, in large part, is the beneficiary of his moral clarity on human equality and justice. As a brown child who grew up in an adoptive diverse home of White, Black, Mixed, Native American, Vietnamese, able and disabled children, his words were for all of us.
His words changed all of us.
Most people know only of his famous I Have a Dream Speech and its ability to stir the soul toward justice. America has seen an undeniable fulfillment of so much of that Dream. The ones who deny this reality are the overpaid academics, celebrities and useless politicians who peddle victimhood when we’re surrounded by so much victory. Of course, there is still material and spiritual poverty that leads to so many different social inequalities. Those are journeys as old as humankind. Contrary to those who seem to relish in living in the discord of the past, we’re not living in the 1960s.
Over the years, I have loved digging into Dr. King’s various speeches. There’s such rich rhetorical and spiritual sustenance. There’s an obvious thread that I feel tied his masterpieces of often battle-weary eloquence. In a 1966 speech at Southern Methodist University (SMU), King delivered what many present leaders refuse to offer: grace.
“This is what the non-violent method says at its best. It has brought us a long, long way and it will help those of us who have been on the oppressed end of the old order to go into the new order with the right attitude. Not with bitterness, not with the desire to retaliate, not with the desire to get even with those inflicted injustice upon us all of these years, but with a desire to forgive and forget and move on to a moral balance. We will not seek to substitute one tyranny for another, thereby subverting justice. We will not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage.” King spoke of defying our human nature, which is often marked by vengeance. It would’ve been completely understandable for his heart to have a radically different position. But he chose grace.
Malcom X, in contrast, just two days before he was killed on February 21, 1965, relied on a different worldview. It was tragically marked by the insistence that violence was a justifiable way to bring about a desperately needed transformation. “We are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter,” he said and emphasized that those of my complexion “must take any means necessary to secure his rights as an individual human being.”
Problems have more than one solution. Solutions have more than one master. King’s was God. Malcolm X’s was not. How different America would be if non-violent resistance were replaced with violent rage.
Oh, Grace. As a parent, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to extend it to my four teenagers. My wife daily and lovingly extends it to me. Our culture, however, sees grace as incompatible with justice. But God’s justice is wrapped in it as He offers it to us repeatedly in our own weaknesses.
Dr. King continued to say: “This is why I say that a doctrine of black supremacy is as dangerous as a doctrine of white supremacy. God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race and the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers. And every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”
When culture’s premise is that our worth is conditional and man-made, it will never get freedom right. Our inherent and irrevocable worth comes from God – not government, not science, not academia, not Hollywood, not sports celebrities.
In a world scarred by so much physical and political violence, we need more voices that both denounce it and offer the only alternative to this chaos and confusion: Love. Not the Love is Love triflingness, but the God is Love truthfulness. Which brings me back to the solution that led the civil rights revolution and King’s relentless reliance on it, saying: “When one rises to love on this level, he loves every man not because he likes him, not because his ways appeal to him, but because God loves him and he rises to the level of loving the person who does the evil deed by hating the deed the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said love your enemies. And I’m so happy he didn’t say like your enemies. I must confess that there are some people that it [sic] is pretty difficult to like.”
Today, many seem confused about who the enemy actually is. It’s not white supremacy. It’s not black supremacy. It’s not political parties. It’s not denominations. It’s not even people. It’s the one who loves when we hate each other: Satan. Romans 16:17-20 tells us: “Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. Such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests. By smooth talk and glowing words they deceive innocent people … be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.”
That’s the kind of grace we all need.