His family called him “M.L.” when he was growing up, his wife called him “Martin” and he called himself am “ambivert,” that is a combination between an extrovert and an introvert. But what we should actually call him was simply a prophet. For like those heralds of old, Martin Luther King dared to speak up for God, and his message was one which has stood the test of time and proven its enduring worth.
Both by his words and the example of his life, for instance, he reminded us of the reality and power of what Reinhold Neibuhr, one of his principle influences, once called simply “collective evil.” His first brush with the ugliness of racism came when he was just five years old and the parents of his closest playmate, a white child who lived nearby, told him that their son and M.L. could no longer play together, just because he was black. Later on, he won an oratorical contest as a junior in high school, speaking on the Constitution and all of its promises, but then, simply because of the color of his skin, he had to stand on the bus all the way back to Atlanta making him, so he said, “the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
And still later, when white ministers failed to support him and the aims of the Montgomery bus boycott, he lamented over again the fact that it wasn’t just the children of darkness whom he had to fight, but that the contagion of hatred had even infected the children of light, as well.
But Martin Luther King refused to give into those forces for as powerful as he understood evil to be in this world, he believed fervently and completely in an even greater force called love. In fact, armed with that understanding, he believed that a “minority of one honest man” could set into motion a moral revolution and so that’s just what he did.
His eloquence was, of course, stunning, for Dr. King not only loved words but he understood how to use them with power and impact. Even in college, he impressed folks with his rhetoric, once replying to a simple inquiry as to how he was with the response, “Cogitating with cosmic creation, I surmise that my physical equilibrium is organically quiescent.” And later on, more substantially, he would enjoin the church to stop mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities and start concerning itself with the creation of a world in which all barriers of caste and color are abolished.”
But then, of course, it was not mere rhetoric that Dr. King used to translate his faith into action. Instead, he used the power of love to convince others that true peace is not merely the absence of tension—it is the presence of justice. As Gandhi had done before him in India, his goal became not simply to defeat his enemies, but to redeem them through love so as to avoid a legacy of bitterness. “The chains of hatred must be cut,” he said, “for when it is broken then brotherhood can begin.”
All of which is why if we only come together this weekend to remember Dr. King and to celebrate his life without putting into practice the principles for which he gave that life that our services will be shallow and our words will be as nothing. For even faced with the bitter and acrimonious climate that has captured our country in recent years—a condition that has led many to conclude that we are hopelessly divided, both as a church and a culture–we should remember another observation which Dr. King once made, namely that “the is-ness of something does not imply the ought-ness of it.”
Perhaps leaning upon the same God who raised up Martin Luther King, Jr., we too can learn the way of love and overcome those powers of darkness. Even if you’re not an ambivert.