Saint of the Day? – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) achieved a moral stature and Christian witness that continues to inspire people of all faiths across the world. His life and work is commemorated not as a feast of the Roman Calendar but of the United States, on the third Monday of January each year. The human rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was 35 at the time of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.
Most people are familiar with his “I Have A Dream Speech” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. However his final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, “I Have Been to the Mountain Top,” not only presaged his death, but summarized his great vision for us all. You can hear by clicking on this link. It is well worth hearing in its entirety, not only because Dr. King was one of the great masters of English rhetoric, but the actual spoken message in its wonderful cadences, rich inflections, and profound rhythms stirs the soul with their inspiration.
Is Dr. King a saint? It is ironic to pose this question in regard to a Baptist minister, whose denomination – among others – has criticized the “worship” of the saints by Catholics. Like Dorothy Day, we can probably assume that Dr. King would dissuade us from giving him the title and remind us to return to the work of serving the least among us.
What is most remarkable about Dr. King’s legacy was the Christian witness of non-violence. Very easily, Dr. King could have kept the oppression of black people in the United States on a political level and built a base of power for himself. He also could have kept it on a “spiritual” level by focusing on the “next” life. Dr. King did neither. As a result, he elevated the whole movement to one of social justice and human rights for the children of God – of the “I” encountering the “thou” of the other person.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base….
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.
Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:37)
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!