Early morning…April 4…shot rang out in a Memphis sky
Free at last…they took your life…they could not take your
14 days later, I was born.
I’ve spent time in the last few years reading about the decade before my birth. Not having lived through the monumental shifts of the sixties makes it challenging to really grasp the context of reformers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a high schooler, I knew I was supposed to respect him, but didn’t completely understand why.
In 1991, I went to a Pastor’s conference (with Bob Ramsey), where we had a day of silence. In the afternoon I found myself in the library of the conference center, reading through the 1968 volume of the Annals of America. For me, it was a profound personal moment, full of the emotional idealism of youth. I remember writing in my journal, wondering if my class, born in 1968, were “rising like the phoenix out of the ashes of 1968.” I also wrote this:
Help me be drawn to the higher calling to mighty deeds that you have-for what the world, even the Christian world, feels is mighty is rarely what you have in mind. I want to set my mind on the desires of your Holy Spirit so I will be drawn to the mighty deeds you want.
I read Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the I Have a Dream speech that day. I’m embarrassed to write this, but it was the first time it really dawned on me that the great civil rights leader was a committed follower of Jesus. Biblical imagery and language are woven masterfully throughout his powerful oration. Coming as it did in my first year of seminary, it continued the re-working of my biblical and theological frameworks, placing social justice on equal footing with evangelism in our commitment to following Christ.
Over the past few days, I’ve listened to I Have a Dream three times, the latest tonight with my daughter Talli. If you haven’t listened to it lately, please go here. Listen for Amos 5:24, listen for Isaiah 40:4. Imagine the pressure he faced, the pressure of placating a government afraid of open rebellion (Kennedy had thousands troops positioned nearby), the pressure of African Americans afraid he would sell out. His words in that context, the images, the challenge, grow in my esteem the more carefully I look at it.
And 18 days later, Ku Klux Klan members bombed a church and killed four little girls.
MLK held fast to his nonviolent principles, when almost everyone else couldn’t. His eulogy finds meaning in their lives, honestly speaks of the “amazing democracy about death.” He said these four children died nobly, “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death.”
Then comes the line that assaults me tonight.
They have something to say to every minister of the Gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.
Oh God, may your heart burn in mine. May you challenge my silence.